Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 5

   What can be done?

When the first hint of daybreak promises light to the eastern skies, I can be sure that outside, fresh breezes will be awakening the casuarinas which, however, are not local to the Caribbean. These towering, shaggy giants are known as “Mile Trees” in Barbados, and “Whispering Pines” elsewhere. When I first came to “South Drift”, this house beside the sea, I would awake on mornings, throwing the doors open, hardly daring to believe that the beauty of the trees and cliffs and breakers would still be there.

Casuarina trees, seen here in 
Middle Caicos, Turks and Caicos 
Islands, although fast growing, are 
not recommended planting for 
beaches because they discourage 
the growth of ground cover which 
stabilises the sand.

Offshore, the fishermen, like a chain of waterborne commuters ride on the swells, heading their boats for the channel through the reef. In the early light, their lanterns wink and their bright yellow raincoats beam through the spray and fading darkness. It will be afternoon before they turn for home again. But against the faithful pattern of tides and moody waves, subtler changes disturb this landscape. The sun rises on signs of human disarray.

Beside the major hotel in the area, a waste water pipe drips onto rocks, feeding green algae, the telltale sign of polluted water. It is the same and worse on other coasts of this small island and many more throughout the Caribbean. The scientists, like quietened prophets, occasionally utter their pronouncements: to any who would still hear, of dying reefs and polluted coastal waters.

It is strange to walk these cliffs in the morning, trying to picture what might have been. On a vacant peninsula, a few scattered blocks lie amongst the man-made sea defenses. I’m told a house once stood here, 40 years ago. And those who were children then remember how they would play, sliding on high dunes and watching red crabs scuttle in the morning. They heard tales from elders, that once this narrow beach was sandy and wide. From the house which is now no more than a few ruined, wave – washed stones, the seawater then, could be barely seen for the beach was so full of trees.

There was good fishing in those days: lines tossed from cliff tops at Ananias Point, where chubs and grunts and porgies played when the waves were high. Scuttling bullheads and gaping moray eels darted amongst the rocks at low tide. Today, fishermen still cast a line from the cliffs; but perhaps they come more to enjoy the coolness of the breeze, the sound of ocean waves booming in the caverns below, rather than for a plentiful catch. 

On the beach in the morning, anything can be found. Sometimes a brilliant Portuguese man ‘o war, stranded by a receding tide, balloons its pink sail in the breezes, unable to skid to the water. More often, there are plastics freely blowing. Like all the other man-made flotsam that rides the tides, they are the castaways of sun tanning tourists or careless locals. Sometimes in the morning, the overnight finds have been appalling: a bloated pig, a hollow refrigerator, a plastic nappy and miscellaneous items of household garbage. For further up the coast, others mistook the sea for a disposal area, with the changing of the tide – the environment throws back!

This morning, bracing against the wind, I walk until warm and dash for the breakers, just as the sun rises. The water is cool and the drift is strong. Later, walking the beach, I pause momentarily, seeing half buried plastic in the sand – wondering whether to retrieve it. Returning to the sea it might choke a turtle or block some creature’s gut. But what is one action worth on an empty beach on a morning, when there is so much that needs removing from the waste that washes ashore?

Saddening find: 
slaughtered turtle

But this is the beach where turtles surprise walkers whose eyes are keen for just a glimpse of them. Offshore, despite the pollution from boats, hotels and houses, beds of turtle grass still flourish and sometimes turtles come to feed. It is strange to hear other tales, of how in years gone by, they too were plentiful and rich gun-owning locals on the look out, delighted in shooting them from the cliffs and hauling in their edible carcasses. Sometimes on a beach, a disemboweled shell may still be found.

This creeping squalor that seeks to overcome a still beautiful seascape, can raise despairing thoughts, for those who seek to salvage the inheritance of creation. On a cool morning, caught between breaking waves and windswept litter, one well might say with longing, like the late Guyanese poet Martin Carter:

“I wish this world would sink and drown again
So that we build another Noah’s ark
And send another little dove to find
What we have lost in floods of misery.”

But, to borrow a phrase from African-American novelist James Baldwin, there may only be “the fire next time”. So while we have beaches and fishing boats and turtles that still elude the choking plastics, while we have time for hope, we must take action.

