The Caribbean’s economic and social development has been accompanied by a significant environmental impact. Various processes that are directly or indirectly related to the industrialization and economic development of the Caribbean region are associated with adverse environmental effects: the expansion of tourism, the increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, migrations from rural areas to cities, a disproportionate amount of land set aside for the construction of housing, population growth, deforestation, degradation of supplies of potable water, degradation of marine resources, problems with solid waste and wastewater disposal systems, deterioration of air and water quality in densely populated areas, increased health care costs due to pollution, and the dependence on exploitation of non-renewable resources by the poorest sectors of society. In the Caribbean islands, where land is clearly the scarcest resource (because of the geography of the small islands), the region’s intensive and disproportionate use of land for mining, housing, agriculture, infrastructure, industry and tourism have had an adverse ecological impact.

The situation is only made worse by the fact that many Caribbean economies are strongly dependent on exporting natural resources and that many countries rely on a non-diversified portfolio of export products. In the continental areas of the Caribbean, the greatest impact has been on forests. Apart from the forests of the Greater Antilles, the most important forests in the Caribbean basin are those located in the continental Caribbean countries. It is estimated that the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries collectively have 32.7 million hectares of forests, the majority of which are located in Guyana, Suriname and Belize. Guyana is, in fact, one of the countries with the highest percentage of forest in its territory, with 18 million hectares of forest that represents nearly 95 percent of its national territory. Although household use of wood for cooking is common in many sectors of Guyanese society, it is estimated that the greatest environmental impact on the forests comes from commercial activity related to agriculture, mining and the timber industry. Guyana has an annual deforestation rate of 0.06% per year. Other economic activities with severe environmental effects in the Caribbean region are the mining and petroleum industries. Mining involves alterations to the soil and vegetation and also has a great impact on watercourses, drainage, swamps and underground aquifers. As for the petroleum industry, most of the environmental problems associated with hydrocarbon production are, frequently, the result of disposal of byproducts. Although agriculture is not a major sector in the Caribbean islands, it is an important source of pollution in the region, particularly because of the use of chemicals. Environmental impacts related to agricultural production are numerous, but usually include air and water pollution associated with production and processing, and problems related to the unsustainable use of land resources.

In the Caribbean islands, meanwhile, the tourism industry appears to have the greatest environmental impact on the region. The tourism industry requires many natural and human resources. For example, the industry uses a huge amount of land for the construction of gigantic hotels and golf courses, it requires heavy use of water for swimming pools and irrigation of golf courses, as well as high energy use to meet the needs of tourists. Other adverse environmental effects related to the tourism industry include the destruction of mangrove swamps, coral reefs and sandy beaches, the extinction of species, the eutrophication of lagoons and lakes due to sedimentation, the disposal of solid wastes from tourism, and excessive exploitation of fishing.

The effects of economic activity and tourism on the human element, or labor, should also be considered. Many environmental economists or contemporary academics who work on ecological issues often include the society as an integral part of the environment and often measure the impacts of changes in economic activity on local populations as part of their analysis. This is important in the Caribbean region in particular, given its recent economic history. The transition from economies based on agriculture to economies based on manufacturing and service industries (tourism) during the second half of the 20th century, along with the opening of markets through free trade agreements (for example, NAFTA, CARICOM, CBI), have revealed the lack of skills and training in broad sectors of the island populations and has created a huge mass of unskilled, unemployed or underemployed workers and sectors that are highly dependent on aid from the welfare state or on payments sent home by emigrants abroad. This situation is particularly notable in the Greater Antilles, whose population represents 80 percent of the total Caribbean population, and particularly in Cuba and Haiti, two of the poorest countries in the Americas. This has created a prevailing inequality in the distribution of wealth. The Latin America and Caribbean remains the region with the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world. Unemployment is high throughout the region, particularly among young people. Studies of young workers by Caribbean environmental economist Dennis A. Pantin show how young people are most affected by the problems of unemployment and underemployment in the Caribbean. Comparing data from seven Caribbean countries (Belize, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados), Pantin showed unemployment rates among those between the ages of 15 and 29 that ranged from 52% in Barbados to 84% in Jamaica. For this reason, many economists believe that investments in human resources — education, training, and health and nutrition — are essential for the economic growth and development of the Caribbean region.

