Bananas, biodiversity and beauty

Colmore S. Christian
describes the importance of forests to small islands, and outlines measures to combat the threats to them

Despite all their creativity and ingenuity, humans would not be able to survive in a world without forests. Yet forests are increasingly being lost around the world, particularly in the tropics and in small island developing states (SIDS).

One hectare of forest – equivalent to about two football fields – is cleared every second worldwide. And every 12 minutes, an animal or plant species is driven to extinction somewhere in the world because of deforestation.

Forests – and vegetation in general – are critical for any country’s social and economic development. They are even more important in countries which do not have major technological advantages, large deposits of valuable minerals, or other sources of foreign exchange earnings. And the ill-effects of deforestation are particularly evident and pronounced in SIDS.

Properly managed and wisely used forests contribute to sustainable development in a stable and productive environment. They protect wildlife and genetic resources and help preserve the biodiversity of nations, which is vital for the survival of animals and human beings alike. They are enormously valuable for recreation and tourism – the primary contributor to the national economy in many SIDS, such as Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Cyprus, Jamaica and St. Lucia. A well-developed outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism programme both creates employment and attracts foreign exchange.

SIDS’ forests play an important global role by using carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and releasing useful oxygen gas. Locally forests provide timber for building and making furniture.

They also help protect watersheds, conserve water, and regulate the flow of streams. With other vegetation, they help to reduce erosion and prevent landslides and floods. Tree roots help hold soil in place, and the forest cover and ground vegetation reduce the direct impact of raindrops, wind and water on soil.

When trees are cut down, and other vegetation cleared, the soil is easily eroded. Large amounts eventually settle on the ocean floor, often covering coral reefs. As the reefs die, food chains are disrupted and species perish.

There are many other long-term consequences of deforestation and land degradation, including the loss of biodiversity and scenic beauty, global warming and related changes in the climate, loss of water quality, and the possible development of desertification. Economic costs include reduced harvests and fisheries, and the obstruction or loss of water systems and hydroelectric power through siltation. Social consequences include the displacement of rural and indigenous populations, the disruption and possible loss of traditional cultural practices, and an overall reduction in quality of life.

Felling forests and cultivating steep slopes cause much land degradation in tropical islands like Dominica and St. Lucia. In the 1980s, large areas of prime rainforest land were cleared in the small islands of the Eastern Caribbean to make way for bananas. Their economies were – and still are – very dependent on agricultural exports and the market price for bananas was then very attractive and the market could accommodate increased production.

Today, many of those once productive banana fields have been abandoned. Low prices, competition in the market place, demands for better quality produce – and such changing realities as the threat of loss of preferential treatment – are helping to make banana production in the Eastern Caribbean less attractive.

A common theme
Such trends are not unique to the Eastern Caribbean – for SIDS have very little influence and impact in the international market place. Like many other developing countries, their problems are, as the Brundtland Report put it, ‘compounded by the vagaries of the international economic system, such as high debts, high interest rates and declining terms of trade for commodities’.

SIDS, like other countries, are establishing national parks and other protected areas to help conserve forests, maintain biological diversity, and reduce land degradation. About 21 per cent of the area of Dominica – a volcanic island blessed with relatively large tracts of natural forests – is now legally protected as wildland within its National Park and Forest Reserve System. The outstanding natural features and rich heritage of Morne Trois Pitons National Park are deemed to be so important that it was enlisted by UNESCO as the first, and still the only, natural World Heritage Site in the insular Caribbean.

The forests and other lands in Dominica’s National Park and Protected Areas System have in general been respected by both public and private sector interests. Protecting rainforest habitats and enacting and enforcing legislation have in turn contributed to noticeable recent increases in the populations of Dominica’s two endemic, and endangered, parrot species – the imperial parrot (Amazona imperialis) and the red-necked parrot (Amazona arausiaca).

Dominica is now making ecotourism one of the pillars of its national economic diversification strategy. A volcanic island, with steep peaks and deep gullies, it has been described as ‘the most rugged and beautiful of all Lesser Antillean islands’, and therefore is of great interest to ecotourists.

The forests and wildlife of any country are indeed global resources, and so the international community has been introducing measures to ensure their conservation. The formulation, approval and ratification of such international legal instruments as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Climate Change Convention have helped to reduce deforestation, the exploitation of wildlife species, and the destruction of natural resources. Many SIDS have ratified them.

Reversing the trend of deforestation in SIDS and other developing countries will also depend on more dialogue between the world’s North and South, on the level of assistance the South receives from the North, on adopting fair practices in international trade – and on the cooperation between national governments and local social partners. The challenge is to show that conserving rainforest in SIDS can benefit both people and wildlife. So involving local people in planning and managing natural resources is critical if they are to be conserved effectively and used sustainably. Unfortunately, conservation efforts often fall short of their goals because the more powerful interest groups, planners and public authorities make decisions without doing this.
The importance of forests must be reflected in all development projects and initiatives
Comprehensive environmental awareness programmes are a useful strategy for coping with the problems of deforestation and land degradation. Although most current deforestation and land degradation in the developing world stems from trying to satisfy the basic needs of the masses, problems also arise from greed or lack of knowledge. Such a coordinated awareness programme, targeted at all groups – students, youth, the business sector, policy- and decision-makers, and farmers – can foster a positive change of attitude towards the environment.

New strategy
Many SIDS have become independent nations over the last 20 years, and, in governing their own affairs, have carried out far-reaching economic and social reforms. These reforms have affected and influenced changes in the relationships between people, forests, land use and the management of these limited and valuable national resources. But SIDS are still faced with the problems of deforestation and land degradation.

These problems could be significantly reduced through adopting appropriate measures. For example, national development and natural resource management policies should be drawn up and implemented within the broad framework of a comprehensive national land-use strategy.

This strategy must seek to minimize conflicts between different uses of the land; to ensure the protection of coastal and wetland areas; to conserve and protect water resources and catchments; to protect coastal, marine and terrestrial ecosystems; to maintain ecological balances; to ensure the participation of local populations; to allow natural resources to be used wisely and sustainably; and to ensure integrated and inter-sectoral linkages. The economic, social and environmental importance of forests and land resources must always be reflected in and factored into all development projects and initiatives.

Dr. Colmore S. Christian is a Natural Resource Management Specialist based in Dominica.

PHOTOGRAPH: M. Mann/UNEP/Topham Picturepoint

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... | The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...

Complementary articles in other issues:
Norris Prevost: Beyond bananas (Tourism) 1999
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom: Averting catastrophe (Oceans) 1998
Cedric Schuster: Tradition matters (Oceans) 1998
Neroni Slade: Scaffolding or scaffold? (Climate Change) 1997