Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Mangrove Adventures

For the last week I’ve had the rare opportunity to explore a really unique, and endangered ecosystem in the Grenadines. I’ve been sloshing my way through the Ashton Mangrove, weary of sinkholes, cutlass in hand, spooked by thousands of crabs, and of course, an ear out for rare birds.

To my delight, I flushed out a proper tropical denizen yesterday, the Fork-Tailed Flycatcher, a rare migrant from South America.

I’ve been establishing survey points for the Caribbean Waterbird Census and the Ashton Lagoon Restoration project, while working on Union Island with Sustainable Grenadines Inc. Exciting things are happening on the ground, but it follows a dismal example of corrupt and negligent development: a foreign company hacked and dredged its way through a formerly-vibrant lagoon and the last intact mangrove forest in the Southern Antilles, for a large-marina project. The company went bankrupt and abandoned the construction, but not without leaving the marina causeway behind, which has cut off water circulation to the lagoon, killing the it off of coral, seagrass and its associated conch, fish and other marine life. A peripheral road along the mangrove forest has also cut it off the from tidal flushing on all sides, leaving it to be filled up by the sediment-laden landbased runoff.

Hopefully, the restoration project can return proper circulation and water quality to the lagoon, but the mangrove is surely going to change from a marine system to a dry scrub, if it isn’t deforested and grazed before then.

I’m here to start the ecological monitoring of the restoration effects, and train community members to takeover once I leave. But despite high unemployment, few local people are interested to participate in ecosystem monitoring. One problem is that the vast majority of the Islanders are afraid of water! Swimming, wading through tidal channels, or sloshing through pools: a local’s idea of folly. I’m having the time of my life exploring these unique coral and mangrove systems, now the challenge is to find that same interest among the Islanders.

Photo by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic, distributed freely on the Neo Birds Flickr group

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Generation Brat

Away from the Grenadines for the moment, and back to Canada, at least in text, as Michael Enright of the CBC Sunday Edition issues a long awaited public apology to my generation on behalf of the baby boomers:  “for handing over to you a world you never made, but one in which your forebearers, my generation, have pretty much made a spectacular balls-up of just about everything.”

Young persons like myself have a difficult time quite understanding the frivilous despoilation of earth and economy wrought by the baby-boomers. They were unique: riding an unprecedented confluence of riches, where most modern amenities and infrastructure were already built, wages were high, and the world’s resources still seemed unlimited. What else were the care-free 60’s and rebellious 70’s but the collective brathood of a generation that had it all and could flaunt it contemptuously (my generation never had so much fun). It also spawned a generation of Reaganites obsessed getting their money out of the system that their parents had given them: their parents paid their taxes and built a seemingly unassailable country, and they subsequently took the surplus for themselves in the form of tax cuts, rather than pass on a rainy day fund to future generations.

For example, consider sewer systems (of which I do a lot recently, living on a tiny Grenadine Island in the Lesser Antilles, who never had an infrastructure boom). Where I live now could never (NEVER!) amass the capital to install a grade A sewer which doesn’t pass raw sewage directly into the sea. In fact, new cities in Canada, like Victoria, haven't been able to amass the capital to install a sewer system which doesn’t pass raw sewage directly into the sea. Most North American cities’ sewers which we take for granted were actually built at the turn of the century (1900’s), with about a 100’s life-expectancy. Consider bridge building too: their life expectancy similarly expires in the next decade.

If the baby-boomers were a confluence of riches, my generation sails the perfect storm of crumbling infrastructure, a bankrupt economy, sparse oil reserves, and environmental apocalypse. These are very real issues happening right now, unlike the entertaining suite of invented calamities that dazzled the baby-boomers, like Nuclear Armageddon and the Red Tide, neither of which seriously threatened the globe.

