Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
colbartn.gif (4535 octets)

Coastal region and small island papers 13

 

Port Elizabeth, Bequia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, 2000.

3. Exploring the internet to link islands

Our petite seven square-mile territory (Bequia in St Vincent and the Grenadines) does not in any way isolate us from the world, as all the modern communications, fashions, sports, visitors and modes of education seem to reach us the day after they are developed on the other side of the world. These changes and growth in technology and development come at a cost, especially in education and their impact on young vulnerable minds.

Like most developed and undeveloped countries, the youth are seen as the future and one of our greatest assets. Developing these assets is an expensive undertaking and a challenge to any government, especially those of small island states such as ours.

The Small Islands Voice youth forum must be commended as a forerunner for youth expression in this field, as it offers our youth the place and time for venting the issues that are closest to them, using the available technology of cyberspace. The very cyber connection that has made the world a global village and our living rooms part of the global stock market has made our youth more familiar with what is right and wrong, what is hype and what is boring, and as such they speak out with voices unheard of a decade ago.

Herman Belmar, St Vincent and the Grenadines (UNESCO, 2003)

One of the main objectives of Small Islands Voice is to explore the potential of new information and communication technologies to generate debate and dialogue in the environment and development domain among small islands and to enhance their capacity to take part in the information age. New information and communication technology offers a whole range of promising opportunities for developing countries, especially small islands where development is hampered by dispersed populations and isolation. Technology creates new possibilities for improving health and nutrition, accessing information and expanding knowledge, stimulating economic growth and sustainable development, and empowering people to participate in activities beyond their immediate communities.

However, accessibility to this new technology is still limited, and questions have been raised as to whether the new information and communication technology will preserve the previous world order, or will offer new possibilities for those regions, particularly developing countries, that were previously marginalized.

In the case of small islands, there is limited local capacity to fully develop traditional media forms, as was seen in the preceding chapter; not surprisingly, this limitation also extends to new technology. A survey of internet use in the Pacific islands commissioned by the UNESCO Apia Office (Zwimpfer Communications Ltd, 2002) highlights many of these limitations, namely:

Despite these constraints, the report found that there was widespread interest among Pacific islands in seeking to enhance internet infrastructure, and that many organizations in the islands were finding ways to establish websites.While this report refers specifically to the Pacific islands, the limitations described above also refer to the scenario on islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.

Signs advertising computer
and internet services, such as
this one in Rarotonga, Cook
Islands, are apparent in most
small islands, 2002.

 

In the first year of the initiative, Small Islands Voice has sought to utilize the power of the internet to connect small islands inter-regionally through two internet-based discussion fora, one for the general public and one for youth.These fora were started in the second half of 2002, and the initial results were discussed in depth during the inter-regional workshop. In addition, a website was constructed and went online in April 2002. This website is updated monthly to reflect new material and activities.

Internet-based global discussion forum

Since 1999, UNESCO-CSI has been running a global forum called ‘Wise coastal practices for sustainable human development’ (WiCoP forum).This forum, which now has more than 13,000 people connected, provided vital experience when setting up the Small Islands Voice global forum.The software used in the WiCoP forum was adapted for the Small Islands Voice forum with the assistance of Scotland On Line.

During the first half of 2002, three messages describing Small Islands Voice and announcing the start of a new forum (see titles and addresses of these messages in Annex IV) were sent out to all the participants of the WiCoP forum.A number of people responded that they would like to be a part of the new forum. In addition, e-mail addresses were obtained during specific visits to the Cook Islands, Palau, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Seychelles, and from the Small Islands Voice national coordinators in each country. The main audience for this forum is the general public, so special efforts have been made to include the bank manager and the watersports operator, the car mechanic and the health care worker, to name but a few examples.Thus the forum’s audiences includes the private sector, interested individuals, NGOs and community-based organizations, and of course governments.

The goal of this internet-based forum is to engage the general public in small islands in an online debate on issues relating to environment and development. The forum is moderated and is conducted in English only. Since the participants are the general public, a special effort is made to keep the language and format very clear and understandable.

How the forum works

Key issues are aired on the Small Islands Voice forum; these are carefully selected with the help of the national coordinators in each country. For instance, the first issue discussed was adapted from a Pacific newspaper article. The key issue is then posted on the forum, and is automatically sent out by e-mail to all the addresses on the list. People send their responses on this issue to the moderator. All the responses are carefully read. Then highlights from these responses are compiled and posted on the forum, at two-week intervals, as well as being sent out to the e-mail addresses on the list. At the beginning of 2003 there were more than 8,000 addresses on the list and this number is growing.Thus the participants receive the messages by e-mail, and they can also go to the forum on the web and read all the messages at a glance. Since the forum has already generated so many responses, and some of them very detailed, the full text of all the responses is also available on the Small Islands Voice website. This global forum is available at http://www.sivglobal.org. All articles – both key issues and responses – are kept short, to around 500 words (about one page long).

