Geography is a science that is aimed a explaining the spatial distribution and describing the variation in location of phenomena and geofactors on the earth’s surface that affect humankind and, in turn, are affected by humankind. It is a reasoned study of the space in which we live and it therefore focuses on an examination of the dynamics of spatial relationships (movement, connection, and interrelationships) among the various physical-natural and socio-cultural attributes of the surroundings. Unlike other disciplines, geography cannot be organized or visualized as the study of a singular phenomenon. Like history, however, geography provides a unique point of view for analyzing and understanding various human activities. Everything humankind does takes into consideration that, on one hand, there are no two spots on the earth that are exactly alike, and, on the other hand, that every event, in the final analysis, takes place in a particular space and time.
Therefore, fundamentally and methodologically, geography always tries to answer two basic questions about almost any phenomenon known or imagined: where and why? In other words, where do things happen? Why do things happen? And even further, why do things happen in the specific places where they happen? To address those questions, geography’s questions, theoretical and conceptual concerns and practices have historically been focused on four areas of research. In the interest of summarizing, however, it is the tradition of territorial research or regional geography (the study of particular areas, regions or places) that for now provides us with the opportunity to propose a description of the topic of this section: the Caribbean region.
In perception and the imagination, the Caribbean suggests intrigue and seduction because of the evocativeness of its exotic nature and its exuberant landscape. These characterizations are inseparably and inevitably tied to its geography, both the physical and natural geography and the socio-cultural geography. These elements (geography and environment) are the basis for the historical development of the countries that make up the region and are still today the basis for its importance in the world. The region takes its name from the largest and most identifying factor in the region, the Caribbean Sea itself. The very concept of the Caribbean is derived from the name that the Europeans used to refer in generic form to the various indigenous groups and populations in the region at the time of colonization, between the 15th and 19th centuries. These indigenous populations came mainly from South America and at the time of colonization were scattered throughout the region from the mouth of the Orinoco River through what is today called the Antilles (both Greater and Lesser).
The region consists of those territories whose coasts border the Caribbean Sea, so the Caribbean consists of two structurally identifiable subregions based on their position and location. These two are the insular Caribbean, which refers to the countries that are islands and their respective keys and islets, and the continental Caribbean, consisting of those countries that are part of North, Central and South America and whose Atlantic coasts border the Caribbean Sea. The Caribbean insular area consists of the Antilles islands, both the Greater and Lesser Antilles, though the use of that nomenclature refers more to socio-linguistic identifications than geomorphic differences as they both belong to the same geologic structure (insular or volcanic arc). The Greater Antilles consists of the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico, while the Lesser Antilles (also known as the Windward Islands) consist of the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago.
Others territories in the Antilles that are dependencies of other countries are the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. Croix, Water Island) and Puerto Rico, under the jurisdiction of the United States; the British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke), Anguilla and Montserrat, under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom; Guadeloupe, Martinique. St. Martin and St. Barts under the French Overseas Departments; the Leeward Islands, consisting of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, San Eustatius and St. Maarten, that belong to the Netherlands; and the State of New Sparta (Margarita Island, Coche and Cubagua) and the Venezuelan Federal Dependencies, which belong to Venezuela.
The continental Caribbean, meanwhile, consists of the coasts of Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela along the Caribbean Sea. Despite the socio-linguistic differences, the Caribbean, as a whole, shares a socio-economic, political and cultural history rooted in its common colonial origins that began with the arrival of the Europeans and their conquest and colonization in the 15th century and extending to the 19th century. Independently of the geographic, cultural and geopolitical reality, the concept of a “greater Caribbean” has been created, apart from the structure of the islands and continental territories, as a spatial unit or area of interest, not only for purposes of trade but also for political and cultural reasons, to unify and strengthen the region and develop its potential.
The sea for which the Caribbean is named is an open sea, although it has characteristics of an interior sea because of its borders, which form a structural part of the Atlantic Ocean itself. It separates the two main continental masses of North America and South America and has a size of 2,754,000 square kilometers (1,063,325 square miles). In terms of its absolute location, the Caribbean Sea is located between 9 degrees and 22 degrees latitude north and between 61 degrees and 88 degrees longitude west. Its size makes it one of the largest seas on the planet. The location of the Caribbean in the Tropical Convergence Zone (specifically in the Tropic of Cancer, to locate it north of the equator) determines many of the region’s characteristics, specifically in terms of climate, such as temperature, precipitation, humidity, solar energy, winds, atmospheric pressure and evaporation. These elements are also influenced at the local or subregional levels by other factors such as latitude, relation to land masses (size of land versus bodies of water), marine currents, topographic factors (mountains and mountain ranges) and elevation above sea level. As a result of the combination of these elements and factors, the region has a tropical climate with average temperatures of around 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius), with little variation throughout the year.
The series of islands and keys that are part of the insular or volcanic arc (the chain of mountains that may or may not totally or partially emerge from the ocean) that form part of the border of the sea have a total surface area of approximately 232,243 square kilometers (89,669.5 square miles). Forming the border of the sea are the Antilles (particularly those called the Lesser Antilles, also known as the Windward Islands) to the east, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and the Leeward Islands to the south, and Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, respectively, to the west and northwest.
