Liming – On the Edge – Balance in the Midst of Stormy Seas

The alternative view is to try to build up capital, import the goods you cannot get locally, buy into the global economy and sell it back what it wants, sunshine and sea.  Thus the hotels are getting larger, the restaurants and nightclubs noisier, a lime now involves a ghetto blaster barking out a hybrid of local music and stuff from the back streets of Detroit and New York.  Cable TV feeds American tastes and attitudes straight down to the Caribbean, and once seen, it is craved for.  It is almost, lets forget the vulnerabilities that exist here, we can enjoy and demand the life of the states and to hell with the rest.  The fragile islands, the insular communities can hardly cope with it, and the cracks are forming.  The have nots are being distanced from the haves, the drugs are seen as a fast way to get the cash to pay for all these trappings.  While the Yardie crime of Jamaica has been around for years, many smaller islands are now talking of heightened crime rates, burglaries, some of it with guns.  The alchohol and drug abuse on the islands themselves have been there for years, but the family safety nets that used to exist have shown strain on the smaller islands and have been demolished on the larger islands.  If the black market in drugs cannot get you the money, kidnapping for ransom has become fashionable in Trinidad, to the ludicrous extent that some of the people being kidnapped probably cannot afford a ransom that would cover the costs of the heist.

 The young democracies of the eastern Caribbean in particular struggle to cope with these tensions.  There is massive corruption in several governments and private businesses, partial patronage is rife.  But in many ways, on small islands where the markets are small and there may only be one operator of a business, monopolies are inevitable.  Nepotism too is predictable, as most of the islands can be reduced to a few intermarried families.

 These little rocks in the middle of the sea are being thrown one way and the other by internal and external pressures, despite best efforts they are still vulnerable economically, socially and environmentally, even the centre of the earth is spitting up at them and the air we breathe tries to knock them down.  Not exactly paradise.

 And yet, the veneer of paradise is still there, and even most of the inhabitants of the isles realise they sit on jewels.  Verdant mountain ranges, fresh water, few diseases, the best beaches in the world and some spectacular riches in the sea, life can be good here.  Which is why despite the huge emigration to Europe and North America, many people retain a family home in their country of origin and often return for their retirement. As a poet, Michelle Gibbs, born in Chicago but living in Grenada, put it, the Caribbean islands and its people are looking for “balance in the midst of stormy seas”.  Perhaps the best and the worst of the world sits on these tiny islands.

 That first week in St Lucia quickly showed me how the islands worked.  I had often wondered how it would be to live on a small island, to be brought up swimming in the sea amongst the reefs, to be able to pick fruit off the trees all year round.  I looked around at various places in Castries and thought, I could live here.  After I returned from St Vincent, Keith took me out on my last night to Gros Islet, to the north of Castries opposite Rodney Bay marina.  A cluster of chattel houses met at a cross roads.  Several years ago, this regular liming joint began to grow.  On a Friday night, the bar at the corner started to serve up barbecue, fish, spare ribs and, of course, chicken, with all the provisions to go with it.  Someone else started frying Johnny Cakes nearby and the locals were joined by people from the surrounding villages.  Tourists from the nearby resort hotels heard about this and stumbled in to see some local “colour”.  A guy set up a ghetto blaster in the street and people started dancing,  a few more food stalls set up, old women sold peanuts and fried sweetcorn.  Families from all over the island would come, hotel bussed tourists in by the hundred.  The little Friday night lime turned into a regular street party.  Keith was a regular at the little bar that started it all off and we went in, grabbed the usual R&C and JWB and watched life go by on the cross roads below.  We could hardly speak, the music was too loud, but we did not need to, it was good just to sit around and enjoy life.  Gros Islet has probably outgrown itself now and a competing lime in Anse le Raye is now more popular with St Lucians.  But even so, I liked the informality, the general mixing, the fact that families and foreigners could walk along an ill lit street, soaked in alcohol and high spirits and still feel safe.  I definitely thought, I could live with this.

