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Comeback island: after two devastating hurricane seasons, the Caribbean island of Grenada attempts a spirited recovery.

From a shady perch on Market Square in the Grenadian capital of St. George's, Deborah Redhead carefully surveys the milling crowd before calling out to a clutch of sunburned tourists. Her throaty voice with its West Indian lilt is commanding yet unfailingly polite as she lures them to her stall. Before long, the savvy vendor, neatly dressed in a cobalt-blue shift and crocheted cap, has her potential customers marveling at a fragrant array of spices and seasonings meticulously arranged on her red plywood table. By the time they move on, happily laden with gift baskets of nutmeg, turmeric, bay leaves, mace, cinnamon, cloves, curry powder, and ginger, Redhead is wearing an expression of sweet; satisfaction.

St. George's two-hundred-year-old Market Square, where locals and visitors browse side by side for island-grown fruits, vegetables, and spices, is back in business again following two powerful hurricanes that shut it down for more than a year and a half. Redhead recalls the bruising blow the popular open-air emporium received at the hands of Hurricane Ivan. "There were pieces of metal roofing and splintered tables on the ground everywhere you looked; it was a mess." Today, following months of reconstruction, Market Square is back on its feet and busier than ever. During the market's facelift, floors were raised, a new drainage system was installed to prevent future flooding, and washrooms and roofing were refurbished. Vendors, many of whom were left homeless and jobless by the storms, joined forces with government ministries to complete the project and last April, jubilantly celebrated the market's unofficial reopening. "We knew we could do it," declares Redhead with the kind of enthusiasm and resolve that have helped propel the island to its remarkable recovery.

Two years have passed since September 7, 2004, the day Hurricane Ivan slammed into the tiny nation, leaving behind a swath of death and destruction. The category three storm, packing winds of 125 miles per hour, killed thirty-nine people, damaged 90 percent of all buildings and in one fell swoop, obliterated the island's all-important tourism and agricultural industries. Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, who lost his own official residence atop Mt. Royal to Ivan, declared a national disaster, citing losses of more than $815 million, twice the country's gross national product.

Then on July 14 of the following year, just as things were returning to normal, Mother Nature struck another blow with a bludgeon named Hurricane Emily. Her ninety per mile an hour winds and torrential rains pummeled Grenada's northern parishes, St. Patrick's and St. Andrew's, and rampaged through the outer islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique, which had been largely spared by Ivan. Once the tropical storm had barreled off towards Jamaica, the Caymans, and Mexico's Caribbean coast, Grenadians emerged from their shelters to find the all-too-familiar scenario of flooded streets, decimated crops, and damaged buildings not yet fully repaired from the previous onslaught. The bill for that second round totaled more than $110 million.

In the aftermath of the disasters, Grenadians rolled up their sleeves, and with a big assist from international organizations such as the Red Cross and Oxfam and neighbors like Cuba and the U.S., they set to work clearing away debris, repairing buildings and restoring battered infrastructures. Within two months, with the help of UNICEF and military forces from Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, the country's nearly thirty thousand children had returned to temporary classrooms. Meanwhile, their damaged schools are being reconstructed to stricter codes in accordance with the government's post-hurricane rallying cry, "Build Back Better."

With a total landmass of 133 square miles, the tri-island state of Grenada and the Grenadines is one of the Western Hemisphere's smallest independent countries. Located some one hundred miles off the northern coast of Venezuela, it is made up of Grenada and the islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique plus a scattering of other islets and rocky outcroppings. About 75 percent of its 102,000 citizens are of African descent, while East Indians and Europeans comprise the rest of the population. For much of Grenada's history, its wealth resided in its rich volcanic soil and abundant mix of sunshine and rainfall that, over the centuries, have nurtured sugarcane, cotton, cocoa, and bananas. But it was the island's fragrant tree crops: clove, cinnamon, allspice, and most importantly, nutmeg, (for nearly a century the country's leading export) that brought fame and fortune to Grenada, earning it the exotic sobriquet, Isle of Spice.

In 1984, a year after the overthrow of Maurice Bishop's left-leaning government and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion, an international airport at Point Salines was completed, giving an important boost to a fledgling tourism industry that has since become the nation's economic powerhouse. Yet despite an increasingly high profile as a vacation destination, Grenada has managed to maintain its image as an unspoiled tropical retreat with friendly inhabitants, low crime rates, and a leisurely life-style. Among its other assets are dozens of white-sand beaches, a mountainous interior punctuated by streams and cascades, an eighteenth-century capital often cited as the Caribbean's prettiest, and a variety of vintage heritage tourism sites. Growing numbers of Europeans and North Americans now visit by air or cruise ship, bringing in some $150 million in foreign exchange,

