Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 5

   Where are we?

Here we stand, on islands and mainlands of the blue Caribbean Sea; Caribbean people, struggling as we seek to explore and to live out, the truest meaning of our independence. With joy and dread we seek to write our own narrative. But will it have a happy ending?

We are worried, because, looking over our shoulders, we are glimpsing the phantoms of our past - not just slavery or indentureship (those harassing spirits are forces to which we have grown accustomed). No, the terrors today, are more ghoulish and disguised.

The Baths, Virgin Gorda, 
British Virgin Islands

We are poor – or so we think, and so we are eager to make alliances with the rich. But we buy projects for energy only to find we have befouled our land with toxic wastes. We are tormented by the fear of hunger and some of us already are starving, so with eager, humble hands we buy foreign technology to re-school ourselves in the planting and reaping and storing of things. We seek security from famine; but the very agents of progress cause our demise.

We drench our fertile furrows with needless pesticides and when the rains come, death courses downstream as rivers carry the heavy burden of the pesticides to the sea, down to the bays where we used to scamper and fish. And life in our waters dies.

As the rains pummel our hillsides, another murky phantom rises and rushes to the ocean. We stripped the hills of innocence, tore off their trees of virgin green, laughed, proud of our technology that we thrust and drove, down into the timid soil. Now, the mountains are sighing, disbanding, stumbling down, down to the sea. There, the ravished soils murder the reefs, sitting astride soft corals and strangling them…And the seas mourn.

 Catching a future vision from our             past

All of us who live in the Wider Caribbean have inherited a mixed legacy from the past. Our lands were first homes to indigenous peoples, but to these shores many others have come.

Beyond all our dreaming, is a time we have only heard of – 50,000 years ago, when an Ice Age advanced as all the earth grew colder. Sea level dropped as waters froze, exposing bridges that linked lands once totally separated by oceans. Asiatic wanderers to the north, made their way across the Bering Strait, fanning out like a river at its delta, to live far and wide across the continents of North and South America and the land mass of Central America, that lay between.

Around about 2000 B.C., some of their descendants, set out from the mouth of the Orinico River in the place we now call Venezuela, to see what lay beyond. They paddled in their mighty, sea-going canoes till they reached nearby Trinidad, Tobago, and the more easterly Barbados. As the years went by, some of the them travelled north through the archipelago reaching as far as Cuba and Hispaniola and the islands of the Bahama chain.

Amongst these peoples were the now almost forgotten Taino – “the good people” as their collective name meant. Gentle and spiritual by nature the people of this tribe were the ones who first met the explorer Columbus and his able bodied seamen. The impact of that meeting set loose a short-lived history of misery, disease and dying. In mere decades, these once numerous people all but disappeared. Smatterings of their civilization remain. In the excavated middens along the coasts and interiors of many islands, fragments of pottery turn up, or pieces of petroglyphs, buried basket work and the bones of fish of long forgotten dinners. While indigenous peoples have disappeared as distinct groups in most island nations, strong populations occupy many countries bordering the Caribbean. These include the Maya of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, the Morquito Indians of Honduras and Nicaragua, the Kuna of Panama, to mention but a few of the numerous indigenous peoples that continue to occupy their homelands throughout the Wider Caribbean.

Today, we who live here, bordering this blue Caribbean Sea, strive, in a way to find some link to reunite us with the people of the past, to make a home for our true selves within the landscape that sustains us, beside the blue Caribbean Sea that still encircles. Our legacy is a mixture of triumph and pain as the blood of coloniser, slave and labourer runs together in so many of us. For some, the Spanish “conquistadores” were once their masters, for others, French “colonisateurs”, for others the Dutch or Danes or British. Today, we strive to find a unity that will embrace all of us.

In the 1950s, when several Caribbean territories sought to gain political independence from the ruling colonial power of Britain, there was much enthusiastic discussion about a West Indian Federation. A flag was designed, a capital appointed and Caribbean leaders contested to see who would be the region’s new Prime Minister. Even an anthem with lyrics and music was written!

   Seeing the many as one

The Federation was short lived and the regional anthem became instead a national anthem for Trinidad and Tobago; but tucked away in its music is a phrase that still calls to mind the truer, lasting statement of our shared heritage:

“…Side by side we stand,  
Islands of the blue Caribbean Sea…”

Our neighbours who inhabit much larger mainland areas, have this in common with the islands: we all indeed are touched, by the blue Caribbean Sea. In our world, it is our ocean. The Caribbean Sea has the potential for being a mighty symbol of our possible unity, as the late Tobagonian poet E.M. Roach describes:

 “……… So from my private hillock
In Atlantic I join cry:
Come, seine the archipelago;
Disdain the sea; gather the islands’ hills
Into the blue horizons of our love.”  