How to respond? I’m reminded of a “Chinese curse” and a “Chinese proverb”. The curse: May you live in interesting times (check). The proverb: a crisis is also an opportunity. If my generation could manage to regain some of our stolen wealth, and stave off the shadow of elderly entitlements like cushy healthcare and tax cuts, which may yet bankrupt us (more), we might just be able to seize this opportunity.

I have a feeling that the story may be far more grime for the Grenadines and the rest of the developing world...

Friday, 11 June 2010

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Sustainable Grenadines Inc

An indigenous organization, run by Canadian Interns.

While I write this, the 2 core staff members of my organization, SusGren (short for Sustainable Grenadines) are off in different parts of the world, attending conferences and other such things on international development and the marine environment. This left only one, mostly street-based, local YES (Youth Employment Intern), plus three Canadians, to run the show. Rather than operations grinding to a halt, I realized that the minds of the Staff members had been off in other places for a long time, and things continue must as they have before. SusGren, like most NGO’s, I presume, is perennially obsessed with, and short of, funding. With the Project Manager and the Program Officer concentrating on securing funding, I'm left in the enviable position of getting to the marrow of the organization's ground-work. In their Workplan, SusGren even admits as much, calling itself “an indigenous organization…mostly run by Canadian Interns.”

I’ve arrived at a precarious time -  SusGren is undergoing a shaky transition from its piecemeal project-wise focus of Phase II, to a mysterious Phase III, where it becomes a sustainable NGO. SusGren began in 2002 with a two year planning-phase via the Center for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) at the University of the West Indies in Barbadoes, the Grenada and St. Vincent governments, and local NGOs. Phase II kicked off with financial support from governments and the German Lighthouse Foundation, and began implementing the actual projects, such as developing a macroalgae mariculture cooperative, organizing fisherfolk cooperatives, a Green School Project, organizing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) on a Grenada Island, Carriacou, and getting World Heritage Site designation for the Grenadine Islands.

So concludes Phase II, right about now, and so too does SusGren’s funding dry up shortly. It has been registered as an NGO, as per Phase III, but without the funding. While the staff try to find big money for mega-projects, such as a restoring a lagoon that was destroyed by a bankrupt marina venture, the legacy projects have fallen mostly to the Canadians, such as maintaining support for the mariculture activities and organizing fisherfolk.

“Work”, and what it means, has been a tricky notion -  it’s a far cry from the familiar operational rigour of scientific studies, or the time-is-money blue-collar work ethic, and is set in the novel context of office culture and community-based projects. Everything is flexible, and needs to be, because a lot of what I do involves accommodating, hounding and waiting for other people to act, ruminate, and make decisions. Sometimes this means a 9-5 paper pushing job, other times it means attending community meetings afterhours or on weekends. It is also means that Communications are tantamount, and has become the organizing principle of the office -  Work can sometimes mean not seeing anyone else in the office for whole days, while a flurry of emails and skyping get things done.  (One of my tasks, if there is time, will be to implement a web-based, collaborative Project Management System).

It’s a round about way of trying to save the marine environment, but that is the reality of achieving SusGren’s dual mission of community-empowerment and fostering sustainable livelihoods.

Welcome to Union Island - a Grenadine Primer

The popular “pre-history” narrative of the Grenadines goes as follows -  the peaceful agrarian Arawaks were displaced by the more warlike Caribs, followed within 100 years by contact with Europeans, which literally changed everything -  little remains of the Caribs or their island flora and marine life. Modern Grenadine Nationhood and its cultural/ethnic heritage are really rooted in the convoluted European endeavors starting around 1500 CE.  The era kicked of with Spain serially despoiling the Greater Antilles islands looking for gold, enslaving the Arawaks, and literally working them to extinction. Nominal rulers of the Grenadines, Spain in reality cared little for the Caribbean or its many failed ports, having discovered literally mountains of bullion in South America, and later in the Manila-Mexico trade route, and involved itself in the Caribbean inasmuch as necessary to bolster safe passage of its Gold-laden galleons from the American Mainland to Europe. Left to fend themselves, Islands constantly changed over in treastises and conflicts from Carib, Dutch, French, English, and pirate/privateer rule.

