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.

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