Caribbean Sunset

Caribbean Sunset


Liming – On the Edge – Influences and Outlooks

Despite this, the feeding of US TV through  the cables and satellite receivers is affecting the culture – the kids see more of the TV than they do of their parents, it is their nannies and tell them their ways, instead of the stories and weekends helping mum prepare provisions in the kitchen or help dad to fish, mend the boat, grow the back garden crops.  They want to play basketball not cricket, they want big flashy cars, they want to wear the clothes of Harlem and the Bronx, heavy set clothes (skull caps, winter jackets, underwear hanging out of their baggy heavy jeans) for temperate latitudes, not tropical heat.

 In a way, this looking to the States for the lead highlights the dichotomy that exists in the Caribbean Islands today; the split opinion of how the islands should respond to their vulnerability and uncertainty.  As is often the case, it is the older generation who have tried to hold on to the past, making everything temporary so if it does get destroyed you have not lost too much.  This is evident in the Chattel houses that are dotted over the islands.

Main Street, Road Town - old style chattel house and larger newer building

Main Street, Road Town – old style chattel house and larger newer building

Small, squat and usually made of wood, these houses sit on blocks above the ground to let the air through and the creepy crawlies out, but if you wanted to move, or more likely forced to move due to lack of tenure, you put it in with your other chattels and carried it off to the new location.  The variety of styles is amazing, as Robert Potter brought out in his book on low-income housing.  Sometimes very simple, sometimes little ornamental touches are put on (such as the gingerbread style), little flourishes on gables and roof tops give distinctiveness and variety.  But although a house may sit in the same position for a lifetime, they all have the option of being moved, or rebuilt quickly if something drops off.  The beach bars are of a similar ilk.   Built from bric-a-brac, waste from the land and flotsam and jetsam washed ashore, if the next hurricane blows it down, you just go and pick up the pieces from the beach and fill in the gaps with whatever else blew up that day.  The same with crops, don’t plant too many, have two or three plots, and try and spread the number of types you plant, if the gourds are bad, the plantain may be OK.  If you lose your backyard crops, you still have your mountain garden to feed you.

Liming – On the Edge – Diversity in the Caribbean

We were told to concentrate on natural resources, and I think our paymasters were expecting a report that covered just the conflict between fisheries and tourism.  As I gathered more information and began to read it, it was obvious that there was much more to opportunity and constraint for anyone living in the Caribbean.  On some islands like Jamaica there was industry, in others, cities were growing with large land wasting, sprawling suburbs, and changing the way people lived across the whole island.  Tourism was disenfranchising not only the fishers but other sectors of the community, like the small landholders in the centre of towns like St John’s in Antigua, pushed out of the way so the downtown could be developed as a tourist haven of shops, tarted up historic buildings and taxi stands.  The key to enhancing the lives of people seemed to be to offer them more diverse opportunities, but time and time again I saw that there was a limit to what could be done on these small islands, and the overriding factor was the feeling and reality of vulnerability.  Not only were natural disasters (and the unknown effects from climate change) debilitating threats, but the tenuous economies of these states blow in the winds of global finances.  Ever since colonists started monocropping the islands with sugar or cotton or bananas, these isles were doomed.

Coconuts in Mesopotamia , St Vincent- one of the monocultures

Coconuts in Mesopotamia , St Vincent- one of the monocultures

When times were good, they could be very good, but tastes change, markets change, and if South America can produce cheaper bananas, or sugar beet can take over the European market, the small island states of the Caribbean have few tricks to produce economies of scale.  Whole islands have lost their industry in a matter of a few years, others are on the verge of losing theirs.  Tourists were seen as the next major cash crop, and whole islands went in for various techniques to get them in.  Resort hotels sprung up in Barbados and Jamaica, cruise ships offload thousands of passengers to do duty free shopping in Phillipsburg or Charlotte Amalie.  Marinas litter the Virgin Islands and the Grenadines.  A model of how the islands are pushing towards tourist saturation was drawn up by a wonderful man I met a couple of times from Trinidad, Dennis Panten.

