Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 5

   Who are we?

B y these shores I was born; sound of the sea came in at my window, life heaved and breathed in me then with the strength of the turbulent soil…

Edward Brathwaite, “South”

A nd I am an orphaned islander,
on a sandspit of memory
in a winter of bays.
I have no home

Wayne Brown, “On the Coast”

I was salt water, washing all alien shores,
Citizen of the world, calling no land home,
Creature of flux and change…
… No tides compel into this inland sea,
Out of my life, out of this land shall grow
Fruit strong with the salt’s sharp bitterness,
Rose warm with the sun’s red glow,
Song for eternity
Song for a synthesis…

G.A. Hamilton, “I was Salt”

P orque el siniestro día el mar termina un día,
ya la mano nocturna corta uno a uno sus dedos
hasta no ser, hasta que el hombre nace
y el capitán descubre dentro de si el acero
ya la América sube su burbuja
y la costa levanta su pálido arrecife
sucio de aurora, turbio de nacimento
hasta que de la nave sale un grito y se ahoga
y otro grito y el alba que nace de la espuma.

Pablo Neruda, “Llega al Pacífico”, Los Conquistadores, Canto General, Losada  

D ecember I, without water, fuel and food, we were pointing our bow on a straight course toward Cuba, desperately seeking the lighthouse of Cabo Cruz. At two in the morning, on a dark and tempestuous night, the situation was worrisome. The watches moved about, looking for the beam of light which did not appear on the horizon…

Che Guevara, Reminisces of the Cuban Revolutionary War, Translated by Victoria Ortiz

T here are no borderlines on the sea. The whole thing looks like one. I cannot even tell if we are about to drop off the face of the earth. Maybe the world is flat and we are going to find out, like the navigators of old. As you know, I am not very religious. Still I pray every night that we won’t be hit by a storm. When I do manage to sleep, I dream that the winds come out of the sky and claim us for the sea. We go under and no one hears from us again.

Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak!  

K rik? Krak! Somewhere by the seacoast I feel a breath of warm sea air and hear the laughter of children
An old granny smokes her pipe, Surrounded by the village children….
We tell them stories so that the young ones will know what came before them.
They ask Krik? We say Krak!
Our stories are kept in our hearts.

Sal Scalora “White Darkness/Black Dreamings” Haiti: Feeding the Spirit

I watch the landscape of this island…. And you know that they could never hold people here surrendered to unfreedom. The sky, the sea, every green leaf and tangle of vines sing freedom…

Earl Lovelace, “Salt”

W here are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory?
Sirs, in that gray vault. The sea.
The sea has locked them up.
The sea is history…

Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History”

   Moulded by the sea

Our histories, as Caribbean peoples have been overwhelmingly shaped by the sea; the Caribbean Sea that surrounds us, and wider oceans over which our ancestors came. With any reflection, the sea and oceans can never just be biological or geological entities; for our lives and our fates have been intrinsically bound to them. Our artists have always understood this, capturing the symbolism of the sea in their paintings, poems and songs. All those who settle here, are sooner or later struck by the sea’s significance – from painters who etched the horrors of slave ships and dying slaves cast overboard in the Middle Passage , to the night club singers, who in warmer tones, evoke for tourists, romantic images of sea swept islands:


“Oh island in the sun
willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
of your forests, waters and shining sands…”

   Those who came over the seas

Indigenous peoples from mainland America, rode on waves in their canoes to the Antillean islands. Columbus sailed over wide unknown waters and found a New World. European settlers followed in sailing ships. Some, by way of Africa, traveled with cargoes of enslaved Africans in all the wretchedness of that long voyage. Later, indentured labourers, were brought with artifacts of their heritage , along with their hopes, all the way from their homes on the Indian sub-continent. And so too have come other workers and settlers: French, Spanish, Scottish, Irish, Danes, and Portuguese; later Chinese, Jews and Arabs. In colonial times, the Dutch and other European nations plied the waters of the Caribbean, securing a lucrative trade, while buccaneers, pirates and privateers ravished another kind of living on the high seas.