Ivan and Emily, the first hurricanes to strike the island since 1955, caught Grenadians off guard. "The idea of a hurricane didn't occur to us," says Ketra Thomas, who works at the Flamboyant Hotel & Villas. "High season was coming up, and we were looking forward to a great year and lots of guests." Instead, most resorts were forced to close down for repairs; in many cases their construction crews were recruited from the ranks of the recently unemployed, who were quickly trained to take on the new jobs. Tim Flamboyant, perched on a hill overlooking fetching two-mile-long Grand Anse Beach, refurbished its sixty rooms using hurricane-resistant materials, such as reinforced concrete in walls and columns, and designs that call for hurricane straps, shortened eaves, and high-pitched roofs. The Spice Island Beach Resort, almost completely leveled by Ivan, built back better by adding on a new spa and dozens of beachfront rooms. By December 2005, 90 percent of the hotels had reopened for business.

Bay Gardens, a tranquil retreat just a few miles inland from the commercial hubbub of the southwest coast, occupies acreage that was once part of a thriving sugar plantation. A favorite stop on the tourist circuit, it's hard to imagine that less than two years ago this lush parkland had lost most of its vegetation to Ivan's fury. Today, visitors can explore the three-acre parcel following trails strewn with nutmeg husks and bordered by exuberant masses of tropical foliage. Little, save an uprooted tree or two, recalls the killer storm's passage. "It's made an amazing recovery," notes owner Albert St. Bernard. "Luckily, we have had a lot of rainfall over the past year and a half and that's helped the whole island regenerate." Following the storms, St. Bernard, like many other Grenadians, surveyed the damage, then went to work rebuilding. Now, with reforestation well on its way, new additions to the property are in the offing; this year, a garden cafe is planned and in 2007, a restaurant will rise from the crumbling ruins of the old estate house.

But restoring its wounded agricultural industry presents the country with its greatest challenges, particularly its $20 million-a-year nutmeg sector, which lost 85 percent of its mature trees in the storms, along with precious watershed and topsoil. Grenada was originally settled by the French in the 1650s, but it was the British, ceded the colony under the Treaty of Versailles, who introduced nutmeg in 1843 from the Banda Islands of Indonesia. Although slow starters, the trees adapted well to their mountainous environment with its mild climate and copious rains. By the beginning of the last century, the pungent crop, primarily grown by small farmers on several acres of land, had surpassed both sugarcane and cacao to become the country's number-one export. Following World War II, both the nut and its volatile oils were much sought-after commodities by the burgeoning food processing, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries.

Rows of bushy allspice trees line the drive-way leading to the Dougladston Spice Estate, where spices and other culinary delicacies have been grown and processed according to traditional methods since the nineteenth century. This working plantation on the island's west coast is also a popular heritage tourism site and despite the storms, still very much in business. Catherine Joseph, in charge of tours and sales, asks visitors to please touch and sniff the aromatic products she has stacked on a demonstration table inside the cool, weathered "boucan," an ingeniously designed warehouse with two large drying trays positioned on rails that can be quickly rolled back under the building in case of rain. Harvested cocoa beans are placed on these retractable trays and dried for six days, following eight days of curing under a cover of banana leaves. Mace, the lacy red netting that encases the nutmeg shell and a spice in its own right, is also dried out of doors, where it turns a vibrant yellow-orange. But to preserve its delicate oils, the nutmeg itself, with its shell intact, must dry slowly indoors on the boucan's dark second floor.

The estate's bountiful harvest includes bay leaves, used in cooking and to perfume after-shave lotions; cinnamon, cut from tree bark and sun-dried until it rolls into small tubes; cloves, whose oil can soothe a toothache; and the stellar performer, nutmeg. This versatile nut has been used for centuries as a flavor enhancer in foods and more recently in perfumes, soaps, and shampoos. Locally, it is a key ingredient in a popular spray for arthritis relief known as Nut-Med. The rich dark cocoa grown at Dougladston is considered among the world's finest. "It's not a spice," avows Joseph, "but it's very much in demand." Prepared in accordance with old island recipes, the beans are roasted and ground together with cinnamon and crushed bay leaves, then rolled into sticks, balls, or squares for making "cocoa tea," a Grenadian version of hot chocolate. The plantation also produces tonka beans, used in making a vanilla extract substitute; ginger; allspice, a Caribbean native; and turmeric, which arrived with East Indian indentured servants in the nineteenth century. A key ingredient in curry, these days it is also gaining favor as an anti-inflammatory.

For the time being, large nutmeg growers like Dougladston can make do on their surviving trees and reserve stocks, but the island's small farmers, who number about six thousand and form the industry's backbone, must seek other means of earning a living until the industry rebounds. The clearing and replanting of thousands of acres of groves goes forward with help from the Ministry of Agriculture, according to Edwin Frank, of Grenada's Public Relations Office. "But replanting nutmeg trees is not like replanting tomatoes," he says. "We're talking five years before you can even start harvesting and approximately seven before they become economically viable." In the meantime, farmers are being encouraged to plant bananas and other cash crops like hot peppers that can be readily sold abroad with the state's marketing assistance. The government is also offering help to farmers through soft loans, duty-free concessions on farming materials, and the all-important propagation of nutmeg seedlings using new grafting techniques and the introduction of new varieties.

