Laura Bijnsdorp: “Youth are key to environmental protection”

POSTED: 11/13/14 8:37 AM

St. Maarten – “We always get the speech when we’re younger: ‘You’re the next generation. You have to go and change things and protect the island.’ It has a truth to it. If you are taught from a young age to protect the environment and you grow up in it, it will become automatic for you,” said Laura Bijnsdorp, who recently started working at Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC) as its environmental educator. Bijnsdorp believes that the young people of St. Maarten have a critical role to play in the protection of the island’s environmental and natural heritage, which is currently under threat from overdevelopment. Young people, she explained, have the potential and power to make this change. As environmental educator, her goal for this year is to teach some 3,000 school students about the significance of environmental protection. “3,000 kids can make a lot of difference.”

“Young people have more freedom and power to make that change to integrate it in their lifestyle,” said the environmental educator. If you explain a six-year-old child why littering is detrimental to the environment, that child will, in turn, take that information and, often times, relay it to its parents who do litter, Bijnsdorp explained. At the same time, she believes adults have a responsibility to teach children, by example, why it is important to be environmentally responsible and aware. “We should all be environmentally aware.”

As environmental educator at EPIC, Bijnsdorp, who has been volunteering for environmental organizations on the island since she was 14, will be continuing the foundation’s educational program. Through interactive presentations on the island’s biodiversity and ecology and waste management, along with games and several youth projects, she hopes to revamp environmentalism on the island: “I want to get people excited about the environment because it is often seen as a boring subject. Some people are naturally interested in the environment, but, often times, kids and adults don’t appreciate it or think about it much. I want to make it hip again.” EPIC, she explained, has always been focused on making presentations and excursions very interactive. “You can talk all you want, but it’s important to actually show them and make them part of the experience. If you have been talking about mangroves in a presentation, and then show them the mangroves, it has a lot more effect on the students.”

Bijnsdorp believes that the young, educated professionals who return to the island will also contribute to the change needed in St. Maarten. “I am very hopeful for my generation and the one below me because I think our generation is very set on changing certain things on the island…. I think there’s a little bit of a movement among the young people. They are fed up with certain things and do want change,” the environmental educator pointed out. Like Bijnsdorp herself, many young St. Maarteners leave the island to further their education, and those who do return, come back with the idea to contribute to the island. We come back more for the love of the island, she explained, and that’s why I think the people who do come back come back with wanting to help the island.

St. Maarten’s tourism industry and the island’s environment are interconnected; they go hand in hand, said Bijnsdorp. Because St. Maarten’s economy is driven by the influx of tourists to the island each year, there is a particular focus on tourism. However, the island’s environmental issues are being overlooked. “Tourists come here for certain reasons,” explained the environmental educator, “and if you take away those reasons why would they come?” Tourists come here for our beaches, pristine water and oceans, she pointed out. “They come to get away. They come for an idea of paradise that they don’t have at home. If we don’t take care of our paradise (our beaches, hillsides and oceans), what are tourists going to come for? They won’t come for that ugly landfill there in the Salt Pond.”

St. Maarten’s capital, Philipsburg, plays host the hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. As Bijnsdorp pointed out, Philipsburg is juxtaposed between Great Bay beach with its white sand and turquoise water on the one side and “the biggest eyesore,” the landfill, on the other side. She recalled a time when it was once called the Great Salt Lake, when people used to swim in it, and get their food from it. In the past, the island’s main income was from the salt produced in the salt pans of the Salt Pond. “I don’t understand why people aren’t more angry,” she wondered.

She warned that “if we aren’t careful, we are going to destroy everything that tourists initially came to St. Maarten for. They didn’t come for the casino or luxury hotels. They came here for our natural environment.” Less pristine beaches, hillsides covered in lush vegetation and untouched wetlands could result in fewer tourists coming to the island. “Do tourists want to look at a landfill? Do tourists want to stay in traffic for hours? Do tourists want to smell funky smells for throughout the island?” Tourists may, instead, go to other islands in the Caribbean, whose natural environments are still intact.

Despite the negative impact tourism has had on the island’s environment, Bijnsdorp believes that the St. Maarten’s environment can still benefit from the presence of tourists. “I think we could focus more on ecotourism. For some reason, that’s never really been established.” When on vacation, Bijnsdorp, like many tourists, enjoy going on hikes and heritage tours. There are lots of ways activities that work with the environment, said the environmental educator. “We can’t underestimate that people actually do not want to do those things. It’s just that it has to be offered. It’s a niche we can work on more because it’s not done yet.” The money made through ecotourism activities can go back to helping protect the environment.

When asked where she would like to see St. Maarten, in terms of environmental protection, in the future, she responded, saying, “I think one of our first steps is to get certain legislation in place. We have a lot of policies…. Policies are nice and we can use them as good lines, but, in the end, they don’t pack a bite in court.” The second step, she added, would be to have those legislations and laws enforced, as, often times, on the island, these laws are easily broken. She went on to say that she hopes environmental education will be integrated in school curriculums, as it is important for the young people of St. Maarten to have an appreciation and understanding of their natural and cultural heritage.

 

 

 

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  1. John Dalton says:

    Miss Bijnsdorp, congratulations on your new position, I agree with your approach 100% and applaud your efforts. The key to real change is teaching the children. As you may know, we at Rain Forest Adventures attempted to establish a sustainable ecotourism venue at the Emilio Wilson Estate. Most St Maarteners are not aware of our proposal to establish a foundation with 3 directors – one from government, one from an NGO and one from RFA. The purpose – to reforest the estate with indigenous dry tropical forest species using $2.00/customer to fund the project. We request volunteers from local schools. They help with replanting and maintenance of the new forest in effect, taking ownership it. In return for their efforts they receive a ‘free day’ in the park. We approached EPIC, requesting assistance with this program and the development of the cultural/historical component of the park. Unfortunately, denying repeated invitations to visit our existing parks and familiarize himself with our company, for what appears to be political rather than environmental reasons, your member chose to be vocal against our project rather than assist. I am encouraged by your statements which show that your mind is open to changing the way things are done to actually achieve positive results. I wish you all the success your hard work, and this planet, deserves.
    John Dalton
    Rain Forest Adventures