  Some are already gone like St Thomas and the Bahamas, others are close to it, like Barbados.  A few are expanding fast like St Lucia, others are beginning to emerge like Grenada and St Vincent.  Only a few remain low level destinations, such as Dominica, and even here I have seen where a few new developments are going in and all the islands seem to be heading for overkill.  The tourist dollar is very powerful, but seems to be coming in at the expense of either the quality of life of the locals or the conservation of the very environment they are coming to soak up.  And like bananas before them, the tourist market is fickle, it is after all only based on spare cash, and if money is tight in the states or Europe, the first thing to go is the long haul holiday.  And when the Caribbean resorts lie empty, perhaps the owners will try to remember what lies lost under the concrete or below the sewage in the sea.

 The push towards dragging in the tourist whatever the cost is having another serious affect on the islands; it is making them lose their individuality.  Although only a few miles apart, naturally similar and with near identical bloody and ruthless histories, until recently they have retained their sense of identity and independence.  Every accent is slightly different, from the often high-pitched, slightly whiny Trinidadian, to the round, very sexy Bajan, the tangy Jamaican and the fast talking Tortolan.  The dialects vary too, and the food – Jamaican patties and jerk everything are replaced by Rotis in Trinidad, part of the heavy Indian influence in the southern Caribbean.  The colonial influence is still strong, the chic Marigot on the French side of St Martin is replaced by the sell it fast Dutch side.  What amazed me was that no matter how small the island, it was the coast that defined the community, not the country the island was in.  This has led to several conflicts between big and small islands.  Tobagonians make sure you say Trinidad AND Tobago, whereas Trinidadians just see Tobago as somewhere to go for a weekend beach lime.  The little island of Bequia, five miles south of St Vincent, wants to be its own nation, the smaller Grenadines are often thought to be out of the control of the capital.  Barbuda wants to split from Antigua, Nevis wants independence from St Kitts.  Anguilla got offended when Britain wanted to lump it in with the new state base around St Kitts and staged a revolution.  It was quelled by a bunch of British Bobbies, but they got what they wanted, and remain within the UK’s jurisdiction.

Liming – On the Edge – Wind and Working out the Islands

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)St Vincent from St Lucia, 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.

What a hurricane does to a palm tree

What a hurricane does to a palm tree

 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.

Kingfish Coming away

Kingfish Coming away

 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.

Liming – On the Edge – Living on the Edge

The chain of islands that make up the eastern Caribbean are very new in geological time.  They were formed when the small Caribbean Plate started to rub up against the Atlantic Plate.  The Caribbean Plate went over the top of the other and caused fissures.  Lava flowed out of these forming volcanoes that eventually pierced the water surface in numerous places.  A string of islands from Grenada to St Thomas was formed, some of which still contain active volcanoes or some sort of volcanic activity.  To the east and west, the overlapping of the plates caused the coral lined sea bed to rise and emerge.  Several islands were formed in this way, Barbados, most of Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla and Anegada.

St Maarten (volcanic)  and Anguilla (coral)

St Maarten (volcanic) and Anguilla (coral)

On the west side, only the little Aves or Bird Island emerged.  This little sand bank has caused more trouble in the Caribbean than anywhere else.  Venezuela have laid claim to it as it means they can also claim the substantial fisheries around it and any oil that may be lurking there.  Aves lies west of Guadeloupe though and is over 400 miles from the Venezuelan mainland.  To be able to substantiate their claim, a small army billet has been established; the posting from hell.  Everything, including fresh water has to be flown in.  All for a little bit of rock and a large chunk of sea.

 The volcanic activity in the region terrifies a lot of people, quite rightly.  Ash fell from Soufrière Mountain in St Vincent in 1987, turning the northern part of the island white.  In 1997, the eruption of the Montserrat volcano killed many, made thousands homeless and devastated both the capital and airport.  The subsequent emigration took the population down from over 10,000 to a little more than 3,000.  However, the land based volcanoes are not the biggest threat.  A massive active volcano lies between Grenada and St Vincent.  Called Kick ‘em Jenny, it is bubbling away under the surface.  If that one blows, and many people think the time is drawing very near, it will create a tsunami large enough to swamp coastal towns across the eastern Caribbean.  Earthquakes are a real threat.  In Tortola, there are reputed to be two a day.  Fortunately this means that the pressure is released regularly, even so, you feel a good shake at least once a month.