One notorious schemer is remembered in a folksong:  

  “On a little island, lived a buccaneer
Sam Lord was his name
He sunk many vessels laden down with treasure
Coming from the Spanish Main  
…He used to hang the lanterns in the coconut trees
To lure the ships up on the reefs
And when the sailors thought they’d sighted town
Alas! they ran aground…”  
   Stories in stone
Archway to ammunition, Cabrits, Dominica  

Memoirs to those days are also written along the coasts of almost every Caribbean island: fortifications which changed hands between the French, Dutch, Spanish and English. Dark dungeons tell silently the tale of incarceration while weathered buckshot and cannon and rusty rifles bespeak the weapons of war from a different era. Many crucial battles were fought and lost at sea. Sites of such battles are stately Shirley Heights in Antigua and the beautiful Cabrits in Dominica, majestic Fort San Felipe in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic – now a World Heritage Site – and picturesque Fort King George above the town of Scarborough, Tobago. In all of these the weapons still point seaward, for this was the direction whence the troubles came.

People who taught the world to sing

Because the sea is part of our history it is also in our songs – work songs and songs of adventure. These songs reflect how the sea has featured in all our enterprises. For decades now, people from India to England, Africa and back to the Caribbean, have swayed and sung to the sweet lilting music of the Jamaican born Harry Bellafonte:

“Day-oh, day-oh
Daylight come and me wan’ go home..
Come Mr. Tally man tally me banana –  
Daylight come and me wan’ go home…”  

This was another telling of the work and industry transacted beside the Caribbean Sea: the loading of banana boats by tired labourers, whose produce headed over the Atlantic to England. Over the years, the significance of such activities has grown more acute, as farmers in small islands have climbed even hillsides with dangerously steep gradients, to cultivate bananas on any and every type of land. The effects of soil erosion and the over-use of fertilisers and pesticides that make their way into ground water, rivers and finally to the sea, devastate reefs in nearshore areas.

Most recently, with changes in external trade arrangements, that have threatened old patterns of survival through banana cultivation, thousands of Caribbean banana cultivators have felt great anxiety and alarm. Maestro David Rudder, has made a people’s anguish into a lyrical lament:

“The West Indian girl start to cry           
Banana dead, banana dead, banana
The future dread, the future dread for banana…dead banana”  
           “The Banana Death Song”, from The Beloved, by David Rudder
Coral reefs on the outer edges of our islands 
and coastal mainland areas feel the effects of 
damage done far inland 

Watchers for whales and jumping       fish

Shared labour: a seine pulled at Englishman’s 
Bay, Tobago  

Other livelihoods have been made by the sea, such as whaling in Bequia and even in Barbados, where remnants of whaling stations can still be seen. Fishing has been synonymous with the Caribbean islands and the coastal regions of South and Central America. Traditionally fishing has been done in many ways: whether by the communally pulled seine, the beautiful circular cast net or the slender bamboo fishing rods seen in many places such as Grand Courland Bay, Tobago. These are the implements of the artisanal fisherman.

Island designs

Each place has its particular style of boat whether for fishing or transportation. In St. Lucia, great ceremony still attends the felling of the giant gommier tree of the forest for the making of the traditional fisherman’s canoe. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, re-creates the careful process of selecting the tree, cutting it and dressing the wood, in the opening pages of Omeros .

Artisanal fisherman with traditional St. Lucian canoe  

Survivors on scattered shores

Wherever islands are in close proximity to each other, a brisk seaborne trade and transportation system evolves. In the Grenadines, the regular passage of the “Mail Boat” brings all kinds of supplies to tiny islands like Union and Canouan: from heavily laden trucks and construction equipment to cases of soft drinks and every variety of household supplies and foodstuffs. Boats like these may be motor vessels, like the Snapper . Others are schooners, still using sails to help their small engines, like the Alexia II that plies between Grenada and Carriacou.