A section of the Compact Road under construction
in Babeldaob, Palau, 2002.

                                                                

Mangrove destruction related to the Compact Road
construction, Babeldaob, Palau, 2002.

By the beginning of 2003, two issues had been discussed on this forum, one relating to the construction of the Compact Road in Palau, and the second on beach access in Tobago. Annex IV lists all the messages on the Small Islands Voice global forum dealing with these two key issues.

Summary of discussion on road construction in Palau, Pacific
Number of substantive responses = 45

27% said development is inevitable.

27% said environmental concerns need to be included in development.
11% said development should be planned in phases.
9% said this type of development should be stopped.
4% emphasized the need for good governance and transferability.
22% had separate ideas ranging from the influence of foreign television 
 
      on young people to the importance of democracy.

When the discussion relating to a particular issue is finished, a quantitative summary of the discussion is prepared.The first discussion focused on the construction of a new road encircling the largest Palauan island of Babeldaob, and the impact of the construction on the environment, e.g. some resource users described the run-off of sediment-laden waters into the sea, the subsequent decline in water clarity and the reduction in fish catches. It is interesting to note from the responses that less than 10% of the forum respondents were against the road development itself, and that while the majority saw the road development as being inevitable, a significant proportion (27%) felt that environmental concerns must be incorporated into the planning and construction of the road.

Public perception of the forum in the islands

The Small Islands Voice national coordinator in Palau received a lot of positive feedback to the discussion on the Compact Road. The forum also initiated further discussions on another e-mail list targeting Palauans living abroad (The Bridge list).

PALAU’S BRIDGE LIST

This is a very active e-mail discussion group that has run for eight years and has 500 participants including Palauans both inside the country and abroad. Publishers, politicians and others contribute to the list, and issues under discussion are often followed through by the local media. The site is controlled by rotating moderators. There are between 2 and 20 messages per 

day and often two or three topics are discussed at the same time. Anonymous messages are not permitted. The Bridge is interesting in that Micronesians generally have no history of criticizing their leaders in public but are now taking advantage of the opportunities offered by The Bridge to be more critical.

Furthermore the internet discussion on the Palau road reached a wider audience than just those who have internet access, since each forum article has been published by a local newspaper ‘Tia Belau’.This link with the news media is an interesting one, because it is one way of getting round the limited internet penetration in small islands. Indeed a special effort has been made to include the contacts for local newspapers on the Small Islands Voice forum e-mail list. In the case of ‘Tia Belau’, the newspaper asked the forum moderators if they could publish the articles, and permission was given. Newspapers in other islands including the British Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, Samoa and Seychelles have also requested permission and have published some of the forum contributions.This greatly expands the reach of the debate and can also be a two-way process when newspaper editors forward responses from their readers to the global forum moderators.

In isolated outer islands of the Cook Islands, there is no internet access, and newspapers are delivered by air and boat several weeks late. However, the Small Islands Voice coordinator in the Cook Islands is exploring ideas to involve some of these isolated islands, perhaps by acting as an interface and faxing printouts of the discussions to them. Other ways being developed to bring the internet to isolated communities include community multimedia centres and radio browsing.

COMMUNITY MULTIMEDIA CENTRES AND RADIO BROWSING

A community multimedia centre combines community radio, organized by local people in local languages, with community telecentre facilities, such as computers with internet and e-mail, phone, fax and photocopying services.The radio, which is low-cost and easy to operate, informs, educates and entertains the community. It also gives a strong public voice to the voiceless and so encourages greater accountability in public affairs. The walk-in community telecentre offering internet access allows even the most remote village to communicate and exchange information with the rest of the world. With training, communities can locally access, manage, produce and communicate information for development.

In radio browsing programmes the presenters search the web in response to listeners' queries and discuss the contents of pre-selected websites on air with studio guests. This formula offers indirect but mass access to cyberspace. It overcomes language barriers when the presenters explain the contents of, say, an English-language webpage in their national language. It raises awareness of the value of online information and encourages listeners to come in and use the computers themselves. It bridges the generation gap by ensuring that people of all ages, whether they go online themselves or not, understand how cyberspace works.