Another effect on the social sector of introducing tourism economies is related to the price of land. On the Caribbean islands, the effect of tourism goes far beyond the visiting tourist and also includes the so-called “residential tourism” — the development of residential complexes for sale as vacation homes, many of which are later rented, usually for minimum periods of a week, as luxury villas with private swimming pools and privileged access to beaches. This has created an unusual demand for land, which has had the effect of substantially increasing the price of land. This makes it impossible for many local residents to buy land. On many of the small islands, locals are a minority of the population and the sense of alienation and having lost control over deciding national issues is very broad. These local people feel like foreigners in their own countries.

But the environmental change with perhaps the greatest impact on the region is global in nature and cannot be directly associated with local economic development. Rising temperatures as a result of global warming have an adverse effect not only on forests, but also on the coral reefs that are part of the tourist attractions of the islands and an important sector of the economy. The increase in temperatures caused by global warming have a direct effect in the form of disruptions of forest ecosystems, biodiversity, the life and death of trees, and water quality. In the Caribbean islands, the ecosystems of the small islands are particularly fragile and susceptible to the changes associated with global warming. With small amounts of land and little biodiversity, the islands are most affected by these changes at the global level. The results of global warming that most affect the islands include the rise in sea levels, the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and the increase in water temperatures. The latter adversely affects the coral reefs. The Caribbean region contains about 9% of the world’s coral reefs, approximately 20,000 square miles (52,000 square kilometers) of coral reefs. During the last 10 years, the increase in water temperatures associated with global warming has become a threat to the survival of these coral reefs. The coral reefs are home to one of the most diverse marine habitats in the world, but they are highly fragile if the water temperature rises. When water temperatures rise for long periods of time, the microscopic plants called zooxanthellae, which serve as food for the coral, die. The death of these microscopic plants on a large scale is known as coral bleaching and it has led to the disappearance of huge swaths of coral reefs. The coral that live in these reefs are important for the tourism economies because many people visit the Caribbean to fish and dive. These activities are responsible for income of between $3.1 billion and $4.6 billion annually for the Caribbean island nations.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the Caribbean island region from climate change comes in the form of the high rate of natural disasters in the area, which is also associated with climate change at the global level. The economic impact of these natural disasters on the Caribbean islands is significant. This is particularly true for the small islands. According to data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the International Development Bank (IDB), the cost of climactic disasters in the Latin American and Caribbean region exceeds $5 billion annually and $1.4 billion in the Caribbean island region. In the Caribbean islands, the effects of climactic disasters can be seen most clearly in the case of Haiti, which was hit by a scale 7 earthquake in January, 2010, followed by the passage of Hurricane Tomas in November of the same year. But the problem is a global problem that has a significant impact on underdeveloped or developing economies. According to estimates by the World Bank, the spending on aid to these developing countries would require between $75 billion and $100 billion a year to prepare for natural disasters.

A 1999 study of sustainable development in the Caribbean (“The Challenge of Sustainable Development in Small Island Developing States: Case Study on Tourism in the Caribbean,” in Natural Resources Forum, Vol. 23, No. 3: 221-233) by economist Dennis A. Pantin, who specialized in environmental issues, advanced the idea that the developing economies of small islands had the potential to establish models of sustainable economic development for the rest of the world. In general terms, however, none of the Caribbean economies can be defined as ecologically sustainable except for that of Cuba. According to the United Nations Forum on Forests, Cuba is the only Caribbean country whose development model meets the definition of “sustainable development,” based on two criteria: human development and ecological impact (an indicator of the environmental impact created by human demand in relation to the land’s ability to regenerate resources). Cuba has a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.8 and an ecological impact of 1.8, which places it ninth highest in the world in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) rankings. According to a study conducted jointly by Yale and Columbia Universities in 2010, Cuba’s EPI was comparable to that of the most highly developed countries, such as Switzerland, Costa Rica, Sweden and Norway. Only four countries in Latin America achieved favorable EPI scores in the study: Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia and Chile.


Author: Luis Galanes
Published: March 20, 2012.

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