On these vessels of all varieties, with their seasoned crews, are informal traders – often women – known as higglers in some places. Their items for trade may range from home-made chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg, to clothing, food and sometimes smuggled whisky. Ferries that ply the waters of the northern Caribbean from Anguilla to St. Martin or between the many islands of the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, also carry many people and goods.

Lovers of winds and sails

Anguilla boat racing  

The sea also shapes lives by fun and pleasure. Many islanders enjoy the excitement and thrill of annual boat races. In Anguilla, agile crews race around the 35 square mile island (named by the French for its shape like an eel). They lean into the wind and toss heavy irons about their pitching vessels. With billowing mainsails, they compete to see who will be victorious.

In Antigua, boat racing has become a luxurious hobby with international competitors who seem almost to fly above the waves in the annual powerboat race. Trinidad and Tobago too, has its annual powerboat racing competition known as “The Great Race”. It begins in Trinidad and ends in Tobago.

Merriment and music

The lives of seagoers are perhaps best captured in all their raw humanity, vigour and camaraderie in the cultural traditions that have evolved beside the sea. What might be called a Caribbean Sea shanty, “Sloop John B” was made popular by the Barbadian group The Merrymen. Its catchy rhythm and sweet melody evoke the longing that is common to all people who spend most of their time in foreign ports and out at sea:


“So h’ist up de jumbie sail           
see how de main sail set
tell the Captain ashore I wan’ to go home
I wan’ to go home… I wan’ to go home
Oh lord, a feel so broken up
I just wan’ to go home!”  

Such folksongs are also sung to visitors to our shores .

Hosts to the world

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Throughout the Wider Caribbean, white sand beaches , aquamarine waters, coral reefs and inland rivers and forests with their wide array of wildlife, have become major tourist attractions. However, many negative environmental impacts can be associated with tourism ventures. Destruction of coral reefs and other habitats , coastal water pollution and sand mining , are just a few of these. Our challenge is to market these resources for our own human economic development, while carefully controlling tourism’s effects on them.

Oil that troubles our waters

Looming on our waters are also giant oil tankers, carrying cargoes worth millions through our vulnerable seas. Their cargoes could threaten the fragile ecosystems of our entire archipelago and continental coastlines. In St. Lucia, one oil company schedules regular visits of huge tankers. The industrial activity that the refinery creates here, must be weighed against the fearful possibility of a major oil pollution disaster that could cripple the island’s tourism industry.

Venezuela and Trinidad both have their own lucrative oil reserves on land and at sea. Foreign investors whose shares may greatly influence the rise and fall of the world stock markets, are deeply involved in these countries’ economies. Inevitably, with oil and gas explorations, the day to day activities at drilling sites and refineries, and ships cleaning their tanks at sea, the problem of chronic pollution surfaces at sea, along the shores , on land and in rivers.

Outclassed competitors

In our waters, foreign interests other than oil companies, seek to net their profits. In all the oceans of the world, fishing can now be done by highly equipped crews and vessels, and the Caribbean is no exception. Satellite monitoring can identify where schooling fish are to be found, while other boats have sonar detectors. Some ships are equipped as floating seafood processing plants, capable of harvesting anything from giant whales to thousands of sardines. Whales are now protected by an international moratorium on commercial whaling. Deep-sea fish are hooked by the hundreds, using long lining techniques. Fine meshed, nearly invisible drift nets have been depleting fish stocks, trapping myriad more creatures than commercial fish. Juvenile fish, turtles and marine mammals are also killed. Drifting fragments of these nets continue to kill. Trawlers’ gear drags along the sea floor disturbing and destroying many forms of sea life, while harvesting fish. In these nets turtles and dolphins also drown. All of these techniques may be used in the Caribbean, often illegally by foreign fleets.  
Driftnet fishing  
Caribbean fishermen are obtaining bigger boats with more sophisticated equipment and attempting to reduce fishing net mesh sizes. Growing numbers of fishermen compete for dwindling resources. Some use dynamite illegally, destroying numerous fish of all sizes and ages in an attempt to harvest those that are commercially valuable. Competition comes from foreign fishing vessels. Pollution originating from the land also leads to the reduction of fish habitat and therefore declining fish stocks. The seas, once the domain of the solitary fisherman must now be shared by a multitude of users. In a quest for food and ultimately survival, there is a growing need for a communal approach for the use and management of living and non-living resources of the seas.  

