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Perils in paradise

Livelihoods in the Caribbean face a number of challenges. Globalisation has resulted in declining fortunes for the banana and sugar industries and led many states to become increasingly dependent on tourism. Whilst tourism has been hailed as an engine for economic growth, concern is growing over the negative impacts the industry has on domestic economies and natural resources.

The tranquil splendour of Laborie bay belies the livelihood challenges the community faces (Ministry of Education, St. Lucia)
The tranquil splendour of Laborie bay belies the livelihood challenges the community faces
Ministry of Education, St. Lucia

In recent years, the rapid increase in the number of tourists visiting the Caribbean has begun to affect the resources upon which the tourism industry depends. Unregulated coastal development and agricultural and industrial pollution add to the strain. Conservation initiatives have attempted to address the situation through the establishment of marine parks or reserves managed by autonomous organisations. However, not all areas are well suited to this form of management, and even where reserves have been established, poorer communities have been slow to benefit. Many such communities find themselves excluded from the benefits of tourism and disadvantaged by the pollution it generates. In addition, their poverty increases the pressure on coastal resources, as their immediate need to survive transcends concerns for sustainable resource use.

Alternative strategies

As many of the poor are landless, agriculture is not always an option, and credit is often difficult to obtain. Improving the livelihoods of these communities relies on finding alternative strategies to reduce environmental degradation. In the village of Laborie in Saint Lucia, unemployment among young people now stands at over 50 per cent - as is typical of small island communities in the region - and is likely to get worse. The people of the community face a dilemma: they wish to see their communities prosper, but they also wish to conserve the mangroves and coral reefs. With assistance from the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute and support from the UK's Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, new technologies have been assessed in Laborie for their sustainability and potential wider application.

Sea urchin processing on Laborie beach (Fimber Anius)
Sea urchin processing on Laborie beach
Fimber Anius

One technology under evaluation is the harvesting of edible white-spined sea urchins, or chadon. An important seasonal resource for many years, the sea urchins suffered severe population declines, leading to the suspension of harvesting until 2001, when population recovery allowed harvesting to resume. Unfortunately, the resumption was marked by conflicts between harvesting communities, with accusations that some were harvesting unsustainably. A national media campaign and public exhibition raised awareness about this valued resource and its potential, and the community established rules for future harvesting. It also undertook monitoring of the sea urchin population, and made recommendations to the Department of Fisheries, which was responsible for regulating the timing and conditions for the 2002 harvest. This initiative resulted in fewer conflicts despite a greater number of people being involved in that harvest, as well as significant benefits to poorer members in the community.

Seamoss mariculture

Seamoss, edible seaweed renowned for its nutritious properties, is another reef product harvested in Laborie bay. However, its regional popularity for use in drinks and puddings has led to overharvesting and depletion of the wild plant population. Seamoss cultivation is now being established as an alternative means of maintaining the incomes of fisherfolk whilst allowing wild stocks to recover. Very little start-up capital is required, as vegetative propagation is a simple matter of inserting bunches of seamoss between strands of ropes. After 12 weeks, cultivators - individuals and family groups, including women and children - can harvest approximately 2.5 kilograms of fresh seamoss per metre of rope.

Whilst the cultivation of seamoss is most advanced in Saint Lucia, the technology has been transferred to a number of other islands, including Grenada, Jamaica, Dominica and Antigua, where it has the potential to develop into significant industries. In Laborie, an assessment of the issues and institutions that affect seamoss production is underpinning the formulation of a development plan and the identification of the policy requirements for the expansion and sustainability of the industry at the national level.

The problems of the poor are not unique to the Caribbean. At an international conference for the sustainable development of small island states held in Mauritius in January 2005, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan highlighted the challenges confronting these communities, not just in the Caribbean but worldwide. Some countries had made progress in the past decade in carving out new market niches, he said, but many still faced vulnerability to natural disasters, remoteness from world markets, high energy costs and waste-management problems. New challenges, such as the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS, add to the economic strain. Until governments prioritise issues of sustainable development, these small island states and their poor residents will remain vulnerable.

Date published: May 2005


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