   Regulating our seas

The first United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was convened after World War II to attempt to find a meeting ground for defining and delineating how nations’ approaches to the use of the oceans and seas could be regulated. Four new conventions were adopted:

   Riding a new wave to change

On November 1, 1967, the Delegate from Malta, Ambassador Arvid Pardo, rose to address the United Nations General Assembly on a matter which opened the flood gates to modern day discussions amongst all nations on how to share, protect and utilise, the resources of the sea.

The first global conference on the Law of the Sea was held in 1974 in Caracas, Venezuela lasting from June through August. Mexico’s President, Luis Echeverria addressed the nations of the world describing the basis for the new global vision on oceans:

“Man’s entire attitude with regard to the sea must change. The dramatic growth of the world’s population, and the consequent increase in demand for food from the sea; the expanding industrialisation of all continents; the congestion of populations in coastal areas; the intensification of navigation and the ever more frequent deployment of ‘supertankers’, containers of liquid gas, and nuclear-powered vessels; the increasing use of chemical substances which eventually end up in the seas – all these are factors which impose the necessity to regulate globally. To administer internationally, the uses of the oceans… and the sea in its totality, and the atmosphere above it, form one ecological system. All these interactions demand a global and integrated vision and treatment of the marine environment.” 

Finally in 1982 Member States officially adopted the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States of America has been conspicuous in its abstention in this global agenda. It argues that its billion dollar research expeditions into deep seabed mining should not be automatically shared with all the countries of the world. However, many highly industrialised countries with special interests in deep seabed mining, including Canada and France, have actively participated.

Further work continues in the establishment of the International Seabed Authority to supervise deep sea mining and lead the way for the appointment of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea for peaceful settlements of disputes related to matters pertaining to the Treaty.

Favoured flying fish: new laws attempt to protect fish 
stocks in countries’ exclusive economic zones.
   A critical Caribbean creation

While work has proceeded over the last decades on global concerns of the uses of oceans, countries of the Wider Caribbean have felt a need to focus on their very special concerns. Under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a legal framework suited specifically to the Wider Caribbean has come into being. The Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment is usually called the Cartagena Convention. It is so named for the famous city in Columbia where it was signed. It was adopted in 1983 and came into force in October 1986. It has been ratified by 20 countries and seeks to engender regional co-operation on a number of marine matters.

   Finding our own solutions

From the start, the Cartagena Convention has defined specific areas of focus that affect the Caribbean Sea: pollution from ships; dumping of wastes; land-based sources of marine pollution; seabed activities; airborne pollution; specially protected areas.

Some of the protocols to the Cartagena Convention have already been developed, which give detailed directions as to how problems can be handled at regional, national and local levels. The goal is to change actions for the better, that will affect our Caribbean Sea. These include:

Drilling at sea  

On the world-wide level, the Global Programme of Action on the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities was adopted (Washington, 1995). It underlies the major threats of land-based activities to the health, productivity and biodiversity of the marine environment. Together with the Convention on Biological Diversity (in force since 1993), these conventions provide the background for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, the sharing of benefits and access to information. Both conventions are very important for the Caribbean region, with its intense human pressures on the environment.

“The ultimate prize is special area status… a designation that will put the Caribbean into an exclusive league of protected waters that includes the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic, the Red Sea and the Gulf, the North Sea and the Antarctic.”

“The Caribbean Sea – A Very Special Area;
Wider Caribbean Initiative for Ship-Generated Waste”; IMO.  

   Netting the wastes out at sea
Plastics and other materials 
on the high tide mark of a 
Caribbean beach

The United Nations International Maritime Organisation has coordinated the establishment of a special convention to deal with the problem of waste at sea. This International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, is known as MARPOL 73/78. Regulations are outlined for the safe standards for the disposal of various wastes at sea, in separate Annexes of the Convention. These include: Annex I – Oily wastes; Annex II – Noxious Liquid Substances in Bulk; Annex III – Harmful Substances in Bulk; Annex IV – Sewage; Annex V – Garbage. All but Annex IV have entered into force.

Under the Wider Caribbean Initiative for Ship-generated Waste, which ran from 1994 to 1998, 22 countries of the Wider Caribbean region sought to find ways to tackle these problems. Most of the major concerns remain unsolved as controlling of dumping within the Caribbean Sea is difficult to manage and the concept of creating specialised facilities in various ports is fraught with problems. Countries are reluctant to receive wastes from unknown external sources and plans for recycling can only be profitable if co-ordination occurs on a regional scale.