Users of the shifting shore: caring        for what we enjoy

Tourists’treasure? The beautiful 
Caribbean queen conch, 
reaped for its meat as well as 
its ornamental shell, has been 
harvested to near extinction off
 many Caribbean islands  

As constant as the coming and going of waves along the shore are the changes that occur where land and ocean meet. The process never stops. Sand or rocks or rubble as well as pieces of organic material – seashells, moss or weed and even sea creatures are continuously being added to the beach (accretion ) or being taken away (erosion ).

Beachs themselves also differ. There are the idyllic tropical beaches that tourists dream of, strewn with glistening white sands like Jamaica’s famous sandy stretches at Negril or Grenada’s wide and beautiful Grand Anse. Others may be rocky: St. Martin’s Bay, Barbados, is littered with wave-rounded cobbles that hiss and pop, each time the waters roll up and back. Some shorelines are swampy – beaches in the making – like much of Trinidad’s Gulf of Paria coast, typified by the murky waters and mangrove-lined shorelines of the Caroni Swamp .

There is no permanent stability at the shore . Even coral limestone cliffs that appear to be resistant are gouged at their bases with the pounding of majestic high waves. The unique formations of Barbados’ Atlantic seacoast, well loved at Bathsheba, give testimony to the strength of insistent prevailing breeze and wind-whipped waters.

The shoreline is such a place of unexpected change and flux, that if it is not carefully and consistently managed, it is easy to make spontaneous changes that will disrupt the centuries old cycles that are as delicately balanced as the most intricate mobile. Not all changes happen overnight, though when hurricanes hit, an entire beach may disappear, even if just temporarily, within a day. But even then, imperceptible events may also take place offshore and out at sea, the effects of which may only impact the shore the year after.  

Caribbean shorelines are witness to many a clash of rival users who seek to make a living there or to secure a lasting place of refreshment or of solitude. The hotel developer’s dreams are far different to the contemplative’s or the fisherman’s. Drying fishing nets may be an eyesore to idealistic tourists more bent on securing wind surfing gear and sun tan lotion. People who live permanently on these islands, traditionally have used the beach for recreation and pleasure: a game of “wind ball” cricket, sea bathing, harvesting of seaside molluscs like chitons (called sea beefs or pacra , in some islands) or shell fish like “chip chip” that have washed up along the shore . Michael Anthony, Trinidadian novelist and historian, records these traditions from his childhood at Mayaro on Trinidad’s east coast in his book, The Chip-chip Gatherers .

Modernisation is impacting these shorelines in swift and destructive ways. Not only are the old ways being lost, but uses of these shores , which never occurred before are being implemented, sometimes even to the exclusion of local residents. The change from construction of buildings mostly from wood to steel and concrete demands large inputs of sand , leading to the often illegal sand mining , bringing the inevitable destruction to the beach . Massive, unregulated sand mining was once rampant at Richmond and Goldsborough in Tobago. On the sparsely populated island of Barbuda a large sand mining project for export, is underway. The removal operation for commercial profit irreversibly scars the land. On countless Caribbean beaches, the sheer pressure of numbers of tourists, multiply footsteps on fragile dunes , destroying the natural vegetation and diminishing the natural protective function of the dune. In a haphazard scramble to save sand from drifting from beaches a patchwork of protective actions to try to save coastal properties are undertaken; permanent beach structures are introduced. Ignorant of the ways of wind and water and the natural processes that shape the beach, much damage has been occurring, for there has been much unwise building on the sand.

