Trouble in paradise.
"Our island was once a tropical paradise," says Kinza Clodumar, a presidential adviser from Nauru. "A rainforest hung with fruits and flowers, vines and orchids, an island so beautiful that it was known to ancient mariners as Pleasant Island." But now, after 80 years of phosphate mining by Australian companies, Nauru is a wasteland. "Except for a coastal strip," he continues, "it is a desert of jagged coral pinnacles, uninhabitable, a ghostly array of tombstones baking in the equatorial sun."
FEW ISLANDS BRING TO MIND APOCALYPTIC IMAGES as readily as Nauru, but in a less visible way, small islands around the globe are in environmental crisis. Behind the travel-brochure image of palm-fringed beaches and aquamarine seas, some more disturbing pictures are taking shape. Clearcutting has left arteries of red mud streaming down to the sea in Madagascar, Okinawa and the Philippines. Once vibrant coral reefs lie lifeless in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Fishermen throughout the Caribbean and South Pacific are noticing a dramatic decline in the volume of catches, the size of fish, and the number of species. And in low-lying atolls like the Maldives and Tuvalu, even these ecological shocks take a backseat to the crisis on the horizon: the sea-level rise predicted as a consequence of global warming, which could transform them into the world's first underwater nations. "I think this is why you hear people speak with emotion," says Vili Fuavua, director of the Western Samoa-based South Pacific Regional Environment Programme. "The continental United States is so large, you have a fallback option. But in the Pacific islands of Tuvalu or the Republic of Kiribas, there is no further option. On your left, on your right, in front of you, in back of you--it's all water. Where we are is basically all we have."
With their small size, fragile ecologies, and very limited natural resources, environmental problems hit islands first and hardest. "Small island states serve as a barometer of planetary health and well-being," Clodumar told the United Nations (UN) Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States in Barbados in April. "We have been called the |front-line' states, because we are so vulnerable to the adverse impacts of the global ecological crisis."
At the Barbados conference, convened after the special needs of small island states were recognized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, some small-island leaders argued that they should also be the front-line states in the search for solutions. L. Erskine Sandiford, prime minister of Barbados, told the conference: "Their small size and discreet borders make small island developing states ideal candidates for the evaluation of sustainable development actions and policies.
As microcosms of the rest of the world, small islands could therefore act as real-life laboratories in the search for new ideas and technologies for global sustainable development." But by the time of the Barbados conference, the wealthy nations suffered from amnesia about Rio. Says James Gustave Speth, administrator of the UN Development Programme, "The momentum declined very rapidly after the [Earth Summit], and I think we all need to return to the commitments that were made at Rio. Shortly after Rio, many countries went into recessions. Some of the more generous countries--the Nordic countries, for example--found they had unprecedented unemployment. Also the Cold War was fading, so the rationale for international development cooperation had faded. Nothing yet has come forward to replace that rationale with the same political potency and force. The rationale is there; we just have not succeeded in bringing it home to the publics and the politicians in donor countries."
WHY DO WE CARE IF ISLANDS survive or sink? For one, the wealth of biodiversity that they hold could be worth billions of dollars to developed nations' agriculture and biotechnology industries. Thanks to their favorable climate and isolation, islands are the custodians of thousands of species that don't exist anywhere else. (It was during his travels to the Galapagos and the South Pacific, in fact, that Charles Darwin began research for what was to become The Origin of Species.) Coral reefs alone, although they only occupy two tenths of one percent of ocean area, harbor 30 percent of the ocean's fish species. But their isolation has also meant that these species don't spread. Unlike continental plants and animals that can leave local catastrophes behind, island life is stuck. Some 75 percent of all known recent animal extinctions have been of island species. These losses mean a loss of pharmaceutical potential that may rival that of rainforests. Scientists see tremendous potential, for example, in the many different toxins that reef creatures squirt at each other in their fight for survival, The National Cancer Institute has collected thousands of samples of coral-reef organisms over the last several years for testing as anti-cancer agents.
