Albert Binger
describes how the resilience of small island developing states in a difficult world depends on the proper management of their natural resources

The economies and social structure of the vast majority of small island developing states (SIDS) were developed under colonial rules. When most of them became independent nations in the later half of the 20th century they inherited economies based principally on providing commodities to their former ruling nations – and on small populations, secure markets for products, assistance with natural disasters and international political protection. Independence did not bring about any significant change in the nature of their economies or trading relationships.

At the Mauritius meeting on SIDS’ progress in implementing the Barbados Programme of Action, the global community is to be told that this past economy (inherited with significant social and ecological debt) cannot work any more. All the previous conditions have changed, and new ones with potentially devastating present consequences – like the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules – and future ones – like climate changes – place us in great peril. None of these things are of SIDS’ making. The international community must do a better job of helping them with resources to implement the Barbados Programme, because implementing sustainable development is the only prescription for the perilous situation facing the majority of them.

The Barbados Programme set out the necessary actions that SIDS were to follow and the basis for international assistance in helping them pursue sustainable development – and pointed out that SIDS’ development was, in the vast majority of cases, linked to extracting services and products from the environment. Economic activities in the Caribbean, for example, primarily involve direct exploitation of such fragile natural resources as coastal environments, marine ecosystems, forests, agricultural land and mineral resources. The pressures being exerted on these resources from a combination of poor management practices in using them, tourism, and livelihoods for the un- and under-employed (in some countries above 30 per cent of the working population) lead to ecological and environmental degradation. The losses eat away at the limited natural resource endowment. So their carrying capacity declines, even as population expands.

Special case
Agenda 21, adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, stipulates that SIDS constitute ‘a special case for environment and development’. This was elaborated in detail at the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States in Barbados in 1994 and reaffirmed at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The special case was based on the high levels of economic and environmental vulnerability inherent in SIDS as a result of their relatively small size, remote location, susceptibility to natural disasters, the nature of their economies and fragility of their environments. But neither the special case designation, nor the adoption of the Barbados Programme that should have brought additional and special international assistance, has had the intended outcome. Consequently, economic and environmental conditions in the vast majority of SIDS continue to deteriorate.

With special case designation, the international community was expected to provide increased support to help SIDS pursue sustainable development as set forth in the Barbados Programme. However, over the last decade, official development assistance to SIDS decreased from $2.9 billion in 1994 to $1.7 billion in 2002 (see figure). By contrast a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs shows that SIDS have carried out 70 per cent of the tasks and actions stipulated by the Barbados Programme, even if it has not yet been fully implemented.

The progress report for Mauritius is not encouraging: the vast majority of SIDS’ economies have recorded negligible growth rates in the ten years of the Barbados Programme, with the exceptions of those islands where growth is attributed to tourism. SIDS’ development, to date, has been primarily through unsustainable use of natural non-renewable and potentially renewable resources to provide raw material. As a result, many of the critical ecosystems – such as nearshore coral reefs, mangroves and other wetlands – are either under stress or showing significant signs of degradation. Yet they sustain livelihoods in SIDS and are the foundation of tourism, their largest and fastest growing economic driver. Tourism is a major economic sector in most SIDS, accounting, for example, for between 25 and 35 per cent of the total economy of the Caribbean region.

A United Nations Development Programme report – Vulnerability of Small Island Developing States – points out that the economic and environmental vulnerability of the majority of SIDS has increased significantly since the 1994 Barbados Conference and that their capacity to cope (resilience building) has consequently decreased. It calls for SIDS to take innovative steps to build resilience and position themselves better to address the future threat of climate change and sea-level rise. These are caused predominantly by the growing emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels globally – but particularly in the OECD countries – a situation over which SIDS have no control. SIDS are extremely vulnerable to these threats and – according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Caribbean ones are among the most susceptible.
SIDS will have to build social, economic and environmental resilience
SIDS will have to build social, economic and environmental resilience as part of a process of achieving sustainable development. Building such resilience – an imperative for them – comes about through managing the environment, which provides all the raw material, so that it maintains its highest level of diversity: this requires all products and services to be obtained in a synergistic way. Maintaining high levels of diversity allows the environment to recover from external shocks. Reducing diversity, through absence of proper environmental management, will lead to significant reduction and eventual loss of raw material, with consequent damage to the population’s quality of life. Sustainable development in SIDS therefore requires sustainable management of the environment, such as acquiring goods and services in a manner consistent with maintaining high diversity or high levels of resilience.

Most SIDS’ ongoing difficulty in generating economic growth and building resilience results from a combination of factors that include a declining value for traditional export commodities (see figure) – impacted by the coming into force of WTO rules that prohibit preferential access – and the ongoing increase in the price of petroleum compared to traditional exports as shown in the figures, left.

Between 1995, the first year of the WTO, and 2000, the unit value of seven of the Caribbean’s eleven most important exports fell. The decline for five of them was greater than 25 per cent. Consequently, the trade deficit almost tripled from $1.2 billion in 1994 to $3.4 billion in 2001. Furthermore, SIDS have only seen very limited foreign direct investment (see table) – and this has been overwhelmingly in tourism and in the purchasing of utilities like electricity, and telecommunications – even though they provide an enabling environment under the aegis of the IMF and the World Bank. Their dependency on petroleum (with the exception of one or two countries) to meet all commercial, transportation, industrial and most household energy needs represents yet another major challenge to sustainability. The price of petroleum continues to increase relative to the value of traditional exports and is increasingly reducing SIDS’ ability to compete internationally in the production of goods and services

Professor Albert Binger is Director of the University of the West Indies Centre for Environment and Development, and Visiting Professor at Saga University Institute of Ocean Energy, Saga, Japan.


Official development assistance for SIDS (US$ billion)

Export prices of primary commodities

Foreign direct investment in selected SIDS

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate change, 1997
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Tourism, 1999
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: