Blog: Nature conservation in times of natural disaster

By Stacey Mac Donald

Almost three weeks ago Hurricane Irma raged in full force over many Caribbean islands and Florida. It was the largest category-5 hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, breaking all known records. The damage she caused is immense, affecting many Caribbean islands and Florida. While everyone affected was still very much in survival mode and people were only barely beginning to grasp the actual amount of damage caused, Hurricanes Jose and Maria followed.

For days leading up to Irma, I was glued to the news in my office in Leiden and at home to hear the latest about the strength and direction of the hurricane. While following the news, I was also trying to contact friends and family on social media, hoping they were taking all possible precautionary measures. Aside from sending well wishes, there was not more I could do from across the ocean.

Moments after Irma, Jose passed and then Maria came. Maria, another category 5 hurricane, caused as much or even more damage than Irma did to some islands in the region. What was not already destroyed by the previous hurricanes, was now due to Maria. This series of hurricanes are really putting the strength and resilience of the islands to the test and are also making the vulnerability of the islands all too clear.

As the Prime minister of Dominica put so accurately into words, while tearing up on television:

“Unfortunately, we had to wait for Irma and Maria to let the world understand what we’ve been saying to them for a long time – that we are very vulnerable. We are exposed to the ravages of climate change. We need access to resources to build more resilient societies and countries. We have been playing our part but the extent of the resources required to put in the mitigation systems is beyond us.”

While making my donations, spreading the word, and trying to comfort friends with words during these horrible times, I cannot help but think about the topics of my research concerning the islands affected, particularly Saba and St. Eustatius. Over a year ago I visited the islands and had many engaging interviews with island residents about their efforts to protect the natural environment and culture of the islands. The effects of Irma and Maria reminded me about the prominent presence of culture and nature, even in the worst situations.

In terms of culture, island residents on Saba for example, take pride in their community strength and Saban identity where the norms and values are centered around helping each other and working together. On St. Maarten, a small group a people started looting right after the hurricane passed. Both on social media and news media residents of St. Maarten felt the need to make very clear that these looters do not represent the St. Maarten identity, norms and values.

Thinking people would be caught up in surviving and building up their communities, I figured that nature conservation would be the last thing on people’s mind. However, I was proven wrong: only days after recovering from the initial shock, residents of all three islands started to highlight the need to conduct damage assessments of the natural environment. What was the state of The Quill? Did the coral nurseries survive? How was the soil affected? How many native and endangered species are left? What about the roaming goats and cows?

Despite my heart being heavy, I must admit that my heart was also warmed reading of these concerns. Nature is an unpredictable force and the only thing that is certain is that more natural disasters will follow in the future because, according to experts, these hurricanes and their record-breaking strength are related to global warming. How is the experience of increasingly frequent and severe hurricanes going to affect our awareness about the role we as humans play in these disasters and global warming? I believe that, if there is one thing that binds natural disasters with the conservation of the natural (and cultural) environment, it’s climate change.

Cartoon: Steve Benson/The Republic, 2 October 2015

(Stacey Mac Donald is a researcher at KITLV, working as part of the NWO-funded research project ‘Confronting Caribbean Challenges’. Her research project focuses on the challenges of cultural heritage and nature conservation in the Dutch Caribbean municipalities.)

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