For the rest of the year, the trade wind doth blow. Mainly from the north east, these pummel the east or windward sides of the islands. The Caribbean side lays in the lee and most of the towns and development goes on here. In fact I was amazed at the contrast between the two sides of St Lucia, as Keith drove me round the bottom of the island (I got my first view of St Vincent through the mist), past the town of Vieux Fort built next to Hewannora Airport and up the east coast to the little fishing villages of Dennery and Micoud. Whereas the Caribbean was calm in the lee of the islands, the Atlantic was bashing against rugged rocks, sending up a spray that fogged the coastline. I wondered how anybody managed to live here, but the fishing industry did well on this side, and meant it was worth taking the chance. Not only did the trade winds come in this way, but most hurricanes made their first landfall on this side of the islands.
Lenny did not. It developed out in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and headed eastwards. It was not the strongest of storms, but as it ripped through the central Windwards it hit the major towns on the leeward coasts, the vegetation was less able to resist the strong winds, the developments were not used to taking this pummelling. It turned into one of the most devastating hurricanes in recent years. On all my trips to the region since, I would see where it had caused problems, destroying a fish landing place in Roseau, Dominica, ripping the heads of palm trees in St Vincent, and of course, the tragic loss of SMMA’s headquarters before it was even finished.
Whether it be resilience or resignation, there is a hardness in the Caribbean psyche that has to cope with all this. It sometimes seems that it does not matter how hard you try to build yourself up, nature has a way of beating you down. Vulnerability is the number one government issue in several of the Caribbean states, and all have units devoted to decreasing the vulnerability of their inhabitants.
I helped out with a study for DFID in assessing the livelihood opportunities in coastal Caribbean communities. It was an incredibly difficult project to cover; for a start defining and subdividing the Caribbean, the coast and livelihoods proved a teaser. Where do you define the Caribbean? If you just go with the sea only a few islands are inside it completely, if you take the lands bordering the sea you get another definition but often Turks and Caicos, Bahamas and occasionally Bermuda get lumped in to the Caribbean, even though they are plumb square in the Atlantic Ocean. And as for sticking to the coast, well, although we could take just the continental fringe of the Caribbean from Mexico down to Guyana, one could hardly discriminate between the coast and the interior on the islands, even in Jamaica they were inextricably linked. Livelihoods were difficult too – we were supposed to look at those involved in natural resources, but here again the linkages between environment and humans is so entwined it is difficult to say where to draw the line. We were asked to focus on the English speaking Caribbean, which meant to entrench the old colonial ideas about what the Caribbean is. With French speaking St Martin next to English Anguilla and Dutch Saba, and several Spanish speaking islands further west (not to mention some islands that kept forms of Creole), you could not ignore the non-Commonwealth aspects – they had things to teach us about opportunities. I spent a lot of time trying to draw maps of the region and naming different groups of islands so we could compare and contrast. Splitting the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles was generally easy, although the Virgin Islands are often seen as offshoots of Puerto Rico while they were once in the Leewards Federation. The Lesser Antilles were split into the Leewards in the north and the Windwards in the south, but Martinique and Guadeloupe are hardly ever included in this group. Then there were the ABC’s, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, to many still part of the Lesser Antilles, off the old Spanish Main, the north coast of South America. The myriad of tiny islands in the western Caribbean, like Providencia and San Andres connected to Colombia, were often overlooked. We did include Turks and Caicos, despite the fact they do not even lie in the Caribbean Sea.
Once these groupings were decided on, there was then the problem of how to classify the individual islands. Some were states in their own rights, or joined in an artificial big island / small island federation (such as St Kitts and Nevis). Others were territories, such as Anguilla and Montserrat (British) and Sint Maarten, and Saba (Dutch). The French did things differently, Guadeloupe (including St Martin and St Barthelemy) and Martinique were French Departments with the same rights as anywhere on the mainland. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, semi independent of the USA, several small islands were just part of their mainland countries, such as Margarita. It was all very confusing and demonstrated why any attempt of regional integration in the islands is plagued with problems.