Island species may also hold potential in the fight against AIDS. Reports Hope Shand of Rural Advancement Foundation International: "A woman healer from Samoa recently led a Western botanist to a tree that she uses to treat viral illnesses. The National Institutes of Health have found in laboratory tests that the bark of this tree seems to protect immune cells from being destroyed by the AIDS virus in a test tube." Scientists have also recently discovered that the enzyme of the tropical papaya plant is a very effective contraceptive--something Indian and Sri Lankan women have known for centuries.
Being more water than land, island nations are also the custodians of some of the world's last remaining fishing stocks, A report by the UN's Food and Agriculture office found that nine of the world's 17 major fishing grounds are in serious decline and four others are commercially depleted. Much of the catch from mainland nation's high-technology fishing fleets come from island waters. But their commercial driftnet operations--and poaching, which is estimated to run 30 to 50 percent above legal limits--are rapidly depleting the seas. While this depletion has caused shock waves in many nations' fishing industries, for many small islands it is a disaster. Mauritius, for example, is no longer self-sufficient in fish--it has to import canned and frozen fish from the Seychelles and other islands. In Jamaica, lobsters, once prevalent on the north coast, are now difficult to find. In island after island, resources that were thought to be endlessly renewable, sources of up to 90 percent of dietary protein, are disappearing.
Yet, just as the ancient queen of the Easter Islanders was said to have come back as a caught fish served to the king, perhaps sustainable fishing can become a source of regeneration for Pacific islanders. Says Vili Fuava: "We are in the middle of the biggest ocean in the world. The development of our marine resources may be the most important area for long-term sustainable growth." For this reason, the governments of the region have been vocal on the issue of driftnet fishing. They are hoping that strong guidelines regulating high-seas fishing by industrial fleets will be set at a United Nations conference on international fish stocks.
ISLANDS LACK THE MONEY AND PEOPLE POWER TO tackle their environmental problems alone. Often dependent on just a few products or services, the economies of small island nations are easily buffeted by fluctuations in the world's commodity markets. In Sao Tome and Principe, a nation off the west coast of Africa where cocoa accounts for 90 nation of export earnings, a recent plunge in world cocoa prices has devastated the economy. Similarly, a decline in coconut prices has dealt a serious blow to Western Samoa, where two-thirds of export income is derived from coconut products. Other islands depend largely on coffee and banana exports. "Bananas were promoted very heavily a decade ago in the Windward Islands of Dominica, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and, to a lesser extent, Grenada," says Calvin Howell, director of the Caribbean Conservation Association, based in Barbados. "Now, because of what's happened on the world markets, their prices are no longer competitive. And it takes time for these islands to develop alternative products."
Diversifying and creating a range of products makes good economic sense--one company in Dominica, for example, now processes bananas into banana flour, chips, liquor and drinks. But according to Oxfam, there is a punitive tariff system in place that prevents developing countries from exporting value-added goods to Western nations. And now with the formation of The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other economic pacts, many Caribbean nations are in danger of losing the special trading status they have long enjoyed with the United States. Some islands are looking to service industries to balance their traditional reliance on commodities. The Cayman Islands has developed a thriving offshore banking industry, and Mauritius is in the process of developing one. Jamaica has become an important data processing ,center, and St. Lucia is hoping to become a key transshipment center for trade between Latin America and North America.
Yet islands' futures depend largely on foreign investment, which can be scared away by their vulnerability to natural disasters, particularly hurricanes. According to a report by G.O.P Obasi, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, international reinsurance companies "now face tremendous losses due to the escalating cost of damage caused by |the big ones' like Hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica in 1988, Hurricane Andrew in the Bahamas and the USA in 1992 and Cyclone Kina in Fiji in 1992. Small islands are now being classified as high-risk areas, and insurance rates have risen dramatically, by 300 to 400 percent in many places, or insurance companies are withdrawing coverage altogether against tropical cyclones." With the insurance costs rising, loans for new projects are more difficult to get.