Click to see a more detailed 
map of the Caribbean region
   Beyond our blue waters...

The Caribbean Sea, is at once unique but also a vital part of a far larger whole. All oceans of the earth are connected, even while they exist in such different states of temperature, turbulence and salinity.

Geologists—scientists who study the records of the earth’s ancient history from the story told in rocks and other landforms—now believe that 200 million years ago all the land on the planet was joined, forming a region referred to as Pangaea and all the seas were one.

   Fiery earth currents

Before the existence of that ancient sea and land, they speculate that the planet had its origins in violent and explosive movements of rocks, water and matter. But the powerful underground currents that fuelled such majestic beginnings have not ended. Within the 20th century most scientists have come to believe that convectional currents driving molten material still operate within the core of the earth.

   Forged by fire, water, wind

Scientists now understand that the crust of the earth itself comprises a series of plates which are in motion, propelled from earth’s core by fierce inner forces of pressure and fiery heat. Where plates are in contact with each other any number of activities may be the outcome, most spectacularly earthquakes and volcanoes as regularly recorded in the history of the Caribbean. There can also be mountain building as seen at Trinidad’s Northern Range and Tobago’s Main Ridge. The formation of rift valleys occurs where plates move apart. It is this type of activity that formed and still shapes the Great African Rift Valley. This land formation extends from the Red Sea to Mozambique and is a distinctive feature that can actually be seen from the moon. It includes a chain of huge lakes and beautiful waterfalls which run through Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Perhaps less known, but equally eye - catching are the resplendent Kaiteur Falls of Guyana and dazzling Angel Falls in Venezuela. They are amongst many other features of the South American continent that have been sculpted into places of breath – taking beauty, by the deep movements of the earth. At sea, where converging movement in the earth’s crust takes place, deep-sea trenches are formed. The Puerto Rican trench and the Aleutian Trench are two examples of deep ocean trenches.

The location of the earths tectonic plates

 It is thought that the main archipelago of Caribbean islands formed along the area where the American Plate is being subducted beneath the thicker Caribbean Plate. Earthquakes have been common through recorded history, caused as plate material was submerged, heated and melted and then pushed violently upwards to burst out initially as submarine volcanoes then later emergent islands. “Kick’em Jenny”, a submarine volcano, north of Sauteurs, Grenada, provides an actual exciting example for oceanographers and seismologists, who note that its growth towards the water’s surface is occurring far more rapidly than their computer models had predicted.

Islands such as Nevis display starkly the shape of a typical volcanic island, with its accompanying features such as naturally occurring hot springs. The large, rugged island of Dominica, is thought to be made up of a convergence of several volcanic islands. Barbados, on the easternmost edge of the Caribbean Plate is too far away to show signs of volcanic action impelled by subduction but its outer edge is being raised as the American Plate pushes under it. The uniquely rugged features of the Scotland District in north-east Barbados, bear testimony to a geological history where sedimentary rocks were folded and compressed by the tectonic action, and raised, bearing more recent growths of coral reefs upon them. Tobago too, has an interesting geological history showing signs of landforms that have been shaped by ancient forces of heat and pressure, to form metamorphic rocks on which later coral grew. There is some speculation that there may have been an earlier period in geological history when subduction of the Caribbean Plate occurred, giving rise to another underwater ridge and an inner arc of smaller islands to those we know today.

Between plates there can also be movements of divergence. This is most evident at the mid-Atlantic Ocean Ridge where the African Plate to the south and the Eurasian Plate to the North diverge from their neighbouring South and North American Plates, laying down a continuously expanding ocean floor. Transform boundaries occur where plates are sliding past each other, as at the well known San Andreas fault most active in California, where earthquakes are regularly felt and often with great severity. The southern edge of the Caribbean Plate is thought to be a transform boundary, but with much less recent activity than the San Andreas and with an inconclusive identification of its position.

Violent earthquakes in nearby South America proclaim the powerful forces at work, still sculpting the earth, even while at the surface, new patterns of wind and rain begin to leave their markings. Islands like Trinidad and Tobago have a long history of earthquakes while volcanic activity has been evident in several islands. There is the historic eruption of Mont Pelée in Martinique in 1902 and in our times grumblings and spewings from Soufrière in St. Vincent, mud volcanoes in Trinidad and most spectacularly Soufrière in Montserrat which disrupted the way of life of the entire island in 1995.  