(UNESCO, 2002b)

In the San Andres Archipelago (Colombia), the government agency, the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Archipelago of San Andres, Old Providence and Santa Catalina (CORALINA), prints out and redistributes the global forum articles, and also discusses them among themselves. In Seychelles, people have suggested that the Small Islands Voice forum is a way to discuss and debate local issues with a larger, global audience of islanders.

‘The start of the Small Islands Voice forum coincided with local discussion about a controversial reclamation project. A few of the people who found out about the forum said that it was a way for us to let the world know about projects such as this’.

Matthew Servina, Seychelles, November 2002.

Land reclamation,
as seen here at Baie
Ste Anne, Praslin,
Seychelles, provides flat
land for housing and
other development,
2002.

 

At the inter-regional workshop, there was some debate about whether questions should be added at the bottom of each article to direct people on how to respond, since several members of the public in the islands had mentioned to national coordinators that they had received the articles but did not know what to do about them. However, after some discussion, it was agreed that people should be left to think about the issues and how to respond for themselves.

Internet-based youth discussion forum

A trial internet-based youth forum was started in mid-September and ran until December 2002. Secondary schools from five countries were invited to take part in the forum by identifying one or more class of 13 to 15-year-olds to participate. The following schools were involved in the forum:

The goals of this trial internet-based forum were to:

This is an un-moderated forum protected with a special username and password for the students taking part. However, other persons can see the forum, but not take part, at http://www.sivyouth.org (with username view and password only).

How the youth forum works

Several themes were selected to form the basis of this trial forum:

In selecting these issues for discussion, an effort was made to choose subjects that would be of direct interest to young people, rather than specific environment-development topics. It was hoped that in the course of discussion, environment-development issues would emerge. This did in fact happen. For instance, the first article and subsequent discussion on the ‘Advantages and disadvantages of living in my island’ covered subjects such as conservation, solid waste disposal, tourism development (Rarotonga, Seychelles) and whaling (Bequia).

Students from Nukutere
College, Cook Islands, 
prepare their article for the 
youth forum, 2003.

Each school was asked to prepare a short article (500–700 words) on an assigned theme and a schedule was prepared, such that the schools knew when to post their article. These articles were posted on the forum at two-week intervals, and after each article there was an interactive exchange among the six participating schools relating to the article’s subject matter. In the case of Palau, because of the very limited internet access available at the school, a special arrangement was made with a local internet café for the students to access the internet there on a twice-weekly basis.

Assessment of the youth forum

The forum was successful and an assessment was conducted by the students and teachers involved. The full assessment is available on the Small Islands Voice website.While all the schools were invited to take part in the assessment, three schools responded to the invitation: these were from the Cook Islands, Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines) and Seychelles. The students found the forum a new activity and they enjoyed finding out about the lives and cultures of other islands, and sharing information on sports and languages. They liked the interaction and discovered many similarities despite the distance separating them. The fact that in many cases only one school computer was connected to the internet was a drawback, and many students wanted to see pictures of the other islands. A few students were concerned about some of the negative aspects of small-island living reported on the forum. Several students said they would like to have an opportunity to meet with youth from the other islands involved.They also commented on specific aspects of the forum, such as having more choice regarding the selection of themes, more time to compose their articles, and more instantaneous dialogue.

‘The forum is really interesting, it gives us a chance to express ourselves and to use the internet which is not available at school. This is a great opportunity to voice our opinions and to know that there are people who care about what we think and about what goes on in our island’.

Mr Ben Miko, Mindzenty High School, Palau, November 2002.

In their assessment, the teachers noted that students from English classes took part in the forum, although sometimes social studies and computer class time was used. The number of students involved varied from 20–35 in each island. As noted above, students in each school only had access to one internet-connected computer; this proved a formidable constraint and resulted in long queues. In almost all cases, the theme article was prepared as a classroom exercise, and responses put together and posted on the forum as group efforts or individually. The teachers felt that the forum provided many advantages for their students: (i) giving them a perspective on small-island living elsewhere in the world, (ii) helping them to understand that the issues they faced were similar in other small islands, (iii) expanding their understanding of geography and other cultures, (iv) building national pride and selfconfidence and (v) improving their writing, computer and internet-surfing skills.The main disadvantage was the limited internet access at the schools. All the islands were very enthusiastic about taking part in future phases of the youth forum.

Discussion of the youth forum at the inter-regional workshop

Workshop participants from the Cook Islands and St Vincent and the Grenadines noted that the forum had helped their students become aware of other islands and contexts.