 If the tectonic problem of living on a plate edge are not enough, the Caribbean islands lie in the direct line of hurricane development from the mid Atlantic.  For most of the year there are no worries, but there are about four months, two really serious ones, where hurricanes can fly in at short notice.  Waves of warm air come off the Sahara and pick up huge amounts of moisture from the hot seas.  If conditions are right, positive feedback kicks in and they continue to grow and strengthen, moving westwards all the time.  Jostling for position in amongst all the other weather systems, it is difficult to predict their tracks, and often the three day forecast can show them moving in a broad cone that covers most of the islands.  The islands are so small that a single country may miss most of the hurricanes, if you are on the edge of the system you just get some high winds and a lot of rain.  If you are right in the track of the eye of the hurricane, there is a twenty four hour period of intense, unrelenting winds, heavy rain and a lot of damage to the entire island.

Liming – On the Edge – Exploring St Lucia

By the Wednesday, we were getting tired.  We saw little hope of moving the St Vincent project on, and Keith persuaded me that I should go and meet with my counterparts in Kingstown, the capital, so he booked me on a Liat flight the next day.

Air Jamaica plane taxiing at Vigie Airport

Air Jamaica plane taxiing at Vigie Airport

Before I went, he wanted to show me more of the island, so far I had seen only the north west side, the busy capital of Castries and the tourists traps around Rodney Bay.  We slipped out of work the Wednesday lunch time and headed south along the coast.  Past the massive oil tanks in the deep bay harbour, we went through the banana growing country that helps sustain St Lucia’s economy.  Every single bunch of bananas was enclosed in blue plastic bags to keep pests away, but these bags also littered the ground and watercourses for miles around.  We went past Marigot, where the original Dr Doolittle film was shot.

Doolittle Bay

Doolittle Bay

We went through a couple of fishing villages, Anse le Raye and Canaries, and I began to see how under the veneer of paradise, there was a developing country shouting to get out.  Although not the mud huts of Africa, nevertheless, these dwellings were small, ill-repaired and lacking many basic services.  From above the village, the clusters of tin roofs look like any barrio in Cali.

 At every corner we passed people by and Keith would invariably toot his horn or be waved at.  I think he knows everyone on St Lucia.  It is hardly surprising, these islands are so small if you live on them for a few years you are bound to know most of its inhabitants.  Keith had also been a fisheries officer for the St Lucian government before moving on to OECS which meant he spent a lot of time in these little villages talking to the fishermen, often the kingpins of society in these places.

 We circled a few headlands and went through a couple of forested areas bedecked in tree ferns and lush green shrubs, before we came down into Soufrière.  Once the capital of St Lucia, this small gridiron town sits in amongst one of the most dramatic settings of anywhere in the Caribbean.  Not only does the river valley Soufrière snuggles into emanate from the largest mountains on the island, clad in tropical rain forest, but, to the south of the town, two huge conical hills rise out of the sea, known as the Gros and Petit Piton.  Closer and more dramatic, the Petit Piton appears more challenging, tapering uniformly to its peak, but together they give St Lucia a potent environmental symbol.  Every tourist brochure contains their picture, as do the T-shirts, shot-glasses and T-towels you can buy, and even the beer is named after them and displays their twin peaks on every bottle.

 In the little town below, we met up with Kie Wolf, at the time the manager of the Soufrière Marine Management Area, a sort of co-operative National Park.  He showed us round his new headquarters, only about half finished at the time.  We could hardly hear because of the hammering that was going on, and the noise of a drill sergeant who was training National Park staff in the car park below.  We stood and watched this huge man ridicule his pimpled young recruits.  RecruitsHe barked out orders to this group of youths in the car park surrounded by the old men of the town, several vendors and Keith and I.  The youths became easily confused, turning right when they should go left, bumping into each other, yet all the time trying to maintain their dignity with solemn concentrating faces.  Keith and I could hardly contain ourselves.