The Grenadines were too arid for colonial farmers to exploit the lucrative sugar and cotton crops markets that so enriched colonial empires. Takeovers were mostly symbolic, or strategic only as raiding headquarters against other larger islands, such as Trinadad & Topago. “Union Island” supposedly gets its name from a brief period of solidarity of between Arawaks and Caribs natives against European conquerors.

Slaves from West Africa (e.g., Ghana, Cameroon) were the first permanent foreigner to occupy the islands, uniting with the Caribs, but ultimately swamping them in numbers as French/British rulers did eventually find suitable crops for the islands, namely Bananas and spices. A Treaty of Versailles finally gave Britain official control of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1783, followed by Abolition fifty years later, and independence in 1979.

The colonial and slave history is important, revealing its legacy in such disparate community qualities as people’s ethnic mixture, to the country’s strong attachment to the Greater Commonwealth economy. Unlike St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a whole, Union Island itself is no longer a food-export economy, since the EU barred the importation of its fish due to its low fisheries standards. Tourism from North American and European countries is becoming the island’s main economic activity, especially since the recently established Topago Cays Marine Park, a marine gem in an otherwise overfished wasteland. There are no other major industries.

People still retain close ties to the English world. The vast majority of Islanders have either studied, worked, or lived with family in the UK, USA and Canada. Some repatriation of foreign-earned income is no doubt beneficial, but there is also a perceived threat to the local culture and a “brain-drain.” Medical professionals are routinely “pouched” to American hospitals. Early-adults are noticeably absent from the island, either living abroad or on St. Vincent, due to both a general dispiritedness with the Islands economic future, and the lack of college-level education facilities on Union. This is also driving a strong Americanizing influence on the local people. For example, most people consume large amounts of American media, preferring CNN to St. Vincent news networks. Some people are concerned about such internationalization and perceived loss of culture, the strongest expression has had to have been a youth skit at a community culture show, featuring a proper English speaker Grenadinian girl, just back from a trip to the UK, being verbally harassed for a few minutes by young boys for not speaking the island dialect, with the happy conclusion that the girl realizes that everyone must do all they can to protect their culture.

The slave legacy is also important in more subtle ways, according to popular narrative, fostering such cultural norms as the brokenness of families, and the dominant role and greater respect for women in Grenadine society. In the first case, the popular narrative says that slave transfers between farms disrupted paternal involvement with their children, and, to this day, the norm has been that women have children with many different men, and men have many girlfriends and mistresses. Women have had to take a more predominant role in domestic, community and economic affairs, so the narrative continues, being both caregiver, income-earner and stable community members, while men seek work in distant and lucrative affairs.

Today, a Canadian visitor may notice a certain segregation between men and women -  men exclusively populate the local drinking establishments throughout the day, while women “lime” on the beach with children; men and women seen together casually are assumed to be sexually involved; even in the workplace, men and women do not casually chit-chat, unless undertaken in a playful, flirtatious way.

The picture I’ve painted of Union Island may seem a tad denigrating, from a North American perspective. Certainly, there are some woeful circumstances -  fish resources continue to decline; valuable corals are mostly bleached and getting worse; diesel electricity-generation and petroleum are affordable only because of Venezuelan handouts; municipal plumbing is non-existent; and the island has suffered near-criminal failures of “development projects” such as the bankrupt and massively-destructive Ashton Lagoon Marina.

But this is not the whole story by far. My next entry, on Union Island’s assets, reveals much too be celebrated and enjoyed. There is an enthusiasm for tackling issues and an entrepreneurial spirit. People are very friendly and well connected with each other. There is an easy, relaxed atmosphere that is very humane and attractive. Together, this makes for a very rich culture and lifestyle that one can’t help but admire.