Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Shifting Sands Threaten Caribbean Coasts

It's a fact of nature: As sure as the sea crashes onto the beach and then drags slowly away, the sands of the Caribbean are altered every minute of the day. It's a fact of economics: The countries and territories of the Caribbean depend on their beaches for important sources of income, mainly from tourism. Since the mid-1980s, the Coast and Beach Stability in the Caribbean project (COSALC) has been working with government officials in the Caribbean to help them maintain the economic value of their nations' beaches even as the sands shift beneath their feet. After a strong emphasis on science and training, COSALC now plans to focus on education and influencing attitudes.

Illustration by Allan Nez ("Nano")

COSALC is a joint project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the University of Puerto Rico's Sea Grant College Program. The project assists island nations to minimize beach erosion, reduce storm impacts, and respond to rising sea levels. While nature can severely alter shorelines, the biggest threat to Caribbean beaches is human development, according to COSALC coordinator Gillian Cambers.

"We know that beaches are not static, but this was seldom taken into account as coastlines in the Caribbean were developed for tourism during the past few decades," she explains. "If you spend a little bit extra and do development the right way, you can have beaches plus economic growth."

A simple but needed change, she suggests, is to stop building hotels directly on the beach. She says that while technicians with government agencies and conservation groups understand the need to manage beach development, "many politicians believe that too many regulations about where hotels can and cannot be built may frighten off developers."

To broadcast the message that beaches must be managed, COSALC is providing equipment and training to environmental and media agencies in Anguilla, St. Lucia, and Granada, so that they can produce short video clips about the coastal environment. "To change attitudes and actions, we need to reach the people who vote," Cambers says.

To reach future voters, COSALC is working with the Caribbean Sea Project, a UNESCO education initiative, on a new campaign called "Sandwatch." Sandra Gift, sub-regional coordinator for the UNESCO-Associated Schools Project Network, says the idea for Sandwatch came from youngsters who attended a Caribbean Sea Project workshop in Tobago in 1998. "After talking to one another," she explains, "they realized that their descriptions of the sand on their beaches at home were all very different. So they decided they wanted to learn more about sand."

In October, the Sandwatch initiative will bring teachers from Caribbean islands, along with Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Guyanas, to the island of St. Lucia. Teachers will receive training in beach monitoring activities that they can share with other teachers in their respective nations, and then demonstrate to children in participating schools. Students will monitor pollution and beach erosion for one year, analyze their data, and share the results with schoolchildren in other nations. Gift notes that an important element of the campaign is to encourage students to work with local communities to solve the beach management problems they identify.


Gillian Cambers
Univ of Puerto Rico
P.O. Box 9011
PR 00681-9011
Tel: 787/832-3585
Fax: 787/265-2880
  Sandra Gift
P.O. Box 812
Trinidad and Tobago
Tel: 809/622-0091
Fax: 809/628-4827


From the May-June 2000 issue of Eco-Exchange, a publication of the Rainforest Alliance.

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