Help through research and learning

Following the decisions of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) and the UN Global Conference on Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (Barbados, 1994), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) responded with a new endeavour in 1996 geared to Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands (CSI). The initiative addresses inter alia the subject of sustainability in the development of Small Island States, many of which are located in the Caribbean. It also pays particular attention to issues within the islands’ coastal zones. An inter-sectoral approach to finding solutions is being used by those involved in this initiative, including scientists from all disciplines, cultural heritage experts, educators, communicators, developers, the private sector and the general public.

Many project activities are already underway within the Caribbean area. Assistance is being given to Jamaican and Haitian fishermen in the community-based management of coastal resources. In the eastern Caribbean the emphasis has been on the mitigation of the effects of natural disasters such as hurricanes. These natural forces typically wreak havoc on coastal properties as well as beaches which are so vital to the tourism-based economies of many islands. In addition, the monitoring of coastal ecosystems is under way and efforts are being made to relate management and conservation to the ongoing concerns of food security.

This initiative by UNESCO is linking knowledge to management by ensuring that scientific information is being brought to the attention of key decision makers and stake holders at the local level. Amongst the many means being used to inform people are public awareness campaigns and environmental communications channeled through radio and television. These consciousness raising techniques together with actions on the ground are helping to empower local populations towards creative problem solving in environment and development issues.

The CSI initiative also focuses on traditional environmental knowledge. This renewed interest in the knowledge and practices of local communities stems from the recommendations of the World Conference on Science held in Budapest, Hungary in 1999.

Another body, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has been established by UNESCO to promote the scientific study of the oceans. IOCARIBE is the regional IOC office for the Wider Caribbean, located in Cartagena, Colombia.

A gently swaying sea fan is home to the incredibly 
camouflaged flamingo tongue snail

The UNESCO Associated Schools
      Caribbean Sea Project (CSP)

At another level, students from the Caribbean are being mobilised to play new and important roles that will enhance the careful use of the Caribbean Sea. One of the four main themes of the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network (ASPnet) is the environment. Other themes include human rights, inter-cultural learning and the role of the United Nations in addressing world problems. There are now approximately 5,500 educational institutions across 160 countries in the ASP network.

Students and teachers are being mobilised in the service of the ideals of UNESCO: education for international understanding, cooperation and human rights and the promotion of a culture of peace, through the ASPnet. Special projects have been launched in different parts of the world, focusing on the vital importance of territorial seas. The Caribbean Sea Project (CSP) is one such project, with counterpart projects including the Baltic Sea Project, the Blue Danube River Project and the Western/ Eastern Mediterranean Sea Project. The Caribbean Sea Project now involves 17 countries of the Wider Caribbean.

Informed and enthusiastic Caribbean teachers act as catalysts amongst students who belong to UNESCO Associated Schools and UNESCO clubs, promoting knowledge about the Caribbean Sea, its resources, problems and ways in which it can be used sustainably. As student members increase throughout the Spanish, French, Dutch and English speaking Caribbean, more and more communities will be touched by the concern and care of ASP/CSP participants. From the work, studies and activities of students and teachers, Caribbean school communities can be influenced, for the better, to act wisely in their use and enjoyment of the Caribbean Sea.  


Recreate the setting of the United Nations, imagining and presenting the conflicting views of represented states. Issues should cover critical concerns including fishing rights, foreign marine exploitation, the potential for deep seabed mining to put miners of poor countries out of jobs, whaling… and there are many more. Persuasive and eloquent techniques are to be encouraged.


Select a coastal area on your island where there are conflicts amongst resource users (e.g. fisherfolk, hoteliers, developers, water sports operators and people who simply use the beaches for pleasure, fun or recreation). Carefully document the issues at stake, by talking to representatives from each group, as well as relevant governmental and non-governmental personnel (e.g. planners, waste disposal authorities, conservation groups etc.). Recreate a “town council” type meeting where the voices of all interested parties can be heard. Try to determine the best combination of management alternatives that could be worked out between the parties, if each is willing to compromise.


Develop a street theatre type drama that portrays at the local level of a sea-side village or town, the problems of regulating conflicting uses of the coastal land areas and the sea. Highlight the human dilemmas that can face law makers and the urgent need to have inputs from all stake holders, from the start.

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