But there are other problems on the horizon for the nutmeg industry that have less to do with hurricanes than with a demographic profile revealing most of its farmers to be on the brink of retirement. "We have a challenge on our hands to get young people involved in farming, and it's a very difficult challenge because tourism has come to the fore providing them with fantastic opportunities," says Frank. "But we don't want to establish the island merely as a tourism destination; we have to have that backup component for sustainable growth and development, and agriculture fits the bill. So the question is, how can we find a way to make young people believe in agriculture, to make them understand the role they can play in creating a diversified economy?"

Down at the Coconut Beach Restaurant on Grand Arise Beach, it's eight o'clock on a balmy evening, a crescent moon hovers on the horizon. The casual indoor dining room and adjoining bar are decorated with a dozen or more framed drawings left by grateful visitors who return again and again for the French Creole food, homey atmosphere, and spectacular sunsets. But tonight, a quiet weeknight just two months before summer, nearly everyone is sitting out of doors around candle-lit tables sunk deep in the sand and sheltered by a canopy of almond trees. Owner Patricia McIntyre, elegantly dressed, with short cropped hair and a ready smile, has just delivered a tray of her famous planter's punches, liberally dusted with fresh nutmeg, to a table filled with diners and she stays on for a moment to field compliments on the callaloo soup, Caribbean chicken, and lobster thermidor, delectable dishes that have won her and husband, Dennot, an enthusiastic international following. When the conversation inevitably touches on the upcoming hurricane season, McIntyre turns serious for a moment; after all, Ivan decimated the restaurant's second floor less than two years ago. "Our location in the Caribbean makes us vulnerable to natural disasters, it's true," she admits, "but we're doing all we can do to make ourselves safe and after that, we just have to put our faith in the gods."

Nutmeg's Deeper Roots

Over a period of just twenty months, the combined forces of Hurricanes Ivan and Emily dealt a near-lethal blow to Grenada's world-renown nutmeg industry, uprooting thousands of trees and heavily damaging the majority of the country's processing stations and propagating facilities. Shortly after Ivan's passage, the government and the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association (GCNA) joined forces to launch a new series of strategies for revitalizing the stricken sector.

A continuing priority of that agenda is the propagation and free distribution of seedlings to the country's six thousand nutmeg farmers. In accordance with traditional growing methods, seedlings are culled from "volunteers" that sprout in abundance around parent trees and are then carefully replanted in plastic containers. But because male and female seedlings are indistinguishable from one another and only the latter produce the precious nutmeg fruit, growers must watch over the plantlets for five years until the females, often comprising only half of the crop, reveal their true identities with the initiation of flower production. "It's a long process, but it's easy to produce a lot of plants this way in a short amount of time, but we are also developing other methods that will furnish seedlings in less time," notes Roland Courtney, a field inspector for the GCNA.

Late last year, in an effort to begin replacing the destroyed trees, some sixteen thousand nutmeg plantlets were distributed to farmers and another twenty thousand were released from the association's propagation center in Boulogne last July, according to Courtney. The Ministry of Agriculture and the GCNA are also hard at work developing plants from mature female trees using epicotyl grafting, a technique that produces short bushy plants with strong root systems and the capacity to bear fruit within three to four years. The new technology was borrowed from the Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR) in the state of Kerala, a nutmeg-growing region on India's southwestern coast; in 2005 Indian scientists visited the island at the invitation of the Grenadian Ministry of Agriculture and an Indian expert now acts as an industry consultant. "Epicotyl grafting can save two years on the volunteer seedlings, so we are focusing on this method as well because of the urgency to provide plants to farmers," explains Courtney. The government plans to train a dozen or more young people as agricultural extension officers to provide the expertise needed in promoting this state-of-the-art technique.

In a speech to nutmeg growers last June, Minister of Agriculture Gregory Bowen outlined other measures that the government is undertaking to restore the industry to its former glory. Among the most intriguing is the planned introduction of a new nutmeg variety called Viswashree, created by scientists at the IISR in 2002. Said to be the only man-made nutmeg variety ever developed, it is already a favorite with Indian farmers because of the high quality and abundance of its yield. The compact Viswashree tree, which takes six years to produce a first harvest, will soon be joining the island's Indonesian strain, first planted in the 1840s, and a Malaysian variety introduced in the 1950s, if things go as planned.

Text and photographs by Suzanne Murphy-Larronde

A travel writer and photographer, Suzanne Murphy-Larronde is a frequent contributor to Americas.
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Author:Murphy-Larronde, Suzanne
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:50CAR
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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