‘For the first time, Bequian students now feel part of a community with students in other countries. The Small Islands Voice youth forum is a step in the right direction in exposing youth to global communication’.

Herman Belmar, St Vincent and the Grenadines, November 2002.

The forum could be made more interesting with music and pictures; however, this would make the site too complicated and the pages too slow to download. An alternative to adding images and sound to the website is to use other search engines to access this type of information. The idea of using chat rooms was also proposed, but this might detract from the educational value of the forum.

Islands define youth in different ways. In Palau, for instance, it includes persons up to the age of 40 years and in Samoa, the term is often used to refer to ‘untitled’ individuals. For the purposes of the Small Islands Voice youth forum, the term is used to include individuals from the ages of 12–20 years.

Several workshop participants felt the need to include more than one school in each country, as well as to expand the forum to include other island countries. In the San Andres Archipelago, ongoing youth activities include information gathering and youth reporters which are very compatible with the activities of the forum. The age restriction also needs to be considered for future phases of the forum. The cost of internet access varies considerably across the regions. In the Caribbean, the picture is quite positive; in Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines), the internet service provider gives the school five hours of free access per day, and in St Kitts and Nevis, there is also free access for the schools during school hours. This contrasts with the Cook Islands where the first month’s participation in the youth forum cost US$ 250, although subsequently, more cost effective access methods were adopted. In Palau, a discounted rate was obtained from the internet café, where the students had the additional advantage of participating in the forum in a voluntary and relaxed atmosphere. For the countries where internet access is very expensive, it is recommended that national coordinators approach their internet service providers to see if special rates can be negotiated for schools taking part in the youth forum.

Sabrina Marie and
Maara Murare
(standing) share
ideas with youth
from the Palau
Community College
during the Small
Islands Voice
inter-regional
workshop, 2002.

In all three regions, teachers often have a hard job dealing with all the compulsory items that have to be included in the curriculum. In addition, many schools are very examination-orientated and the youth forum is not part of the curriculum. However, many of the issues discussed in the forum are relevant all across the curriculum and the task now is to find ways to integrate the issues discussed in the forum into the curriculum. One possibility that will be explored is the preparation of educational materials based on the forum.

‘Small island nations like us often have to use materials produced by people from other countries, generally Britain in the case of Seychelles, while we have a wealth of unexploited materials around us. I see the articles produced in this forum as a rich source of authentic materials, which can be exploited and used in language classes as well as in cross-curricular activities’.

Marvelle Estrale, Seychelles, November 2002.

Some of the issues discussed in the forum are thought provoking and controversial. For instance, in the article prepared by the Bequia Community High School,‘Advantages and disadvantages of living in my island’, mention was made of incest and traditional whaling. In the exchange that followed, one student noted that there was no incest in Seychelles. Unfortunately, this is not the case and it indicates the need to make young people aware about such serious issues. Another controversial issue related to the traditional practice of whaling in Bequia. During the exchange, a student from Seychelles, a country which advocates conservation of whales, simply rejected all forms of whaling – including forms practised by indigenous populations using traditional methods – as being wrong. Such a strong small islands marine conservation stance has proved positive in the Pacific debate on this issue. The exchange on the forum also points to the need to develop respect among the youth for other traditions and cultures.

Future phases for the youth forum

The foregoing discussion has been taken into account in the design of the next phase of the youth forum, in which more schools and countries will participate. The idea of national fora is another way of involving more schools in a country and moving from talk to action on the ground. However, it will be necessary to maintain links between national fora and the inter-regional forum.The potential exists to connect with other youth fora, e.g. the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) ‘Voices of Youth Online Journal,’ which is open to youth up to 18 years.

Small Islands Voice website

The Small Islands Voice website was designed and constructed to provide up-to-date, easily accessible information on the varied activities and their outcome. The website (http://www.smallislandsvoice.org) went online in April 2002 and it is updated monthly. The site has seven main sections:

The regular updating of the website is very important in providing an information source for interested individuals around the world. In addition, the regular updates keep each island informed about the activities taking place in other islands. In this respect the website supplements the regular inter-regional conference calls. During these calls, which are scheduled every one to two months, the national coordinators from all the participating islands discuss ongoing activities with each other according to a pre-arranged agenda.

Final remarks

The full potential of both the internet-based global forum and the youth forum is as yet unexplored. Linking the global forum with radio browsing and community television are avenues to be followed, as are linking the youth forum with curriculum development and distance learning education. Small Islands Voice can assist island countries to further advance in one or all of these directions and to break down the barriers of isolation and fully participate in the information age.

 

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