   From the sweltering latitudes

While molten magma churns below the earth’s crust, within the wide oceans and also up above them, another harmony of movement takes place. And the earth itself, is revolving.

Global wind systems  

Circled by the moon while orbiting the sun, earth turns on its axis at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. The earth rotates, setting the oceans in motion, their waters swirling clockwise, north of the equator and anti-clockwise to the south. The sun’s rays are nearest and most direct at the equator but at the north and south poles they reach the earth obliquely. This makes the oceans close to the equator heat up fastest, causing air above them to rise and move outwards, to the north and south. Global wind belts are in this way generated. These winds that blow around the world, set in motion by the ocean’s temperatures, are named for the directions from which they blow.

The cool prevailing winds that fan the Caribbean are known as the Northeast Trades. It was these winds that propelled the sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Sailors of centuries past made their way to trade here -– whether in food or animals or human cargo!

“The Trade winds blow over emerald seas
And the sun splashes white on the wall
Where the red poinsettia blazes and blows
And the dust flies up where the red road goes
And the cheerful keskidee calls…”

Caribbean Christmas carol.
Jennifer Mitchell Als.

"Wind goes rippling the face of the 

As the sun shines and the winds blow and the climates of earth’s regions change subtly, warm and cold currents mix the waters of the planet’s mighty oceans. Within these oceans a multitude of interchanges is constantly occurring.

Bands of warm water move westerly from the coast of Africa, through the Atlantic towards the Caribbean. The Canary Current off North-West Africa meets the major system of the North Equatorial Current flowing westwards to the Caribbean. Within the Caribbean Sea, the Equatorial Current flows westward through the Yucatan Channel, where it becomes the Florida Current, which carries water into the strong northerly moving Gulf Stream.

The flowing of this warm Gulf Stream to the colder northern climes has a profound effect on climate, as do all the currents of the ocean. Seasonal weather patterns as well as climatic abnormalities like “El Niño” are all precisely linked to the activities of winds, currents and the ocean. Behind all these though, more than 93 million miles away, powering the whole circuit, is the sun.

At much deeper ocean levels, currents and crosscurrents are constantly interacting though undetectable at the surface. Cold water at the Poles sinks and is replaced by the inflow of warmer surface water that comes from equatorial regions. Moving deep down within the oceans, this colder, denser water starts currents that move away from the Poles. Beginning in both the Arctic and Antarctic, the waters head towards the equator and continue past it. From the warm equatorial regions they then flow to opposite Poles, forever circling on what has been called a conveyor belt system. The voyage of one water molecule to circumnavigate the globe, may actually take centuries.


Sargassum fish disguised
in Sargasso weed

Author Jean Rhys, sailed from her home in Dominica, catching the Gulf Stream, to cross the Atlantic and settle in England; but always she remembered, with nostalgia, the beauty of her true home. She immortalised the unique North Atlantic Ocean region that circles slowly in a mesmerising calm, off this Gulf Stream Current, in her book, The Wide Sargasso Sea.  

When there’s trouble in the wind...  
   Strange weather - stranger names

In a world where news travels faster than weather and network television spans continents and oceans with live coverage of top news events, it’s easy to lose a sense of history. None of us may ever find out why the strange phenomenon over land and ocean was first named by Peruvian fishermen, “El Niño”, the Spanish term for the Infant Jesus - the Christ Child. Perhaps it was because it was Christmas time when they first noted the radical reduction of their anchovy catch and, instead of dry cold weather, experienced unseasonal rains and untimely floods. El Niño has simply become the term that the world now knows for this not fully understood way the weather works. The local events first seen by Latin American fishermen, at least are being understood as having implications for the entire planet. In addition, a related weather pattern has now been called La Niña.

In normal years, Trade Winds blowing off South America, move east to west, pushing the warm surface waters towards Australia and Indonesia. The winds gather moisture by the time they near the land areas of Indonesia and Australia. Heavy with water vapour, they condense, bringing welcome rain to these dry areas. As this rain is falling, bringing life to dry lands, a cold Antarctic current heads north reaching to the ocean surface, just west off South America. Deep-sea nutrients and living creatures are funneled to the surface like some upturned underwater cornucopia. The food chain of the sea is reinvigorated, bringing life to all the dwellers of the ocean and joy to Peruvian fishermen, who harvest their giant catches of anchovies.