The vertical “cliffs” of sand and the exposed plant roots 
testify to the dune erosion caused by a hurricane  

Forces that sculpt the beach

Natural processes are constantly at work: tidal currents , wind waves , ocean swells , winter frontal systems moving in from the North Atlantic and seasonal disturbances of tropical storms and hurricanes . There are also global shifts such as El Niño and the worldwide rise in sea level .

Construction of hotels and homes: often in a rush to lay claim to the best beach or the most pleasing vista, a development consortium or private home owner may build as close to the shore as they can. Part of the beach is destroyed by the actual construction while processes of natural accretion and erosion are permanently disrupted, often with disastrous effects. People’s delight in the view, as well as their access to and enjoyment of the beach are often lost.

The building of structures to trap sand to make new beaches or to halt the perceived threat of erosion can lead to new problems. Consulting with professionals who study beach dynamics is needed to help make informed environmental impact assessments , before the building begins. Even structures like jetties, constructed to enhance marine transportation, can have drastic effects on shoreline dynamics.

Sometimes protective measures established to create a new beach or to slow sand loss, spells disaster further down the coast where severe erosion occurs to balance the unnatural accumulation of sand, elsewhere. It may be possible to intervene along the shore , if the implications are studied beforehand and beach management alternatives are investigated.

Beachcomber’s find: bivalves found on a 
Caribbean sea shore

Where coral reefs are damaged, shorelines suffer. Coastal pollution caused by untreated waste from hotels, factories and homes, affects the biological life offshore.

Unsafe forms of fishing, such as the use of bleach and dynamite as well as pressures of over-fishing cause damage to offshore coral reefs which, when healthy, provide a buffer against strong wave action on the shore and thus prevent beach erosion . Healthy coral reefs are also the source of coralline sand , which makes up many of the region’s beaches. So too, the careless activities of boaters who drop anchor on coral reefs or divers who carelessly damage or intentionally remove coral, all affect the reefs’ protective ability.

Left to the careless competition between users of the shore , beaches can become degraded and even eventually disappear. Natural processes have been at work for eons of time and a complex balance exists to provide the beauty and rich diversity we take for granted today. A few sound principles properly applied can help to begin to promote the wiser management of our beaches.

Opportunities for beach erosion can be reduced, short-term destruction stopped and future harmful actions avoided. It is within our power to care for our beaches by wise, advance planning. The future of tourism, the resilience of many of our national economies and the quality of our personal lives will be determined by these choices.

Coastal vegetation helps stabilise sandy shores

If you care about the beach ....        Here’s what you can do

* Be careful to observe

Beaches vary with the seasons and through special occurrences like storms and hurricanes . Any plans to introduce changes should be based on long-term knowledgeable observation of the place. Consultation with people who know the beaches or have made long term scientific observations, is essential. These will include planners, coastal experts and also local residents including fishermen who have lived close to the beach and used the sea for many years.

* Explore engineering options

Many protective measures can help prevent erosion or alternatively, increase sand build up on a beach . None of these should be attempted without careful advice based on scientific as well as local knowledge. Environmental and human impacts should be factored in, before final choices for “solutions” are made.

Choices for beach protection may include the building of seawalls , bulkheads or rock revetments ; the use of groynes can help trap sand while gabions can stave off the impact of erosion . Other “soft” engineering options include beach nourishment (the introduction of sand from elsewhere) and the rehabilitation of sand dunes . However, all engineering options, both “soft” and “hard”, require careful planning and control. And it is far better not to have to resort to such radical and expensive alternatives by siting new developments a safe distance back from the shoreline.

* Consider the environmental alternatives

People can work in many ways to protect and rehabilitate damaged beaches . Sand can be transported back to the beach instead of being used for construction, when blown inland in large quantities by storms or hurricanes . Damaged dunes can be revitalised and rehabilitated by planting appropriate dune vegetation.

