Colombia’s Pelican Island Tells a Story of Arbitrary, Petty Government Confiscation


In the Coastal town of Santa Marta, Colombia, the tiny Pelican Island sits off the shores of the Rodadero neighborhood beach.

The history of the island — officially named “Morro de El Rodadero” — and its ownership tell the story of a struggle between an individual’s right to property and independence, and encroaching bureaucracy and authoritarian statism.

The land juts out of the water just far enough out from the shore so that the waves scarcely brush against its long stone frame, but close enough that the naked eye can just make out the wooden staircase leading from the bay to other man-made structures higher inland.

At less than one square mile, the territory is insufficient for a town or even a neighborhood, and accommodates one lone edifice: a luxurious and spacious mansion, the property of one Gustavo Díaz Segovia, who had resided on the island for decades.

On September 5, 1966, Díaz Segovia made an agreement with the government that allowed him to remain there, and to have ownership of the area where he had already installed running water, electricity and a home. This man’s industry and liberty would be tolerated by the government until September 5, 1986, at which point they would arbitrarily and egregiously take all of it away from him.

However, old Gustavo is nothing if not an outside-the-box type of thinker. He negotiated to keep the island using a loophole in Law #97 from 1997, which states under article 6 that “all unclaimed land is the property of the state” unless a proprietor can prove possession of the property “for at least five years prior to the enacting of the present law,” meaning that Pelican Island should have been grandfathered in as the full and unrestricted property of Gustavo Díaz Segovia.

Things are rarely that simple, however, and the legal ownership of the island continues to be in dispute. The government seemed content enough to allow Díaz Segovia to live out his days on his island dream-house, until they arbitrarily seized the island and all its permanent assets in 2004. It was declared a public domain despite the fact that the Magdalena State Court ruled in favor of officially giving the title and ownership of the land to him earlier that same year.

Gustavo was an inspiring entrepreneur and champion of personal liberty and independence. He passed away on December 21, 2016, having left his fully-functional luxury property to rot and decay 12 years before.

Now, the island marks the horizon for tourists and natives of El Rodadero, and a boat trip or glance through a pair of binoculars shows the desolate waste of what should have been one man’s defiant dream fulfilled.

If the government had done something else with the property, or had some tangible interest in it, then I would understand, though still not agree, with their heavy-handed and draconian ruling. But it just sits there, uninhabited — an eerie reminder of how nihilistic and unproductive it is to oppose the right to private property.

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