In El Niño years, the pattern is reversed. Unbidden, the pattern changes and winds blow west to east. Australia and Indonesia, without the advent of the rains, experience severe drought. Even the moist rain forests grow tinder dry, sometimes spontaneously igniting and in no time raging into deadly, uncontrolled fires. Indonesia’s entire population suffered in 1998 as forests were torched and residents battled against the advance of smoke and lived for months beneath smoggy skies. North-eastern Australia also fought with forest fires that raged out of control.

The winds that blow east instead of west also gather moisture over the water and then, bring unseasonal torrential rainfall and dangerous storms along South America’s Pacific coast. Scientists already speculate that rising surface water temperatures, in the planetary framework of global warming, may be correlated to this reversal. And just as in normal years Antarctic currents bring benefits to coastal waters off western South America; with troubling reciprocity, a strange phenomenon occurs far north, in the Arctic, during El Niño years. Sea and land temperatures are thought to set off such disturbances in the upper atmosphere that airflow s are radically altered bringing floods to Central Europe and droughts to South Africa.

In the Atlantic basin, the increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the 1990s have been linked to cycles, covering 2-3 decades, when periods of increased hurricane activity are followed by periods of less hurricane activity These cycles are linked to rainfall patterns in West Africa, upper level winds and other factors. Global warming may also influence hurricane frequency and intensity, but insufficient data exist at present to accurately predict such effects.  

Seasonal storms of the Caribbean  

Earlier generations of Caribbean children may well have gone to bed with classical English stories like The Wind in the Willows, echoing through their heads. Yet, both the type of wind and perhaps the willows, would have seemed foreign in our Caribbean landscape. So while anyone can enjoy a good story, it has also been a step in the right direction, as many Caribbean writers have been writing novels with Caribbean weather and climate – and even disasters – as part of their stories’ natural landscapes.

The Caribbean Sea, close as it lies to the equator and almost directly beneath the sun, becomes exceedingly hot by the middle of the year. As barometric pressure falls, and temperatures rise and a stillness settles over the sea, inhabitants of this region know to be on guard for hurricanes.

Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey, who lived for a time in England, evoked the ocean-influenced weather of his Caribbean home. One of his unforgettable children’s stories is called Hurricane. Caribbean children know the vital refrain as they see the coming of the “hurricane months”: June too soon; July stand by; August come it must; September remember; October all over. Though not necessarily meaning to teach the technicalities of plate tectonic theory, Andrew Salkey also created a sense of excitement and adventure in a companion novel, Earthquake.

Celestial bodies and the swirling  

While catastrophic events have happened throughout Caribbean history, especially in the forms of hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes; at the cosmic level, a daily drama happens, heeded perhaps only by fishermen and meteorologists. This is the turning of the tides. Linked inextricably to the relative positions of earth, sun and moon, the waters of the entire planet, are continually in motion. Depending on the position of the moon, these diurnal ranges of water are either strong or weak. The resulting effects are called spring tides and neap tides. Spring tides are in effect at full moon and at new moon when the moon, earth and sun are in alignment. Neap tides are experienced during quarter moon phases when the moon is at right angles to the sun and earth and gravitational forces are not as strong, so tidal variations are lessened.

Scientists have discovered that the surface of the earth also swings and bulges, as gravitational pulls are exerted by the moon and sun as the earth spins on its axis through space. Thus, not just the waters bulge with the changing of the tides, but the earth’s crust itself, but by gradations, which are far smaller than the unaided human eye, could see.  

Boiling seas and angry mountains

Giant waves set off by earthquakes, underwater landslides or volcanic eruptions on the ocean floor are called tsunamis. These monstrous waves can roar across the oceans in a very short time, rushing catastrophe. Some people fear such outcomes from the ongoing volcanic upheavals associated with Soufrière in Montserrat.

The waters between Grenada and Carriacou are always choppy due to the effects of an active underwater volcano called “Kick ‘em Jenny”. Oceanographers have been amazed at how quickly its underwater volcanic cone has been growing, due to continuing eruptions. They expect a new island to break the surface of this part of the Caribbean Sea. With the rumblings of the watery volcano and the boiling up of the waters, seagoers in this part of the Caribbean know to always expect a rough crossing.