ISLANDS DO HOLD one great trump card in a world where tourism may be the largest industry by the end of the century. Everyone with a vacation budget still likes to visit an earthly paradise. Tourism is the top international industry in the Caribbean, earning $10 billion in revenue in 1993. In the South Pacific it counts for a quarter of total export earnings. Properly managed, tourism can create a strong argument for the protection of the dazzling oceans, coral reefs, beaches and tropical forests that people come to see. It can improve its residents' standard of living and leave in its wake social services and improved infrastructure, like waste management systems. In the search for sustainable tourism models, islands look to places like Dominica, which has found a nature-travel niche that sets it apart from the whites-and-sand-Mai-Tais appeal of its neighbors. The Seychelles restricts tourist facilities to several clusters that blend in with the scenery rather than pave it over. To protect reefs, Bonaire and Grand Cayman have set up marine parks and passed laws that prohibit dumping in the marine environment or taking anything away from the protected areas. On Bonaire, where 78 percent of the visitors are divers and snorkelers, the government may introduce a head tax for cruise ships, limit the number of ships that could dock per day or week, and establish a minimum length of stay. Environmentalists on Grand Cayman would like to see some limits there as well, since some divers complain of an experience that's more Times Square than Jacques Cousteau). And resorts like Maho Bay Camps and Harmony on St. John are designed to have as little impact on the environment as possible, from clearing as little vegetation as possible to using recycled building materials and solar power.
But tourism often wreaks havoc on island habitats as well. On Denarau in Fiji, $300 million is being spent to clear mangroves for the development of golf courses, hotels and a new marina. But the real price tag includes the loss of the mangroves as natural storm barriers, fish nurseries and water purifiers--a loss that has had disastrous results in the Philippines and elsewhere. In Antigua, a third of the island's remaining mangroves were destroyed to make way for a resort and condominium development called Coconut Hall before local people mobilized and stopped the bulldozers. In Trinidad and Tobago, a surge in investment and tourist development has sparked a boom in sand mining for construction material; as much as 30 to 40 loads a day are being lost,
Tourism can be just as destructive to local cultures when large numbers of wealthy visitors descend on islands that have low standards of living. In Mauritius, for example, a densely populated island nation in the Indian Ocean, the presence of new bungalows for wealthy foreigners along the coast now forces the fishermen to carry their boat motors half a mile along the road to gain access to the sea. Many of the bungalows are protected by security walls and guard dogs--denying citizens their former rights. Two islands have tried a unique approach to avoiding cultural clash: Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, limits visitors to four of its 80 islands, and the Maldives, a nation of 1,300 islands in the Indian Ocean, restricts tourists to several uninhabited islands. Some experts, however, argue that segregating tourists is not the answer. Big, inclusive Club Med-type resorts can cause greater resentment among local people and steer the lion's share of tourist dollars to foreign companies rather than local economies. But the biggest threat from tourism is that, with few exceptions, islands are unprepared to deal with the huge waste problem that it creates. These earthly paradises don't have sewage systems, and resort hotels depend on their own, sometimes unreliable, sewage treatment plants.
Says Yves Renard, executive director of the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute in St. Lucia, "Hotels hired entrepreneurs to take care of their waste, and nobody knew where it would end up. There have been some monstrous cases of illegal dumps resulting from that. It's being dealt with more effectively now, but it has taken the region some time."
The waste problem can carry a high price tag, as government officials in Barbados well know. This easternmost Caribbean island, which has been attracting tourists since the 1960s with its turquoise sea, white-sand beaches, and unique, British-flavored island culture, is now paying dearly for that early success. Says Renard: "Barbados is a typical story of tourism being developed in the early days without taking sufficient care for the impact on the immediate coastline. The discharge of effluence in the coastal waters resulted in the destruction of reefs. Without the reefs to act as a buffer, the waves have come in and taken out many of the beaches. You can look along the coast of Barbados now and notice the number of |beach hotels' that have no beach anymore." Barbados has taken a loan of more than $50 million from the Interamerican Development Bank to rehabilitate the reef and install a sewage project. An effort in underway to transplant coral to areas where it once thrived. When the project is completed, Barbados will have the Caribbean's first integrated coastal management plan for an entire island. "These are real problems that governments can measure in financial terms," says Renard. "That's why these sorts of impacts have been useful from an awareness perspective. They show you so directly the link: You do something wrong and it hits you back in the face."