 A small red plane circled out in the harbour mouth before coming into land on the water.  It taxied up to the beach, and some fishermen went out to pull a rope the pilot was throwing out.  The landing caused great interest and most of The way to Commutethe town seemed to come down onto the promenade to watch what was happening.  The seaplane pilot disappeared into the back streets for a few moments before reemerging carrying a couple of groceries.  He started the plane up, withdrew his rope and circled around to face the open sea.  With a lot of noise and spray he lifted the plane into the air and it flew out of Soufrière’s life again.

 I took a quick look on the beach, where a small armada of brightly coloured fishing boats were hauled up on the pebbly beach, tied to swaying palms.  The whole place seemed so tranquil, the true Eden, so stable.  The following year, the whole front of Soufrière was destroyed by Hurricane Lenny.  The beach was washed away, many palms were cut in half, the new centre of the Soufrière Marine Management Area was washed out.  It showed how below the devil-may-care attitude the tourist may see in the Caribbean, an attitude cultivated by the holiday brochures, people lived on the edge in these islands.

Liming – On the Edge – OECS

He took me to his workplace the next morning, possibly the finest place I have ever worked in my whole life.  The Natural Resources Management Unit (NRMU) of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) has a long title for such a small place; when I first visited it probably had about twenty people working for it across the nine states and territories it had to cover.  It looked at enhancing environmental decision making in seven member states; Grenada, St Vincent and The Grenadines, St Lucia, Dominica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, and two associated territories; Anguilla and The British Virgin Islands.  The largest state is St Lucia, with 150,000 people.  The UK territory of Montserrat, after the evacuation following the volcanic eruption, had barely 5,000.  Few of these countries would be counties in the UK, some could fit easily into a large city, the total population of the states was less than 600,000 people; Glasgow is larger.  And yet they were fiercely protective of their independent their status, and the OECS was a rather loose coalition of microstates rather than the necessary integrating factor.

 NRMU helped these states by facilitating scientific research and programmes, such as my own, or by increasing environmental education in the islands.  Above all it tried to unify the theories and practice of environmental management throughout the nine states, although it often was thwarted by national politicians who had their own agendas.  I found their approach and enthusiasm amazing, an organisation who was trying to help their fellow kin from within rather than waiting for outside help.  Of course they were heavily funded by the Brits, Canadians and Americans, but in most of their projects they were making executive decisions about how the money was spent, and that was a step forward in the aid business.

 The offices sat a few feet below the peak of Morne Fortune, the massive hill on the south side of Castries Harbour.  From here the whole city lay before us, and beyond to Choc Bay and the north west side of the island and in the distance, on a clear day, the outline of Martinique was visible.  A few palms kept the worst of the sunlight off the building and the persistent winds would keep the air fresh up here.  I tried to concentrate in our meetings up there but I kept saying to myself, I could live here.

Keith was incredibly accommodating over that week.  We worked hard, he tried to show me how things worked in St Lucia.  I met a guy, Chris Cox, who had used GIS in watershed mapping, and was amazed by the care he had taken to create a map of the forests of St Lucia.  I talked with Elizabeth Charles, the strong willed head of GIS in the Planning department who was not impressed by my consultant’s spiel but was willing to hear my arguments.  He took me out for dinner several nights; the best time was to a friend’s house, an old fisherman, near Rodney Bay.  A whole group of people turned up, Chris was there, a bunch of Canadians doing a marine survey off the north east coast, and I tasted my first dolphin, not the mammal but the ugly looking fish that can be made into the most delicious steaks.  There is nothing like having a plate of fish that you know was freshly caught that day.  We played Dominoes and I was encouraged to join in, I even won a couple of games and was getting quite adept at slamming down the tiles.

Banana Boat At Kingstown

Banana Boat At Kingstown