Hardy plant varieties include native beach grasses, such as seashore drop seed ( Sporobolus virginicus ) or the common trailing vines known as beach morning-glory ( Ipomoea pes-caprae ). Providing boardwalks, over fragile dune systems, to lead down to the sea, can discourage trampling by beach goers. Good planning advice can also be heeded by siting future construction, far back from the vulnerable shore .

* Most of all - keep community!

Nothing can replace the value of respecting each other and being open to listen and negotiate in difficult situations. The coastal strip of Caribbean islands is all too often the place of fiercely clashing interests and unveiled hostilities: rich vs. poor, traditional users vs. tourism developers or industrialists; worst of all, imagined tourists’ interests vs. those of local residents. A commitment to letting all users of a beach area have a say in major decision making can lead to wise management choices and long term co-operativeness. Fisher, diver, swimmer, boater, hotelier, developer, homeowner, planner and sea-goer, each have a right to be heard and their perspective considered in overall planning for the use and enjoyment of our beaches. How we decide to use them today can ensure that we still have them to use for many a tomorrow. 

A detailed discussion of these problems and the many choices for solutions can be found in UNESCO’s Coastal Management Sourcebook 1: Coping with Beach Erosion ; by Dr. Gillian Cambers; Environment and Development, UNESCO Publishing, 1998.

Friends at the seaside  
Gentle divers of an ancient sea

The late Jacques Cousteau, who brought the world of the ocean into focus, in a way that could be popularly understood through his thousands of filmed undersea journeys, tells an amazing story of the Ama women divers.

For 1500 years in ancient Japan, as well as neighbouring Korea, these women have traditionally dived for pearls. At least 30,000 of their kind remain. Today they mostly dive for food. Wearing only a loincloth, they have begun to wear masks and snorkels within the 20th century. They dive both during the warm summers and the cooler winter months when temperatures can reach 50º F. They plunge to depths of 20 to 80 feet – sometimes 100 – to gather food, in the form of shellfish and seaweed, which they place in a net around their waists. They learn to dive around puberty and do not stop till they are about 60 years old. They are known to dive right up to the point of childbirth and having given birth, resume shortly after, nursing their infants between dives!   

A similar group of women once dived in the wave tossed waters off Tierra del Fuego. They descended completely naked, through waters averaging 42º F to collect clams and crabs for food.  

Pictures of the ocean

The question of who we are, is not just answered in being a people whose histories, pleasures and livelihoods are shaped by the sea. We ourselves are pictures of the ocean, the ocean that in fact covers seventy-one percent of the earth.  

Elisabeth Mann Borgese, youngest daughter of the celebrated author Thomas Mann and Chairman of the International Ocean Institute in Malta, gives a picture of who we all are as humans as well as where we all essentially live our lives. It is a vision that transcends our particular location in the Caribbean. The description is evolutionary in outlook yet filled with a sense of wonder that supercedes the merely biological. In The Drama of the Oceans she writes:  

“Every woman’s womb is a micro-ocean, the salinity of its fluid resembling that of the primeval waters; and every microcosm restages the drama of the origin of life in the gestation of every embryo, from one-celled protozoa through all the phases of gill-breathing and amphibian, to mammalian evolution.

And every human, in turn, is a planet ocean, for 71 percent of his substance consists of salty water, just as 71 percent of the earth is covered by the oceans.”  


The horrors of the Middle Passage for enslaved Africans snatched from their homeland, may evoke a haunting memory; bloody battles fought at sea amongst colonial powers have their own melancholy, and pirates’ tales may seem sordid. But all these have been part of our history, and eloquent voices – in architecture, art, songs and written histories, have helped to record them. Many tales of human ingenuity and unforeseen progress, are hidden within the fine details.


The sea is present to us in myriad ways, yet often, many of these, we overlook. From the image of an embryo, enveloped in amniotic fluid in utero ; to the crowded ports and mining industries located near our shores ; to the daily routines of local and foreign fisherfolk, connections can be made to the sea.


Oil producing nations depend on this industry as the basis of their economic survival. Countries that have oil refineries, also place great value on the foreign exchange earned.

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