GOSIER, Guadeloupe — The Caribbean islands, though culturally and linguistically diverse and differing government systems, are coming together to confront the climate changes that threaten their rich tropical environment and the livelihoods of their people.
Seas are warming and acidifying, reducing fish catches, while on land water shortages are being recorded in recent droughts. Sargassum algae washes ashore, clogging some beaches and deterring tourists, a big source of income. Fears of more destructive Atlantic hurricanes worry the public.
There is also an emerging sense that the people of the Caribbean are being left behind in global planning and assistance in meeting these challenges. This perception is apparently a factor spurring initiatives for regional self-help.
In January, officials from around the Caribbean met in the French islands of Guadeloupe to introduce a regional project, the Carib-Coast program, to deal cooperatively with “repeated storm crises and rising sea levels,” according to Caribbean News Now, a journalists’ collaborative service covering dozens of countries and major regional organizations.
Carib-Coast “will notably provide a digital marine submersion modeling platform, a coastal erosion monitoring and prevention network based on nature-based solutions and operational risk management tools,” the Caribbean news service reported.
Led by Guadeloupe’s Office of Geological and Mining Research, the program is supported by, among others, the Caribbean Community for Climate Change Center.
In another regional initiative, Caribbean fisheries ministers met in Barbados in October 2018 to begin writing a policy on how to adapt fishing industries to climate change and improve disaster-risk management.
Guadeloupe’s leadership in responding to climate change is interesting on several levels. It is not an independent nation in the mold of many Caribbean islands. An archipelago of more than five islands in the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe is a department, or province, of France, its former colonial power, 4,200 miles (6,757 kilometers) across the Atlantic Ocean from Paris. It is part of the European Union, using the euro as its currency and shunning the United States dollar.
Guadeloupe’s largest components are small islands, compared with the region’s relative giants, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico or Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
It may have seemed obvious that the constitutional European-ness of Guadeloupe as well as Martinique; the French part of St. Martin, an island shared with the Dutch; and French Guyana, on the north coast of South America, would have kept these overseas outposts (territories d’Outre-Mer) in the sights of European climate policymakers.
Not so, says a European specialist in small-island development, Malcolm Ferdinand of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.
In a 2018 study for the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, titled “Subnational climate justice for the French Outre-mer,” he told this story:
“On any given night, after the news on the national television channels in France, comes the weather forecast. Day in, day out, when millions of French citizens turn on their TV sets or computers to hear the news and learn about the forthcoming weather, they are presented with a geographical image of the national territory of the French Republic.
“That image is comprised of the European mainland and Corsica. It has come to represent the imaginary geography one commonly associates with the French territory. The choice made by most national TV channels not to incorporate the Outre-mer in the geographical representation of the nation is but a token of the insidious exclusion that French citizens related to the Outre-mer and postcolonial immigration face. The Outre-mer and its inhabitants are absent from the geographical narrative of the nation.”
In Guadeloupe and Martinique, where pro-independence demands have flickered in the past, popular movements now seem to favor taking charge of their own destinies and resources close to home. These islands have well-educated work forces, albeit with significant unemployment and high consumer costs on the downside. There are also ample venues for interregional gatherings and interaction across the Caribbean Sea through technology.
In tandem with new efforts to build working regional partnerships, conservation plans or projects to protect and advance fragile Caribbean island environments continue. In Guadeloupe, these steps include a reduction in pesticides used in agriculture, most notably in the cultivation of bananas, the archipelago’s leading export crop.
Following the advice of French government scientists, the use of the pesticide chlordecone, which pollutes the land, has been reduced dramatically. Researchers in France also reportedly developed a banana plant that is at least partly resistant to a black-leaf disease, a step that may lead to sustainable organic farming. Reducing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers that poison water sources and fishing areas in the surrounding seas is also on the agenda.
To cut carbon emissions, Guadeloupe has one geothermal generator, functioning but still in further development, at Bouillante, on the island of Basse-Terre and owned by the Nevada-based global company Ormat Technologies. In Guadeloupe, opposition to the project has been reported. Requests for more information by this reporter about the controversies and the prospects for wider use of geothermal energy went unanswered by the company.
In June 2018, the Caribbean Climate Smart Accelerator, backed by (among others) Richard Branson, creator of Virgin airways, began a five-year trial of developing digital and social tools to mitigate or adapt to climate change across the Caribbean. In 2017, two Category 5 hurricanes struck an island owned by Branson, leaving scores dead and leading to his involvement in the accelerator project.
In January, the Caribbean Climate Wire, a project of Inter Press Service, a news agency by and for the developing world that publishes numerous stories from the islands and nearby coastal countries, quoted Racquel Moses, the new chief executive of the Accelerator project. She said it was intended to be “a catalyst to get things started,” expecting governments to take over after five years.
The Caribbean basin holds a bit of all the world within its shores. Its people are a diverse, resourceful mix of origins and ethnicities. When Europeans first sailed into the islands, there were indigenous people, among them Arawak and Carib, who gave the region its name. Colonists from Britain, France, the Netherlands and Spain changed the landscape beginning in the 16th century, driving many indigenous people to the margins — or to extinction.
Colonists cleared vast areas of land for agricultural plantations, mainly for tobacco and then sugar cane, on numerous islands. That led to the odious trade in slaves from Africa to work the expanding cane fields. These tragically transplanted newcomers who survived eventually introduced an Afro-Caribbean culture that continues to exert profound effects on regional arts and literature.
When slavery was abolished by the British, Dutch and French in the mid-19th centuruy, the business of imported indentured labor, often more like servitude, brought Asian workers from India. Many of these were Tamils from the south of India, who introduced Hinduism. Chinese and other Asian immigrants followed and became an integral part of island commerce.
After the successes of anticolonial liberation movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Caribbean community took its current shape. Independent island nations divided by history and language emerged, the legacies of various colonial powers. Some of the now-independent former colonies have achieved economic success, among them the English-speaking nations of the Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.
At the other end of the scale, French-speaking Haiti has fallen to the bottom of poverty rankings, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere — years behind the French islands of the Lesser Antilles and all of Spanish and Portuguese Latin America.
What the Caribbean islands all share now, however, is the looming depredation of climate change. By their recent actions, they recognize that by working together they can avoid, predict or mitigate almost certain disasters ahead.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.