THE PEOPLE OF THE NEW BRITAIN ISLANDS OF PAPUA New Guinea clearly understood this link between destructive actions and their consequences. Their creation myth tells the story of two male figures, To-Kabinana and To-Karvuvu. To-Kabinana always did something to benefit the world, but To-Karvuvu never succeeded in avoiding unfortunate actions. One day To-Kabinana carved a fish out of wood and cast it in the sea, where it might live forever. The grateful fish drove other fishes to the beach so that To-Kabinana could simply pick them up. Impressed, Ko-Karvuvu carved a shark. When this ungrateful fish did not drive the other fishes to the beach but ate them instead, Ko-Karvuvu told his brother what he had done. He said: "You are despicable. Now our descendants will suffer. That shark of yours will eat both fishes and men."
Like To-Kabinana and To-Karvuvu, we sail a zigzagging course between beneficial and destructive actions. Although mainland nations have a longer lead time before they feel the consequences of their actions, the need to navigate a balance with the natural world is clear. Still dazzlingly beautiful and easy to love, islands are a good place to start.
OUR ISLAND HOME
Environmental Activism Keeps Development at Bay in Aruba
There are two Arubas. One is a shining island jewel of white sand and blue-green surf in the Dutch Caribbean, a casino-driven magnet for American tourists, American hotel chains and every conceivable fast-food restaurant, from McDonald's to Dunkin' Donuts.
The other Aruba--comprising 90 percent of the island--is a delicate and mostly flat cactus-strewn desert landscape where goats graze on the sparse vegetation peeking up from a hard surface of coral rock, and ancient Indian cave paintings, still inviting interpretation, look as fresh as the day they were made. It's this Aruba that Accion Ambiental (AA) wants to protect from the other one.
While neighboring Bonaire protects its reefs, keeps development to a minimum and hosts eco-tourism conferences, Aruba doesn't even have zoning. On an island where tourism is king and hotel/casino development come first, environmentalists often get short shrift by the government ministries. But AA--with just three active members--has had a dramatic impact in the year since it was founded. It knows how to draw worldwide media attention and put pressure on Aruban government officials to "think green."
After a Florida-based group proposed a major "swim-with-the-dolphins" project featuring marine mammal "performances," AA joined forces with Reef Divers Aruba to demonstrate that the planned park would ruin a fragile mangrove ecosystem, and also import to Aruba an activity many consider cruel to the dolphins and unsafe to humans. After a widely reported 1993 press conference that featured, among others, Flipper trainer Ric O'Barry and Russ Rector of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation, the proposal for Dolphin Beach Aruba was withdrawn.
AA has also protested Japanese plutonium shipments through the Caribbean, and regularly monitors oil spills and waste storage at the Coastal Refinery and Wickland Oil terminals on Aruba. AA is lobbying for more detailed reporting of spills, as well as more effective cleanup after they occur.
AA's Dutch-born president, Milton Ponson, says that the 57-acre Bubali Bird Sanctuary (home to herons, egrets, terns and cormorants) is threatened by the construction of Aruba's first 18-hole golf course, Tierra del Sol. Parched Aruba depends on desalinization for all its drinking water, and for irrigation collects reclaimed sewage effluent in two ponds that are part of the Bubali. Tierra del Sol's thirsty greens would by themselves soak up more than half the water flowing into the ponds daily. Rather than attack the golf project head on, however, Ponson says AA is involved in talks aimed at a compromise that includes Tierra del Sol's promise to protect Bubali.
Noting that more than 10 million beer bottles are drained on Aruba every year, and that the island generates more per-capita waste than the U.S., Ponson said AA is also campaigning for a strong recycling program.
Contact:Accion Ambiental, P.O. Box 1154, Oranjestad, Aruba, Dutch Caribbean, (011) 2978-20083.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on Aruba; tropical islands|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1994|
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