Opinion: Concrete jungles

POSTED: 06/5/14 5:09 PM

Dear Editor,

While fifty years ago Sint Maarten was a tranquil, perhaps somewhat sleepy island in desperate need of development, today the island finds itself at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Development gains of previous years are diminishing or threatened at best. Increasing socio-economic inequality, rising crime rates and social disintegration especially amongst the younger generation are serious reasons for concern.

From an environmental perspective, rapid development has turned peaceful and pristine hills, valleys, coastlines, beaches, ponds and lagoons into often poorly maintained concrete jungles. Excessive hilltop and hillside excavations, deforestation, filling-in of ponds and the Simpson Bay lagoon, landfill fires, irresponsible waste disposal and free flowing untreated sewage along our roads are such a common sight that many of us who live here have almost come to accept it all as “normal”.

If we intend to continue living healthy lives on Sint Maarten, if we wish to maintain our tourism based economy this will have to change. In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of Sint Maarten’s economy, we must find and more importantly implement and enforce ways to encourage and stimulate economic growth while protecting the natural environment and improving the overall quality of life.

Environmental organizations have long called on decision makers to rethink the often ad hoc approach to development. These calls have remained unheeded by government and the ill- planned character of development on Sint Maarten prevails.

Of late, Ministers have started making use of terms such as “Sustainable Development”, “Sustainable use” and “Environmental sustainability”. While these terms have become a constant reoccurrence in speeches, decisive actions towards meeting internationally recognized sustainability standards have remained elusive.

Ministers speak of the need to protect and sustainably manage Sint Maarten’s natural resources only to turn around and grant permits for the further filling-in of the little that remains of the Dutch side of the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Government claims to be of the intention to protect heritage but refuses to keep and carry-out commitments to establish the Emilio Wilson Estate, the largest bastion of Sint Maarten’s natural and cultural heritage left, as a protected area.

The recently published Fifth National Report of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to assess the status of implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity concluded that: “Of the three independent Kingdom partners in the Dutch Caribbean, Sint Maarten is the island facing the greatest imminent threat to nature in terms of habitat destruction, which is proceeding at an alarming pace. “Instead of taking this report, which was compiled with the assistance of local expertise, seriously all Government did was “take note” of it.

In their inability to provide credible responses to the objections environmental organizations make regarding the rate and manner of development, politicians opt to ignore the issue at hand and instead accuse the organizations of political favoritism. Events which should be celebratory and inclusive in character such as the recent granting of Government subsidies to cover the operational costs of Nature Foundation are overly politicized, tainted by nepotism and carried-out secretively without even extending an invitation to the many natural and cultural heritage stakeholders.

Lately some have called on environmentalists to “steer away from negativity in tackling environmental issues” my response to them is that we should not close our eyes to the increasingly dire state of Sint Maarten’s Natural heritage. It is fine to highlight positive achievements but it is equally necessary to address and resolve the many pressing environmental challenges Sint Maarten faces.

Fact is that Sint Maarten has been pushed beyond the limits of acceptable change, the island’s features and its charm valued by residents and visitors are being systematically destroyed. Unless properly managed the rate and manner of development will decrease Sint Maarten’s capacity to foster social wellbeing and maintain or fuel economic growth and stability.

Today Thursday June 5th, 2014 governments and organizations in over one hundred countries around the world celebrate the 42ndannual commemoration of the United Nations Environment Programs’ (UNEP) World Environment Day. This year’s theme “Raise your voice, not the sea level” is focused on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and should therefore be of particular interest to Sint Maarten.

According to an article on the UNEP’s website www.unep.org/wed:  “SIDS contribute little to climate change – emitting less than one per cent of global greenhouse gases. However, they suffer disproportionately from its effects due to their small size, remote locations and low economic resilience. Research shows that by 2100, global warming could lead to a sea-level rise of up to two meters making many SIDS, including the Maldives, Kiribati and Tuvalu uninhabitable.”

“The government and people of Barbados, a Caribbean island at the cutting edge of the fight against the impacts of climate change, are issuing a call to action to people across the world to raise their voices in support of SIDS. Barbados is leading the SIDS green economy transition with pioneering initiatives such as its Solar Water Heater Program which has netted energy savings of between US$135.5 and US$137 million since it was first launched in the 1970s.”

Sint Maarten’s political leaders desperately need to pay attention to the rest of the Caribbean and embrace the concept of sustainable development, accept the realities of Climate Change and take action accordingly.

Usually World Environment Day, World Ocean’s Day and Earth Day come and go without any form of acknowledgement from Sint Maarten’s Government. The responsibility to care for the environment is left to underfunded, non-government subsidized and therefore poorly staffed environmental groups. I would be very pleasantly surprised if this World Environment Day would be any different.

Honorable Ministers and Members of Parliament, if by chance you happen to have forgotten about World Environment Day (again), please be reminded that World Oceans Day is on June 8th! Perhaps an opportunity to really ban plastic bags, protect the Emilio Wilson Estate or save the last remaining mangrove stands in the Simpson Bay Lagoon?

 

Rueben J. Thompson

Environmentalist

 

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