Solitary stroller, 
where the sea meets the land

Madman’s dream or people’s folly?  
   Preventing a tsunami disaster

In 1997 readers of a Barbados daily newspaper read with astonishment the printed predictions of imminent disaster that one local resident said he had seen. He was speaking futuristically, of course, and the explanation for this unusual doom-saying was shrouded in mystery – it had been revealed to him, he claimed by spiritual means. Whatever the skeptics and detractors said, the man had already put his personal plan of salvation into practice and relocated far inland in a Central American country. The vision he said that he had received spelled out the devastation of most of the Barbados shoreline by a ferocious giant wall of sea water. He implored his readers, passionately, to leave living on the coasts and head inland for higher ground – expectant of the peril soon to come.

The panicky prediction is not as far fetched as one might believe. A 500 year history of the Caribbean, details 88 tsunamis that have occurred here since 1498, just about the time of the last expedition of Christopher Columbus. The report makes for grisly reading for as many as 9,600 deaths have been recorded, related to tsunamigenic earthquakes and tsunamis combined. Just in the last century and a half, close to 2,000 deaths have been firmly linked to the inrushing over land, of giant waves of sea water generated by deep movements in the earth’s crust.

There have been teletsunamis, tsunamis originating far away from where they strike, like the one after the great earthquake of Lisbon, Portugal, in 1761 which caused “an extraordinary flux and reflux of the sea at Barbados”, several thousands of trans-Atlantic miles away.

Tectonic tsunamis are related to earth movements closer to where the sea is disturbed. In the year 1766, two such movements were recorded. On June 11, at Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo, Cuba, an earthquake hit, lasting up to seven minutes, in some places. In neighbouring Jamaica, there was a report that ships “7.2 km from the coast of Jamaica rolled so much that their gunwales were immersed in water”. Mere months later in October that year, violent shocks at Cumana, Venezuela levelled the land while to the consternation of onlookers the entire island of Orinoco sank and disappeared. The waters were greatly disturbed.

Out at sea, tsunamis cause little disturbance to the surface of the sea because of the depth of the ocean. Only as the waters shallow and the waves approach land do they become dangerous. In these shallow nearshore waters, when tsunamis strike, not even a ship provides safety. These seismically generated waves are even more damaging than the normal hurricane surge, which itself wreaks great havoc. In October 1780 at Savannah La Mar, Jamaica, a hurricane and tsunami occurred and these effects were recorded:  

The sea rose to 3 metres at 0.8 kilometres from the beach and swept away a number of houses. Ten people were killed by the wave and many more by the storm. All vessels in the bay were dashed to pieces or driven ashore.  

In 1868, Harper’s Weekly carried the historic painting of the Royal Mail Steamer La Plata that had been anchored 4 km off Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S.Virgin Islands when a large tsunami struck. A massive earthquake originating between St. Croix and St. Thomas in the Anegada trough, generated several great sea waves that were witnessed from Puerto Rico in the northern Caribbean all the way south through the eastern Caribbean to Grenada. They were thought to possibly have affected the northern shores of South America, but no reports were received from there. The wave, 4.5 to 6 metres high, rushed in, after the initial retreat which was estimated at about 100 metres, at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Houses and people were swept away, areas far inland were inundated, boats were swamped and seamen drowned. This tsunami may have been generated by an underwater landslide.

Some tsunamis have volcanic origins. On a global scale, the most devastating tsunami linked to volcanic activity was associated with the eruption of Krakatoa, Indonesia, in August of 1883. 30,000 people were injured and the ripple effect of air waves resulting from the blast were felt in harbours as widespread as Hawaii, California, Alaska, South Sandwich Islands, Britain, Japan and Australia.

During the volcanic eruption of 1902 in Martinique, Heilprin reports:  

...the devastating eruption of Mont Pelée, which sent a nuée ardente in St. Pierre, killing approximately 3,000 inhabitants. It caused fires on the ships in the harbour and hit some of them, overturning them...ship captains remarked about a material change in the course of currents sweeping along the west and north coasts of Martinique.  

Many Caribbean areas have been hit by tsunamis throughout the centuries with the strongest effects recorded in places including Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Grenada as well as parts of Central and South America. But it has been a long time since one has occurred and the greater the interval of time, the surer the likelihood of occurrence and the greater the devastation will be if we remain unprepared. Caribbean populations have multiplied from 3 to 30 million, since the great Virgin Islands tsunami of 1867.

Today a tsunami has the potential for devastation to life and property greater than that of all that was lost in hurricanes in the past 100 years. Based on previous history, a tsunami disaster will occur in the Caribbean. The Caribbean region is one of the last places with a documented history of tsunami disasters without a mitigation plan.  


Experiment with oral traditions: listen to people’s stories.

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