Geologically, the Caribbean formed during the Mesozoic Era, approximately 160 million to 180 million years ago, although the Antilles emerged from the ocean approximately 40 million years ago. The floor of the Caribbean Sea consists of five ocean basins (underwater topography). The Caribbean plate covers most of the zone and borders or adjoins the North American plate to the north, the South American plate to the east and southeast, and the Coco and Nazca plates to the west and southwest, respectively. The combined contact with the North American plate to the north and northeast with a lateral movement or subduction, along with the convergent subduction to the east and southeast with the South American plate, are the causes of the high level of seismic and volcanic activity experienced in the region, particularly in the Lesser Antilles. Examples of this are the recent eruptions of the Soufrière volcano on Montserrat since 2006 and the eruption of the volcano Mount Pelée on Martinique in 1902, which is considered the most devastating eruption in the 20th century with a toll of more than 28,000 killed and more than 50 square kilometers destroyed. These geological characteristics put the region at a high risk of tectonic activity that causes recurring seismic and volcanic activities and increases the possibility of the formation of tsunamis as a result.
Paradoxically, the region’s climate, which gives it much of its exotic exuberance and is one of the basic tourist attractions, and is therefore one of its most important economic assets, also constitutes one of its major drawbacks. The Caribbean zone and the region southwest of the coast of Africa is the site where cyclonic climactic and atmospheric phenomenon known as hurricanes most often develop, along with other tropical disturbances. These appear during the long hurricane season that lasts from June 1 to November 30, with the highest risk of hurricanes forming in the months of August and September.
These atmospheric disturbances (hurricanes, tropical storms and depressions) represent the greatest natural risk to the region, mainly due to their intensity, and cause loss of life and material infrastructure losses throughout the region. One extreme example of this kind of catastrophe was Hurricane Mitch in 2006, which caused the unfortunate loss of more than 11,000 lives and more than $6.3 billion in material losses as it passed through the Caribbean, Central and North America. Another devastating example was the situation in Haiti after an onslaught by three hurricanes (Fay, Gustav and Hanna) in a matter of days, one after the other, which left more than 500 people dead and more than 650,000 homeless, in addition to the massive destruction of infrastructure in that part of Hispaniola, in particular.
One climate event with a significant influence on the region is the phenomenon known as El Niño. This phenomenon causes a drier environment that results in droughts that may be moderate or strong, depending on the magnitude, potency and year in which they occur. The opposite effects occur with La Niña, a phenomenon that leads to higher amounts of precipitation than average. The effects of these phenomena may cause greater or lesser levels of damages or positive effects, depending on pre-existing conditions (level of economic development, infrastructure investment, diversification and distribution of economic activities and the level of preparations or planning) in the region’s countries and territories.
Geologic elements, as well as the climactic and atmospheric factors mentioned above, provide the basis for various dynamics in the physical and natural environment of the region that have formed and continue to change its physical geography. The Caribbean is home to about 9% of the world’s coral reefs, which cover approximately 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers). Specifically, the coral reefs of the Caribbean are considered one of the habitats with the greatest biodiversity on the planet. They have been dramatically affected at an accelerating rate by coral bleaching (a condition that results from accumulation of high levels of sediment, increased water temperatures and acidification of the water). Most of these causes, though they can be cyclically natural, are affected or directly and disproportionately caused by various human activities and by the high level of these activities beyond the ability of the systems to regenerate themselves.
The immediate effect of this phenomenon is a loss of habitat for numerous species that rely on the coral reefs for their main source of food and for reproduction, with direct consequences for the various economic activities that depend on that natural chain. One of the things that triggered this situation is the phenomenon of global warming and the resulting climate change experienced at the global level. It is estimated that more than 42% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean have lost their color and that nearly 95% have experienced or suffered some kind of disturbance. Given this situation, it is easily predictable that the majority of the countries in the region will experience economic losses, especially the insular territories that rely on tourism and commercial fishing as important or fundamental parts of their economies.
Another threat resulting from global warming that is a huge concern is the rise in ocean levels caused by the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions. This will primarily affect low-lying areas and coastal areas that often contain mangrove ecosystems. Mangroves are extremely valuable ecologically, as well as economically, to the Caribbean islands as they act as a breeding ground for many fish and seafood species. They also function as a natural mechanism for growing and expanding coastal areas as they accumulate sediment that is deposited and that eventually solidifies, resulting in additional land, which is especially valuable for the islands. It is estimated that the impacts from global warming and climate change and their effects on coral reefs and mangrove systems will be greater than elsewhere due to the small size of the region’s countries, particularly the islands, and because much of the economic and recreational activities take place mainly in the coastal zones.
In terms of human geography, or the socio-cultural environment, the Caribbean is a mosaic of contrasts that is united and strengthened by its common colonial history, as well as by the mixture of indigenous, European and African peoples. Instead of diminishing, this process has strengthened and expanded over time, leading to new and enriching branches. As the geographic center of the Americas (North, Central and South), the Caribbean, since the beginning of the arrival, conquest and colonization by the Europeans, has played a key and important role in the economic, social and political development of this part of the planet, which was called the “New World.” This role is closely tied to the region’s physical configuration, which has provided the basis for the development of various socio-economic and political dynamics that are crucial in the historical development of the continent. The Caribbean has been the scene of one of the main processes of cultural and economic globalization.
It must be recognized that this process was one of huge and significant episodes of great cruelty, injustice, oppression and death. It culminated in the birth of a new era and a new form of interaction in the world, as well as a new conceptualization of the spatial and existential reality of humankind. Slavery, both of the indigenous people and the Africans who were brought to the region by force, was one of the consequences of this process. If anything positive (in any form) came from these events, it was the development, in general terms, of the Caribbean’s particular social and cultural identity. This occurred despite the linguistic, religious, economic, political and social differences at the local or subregional level, based on the influences of the former colonizing countries. Colonialism, which lasted for 350 to 500 years of history, was experienced by all of the territories that make up the Caribbean (and continues today) and is another of the major consequences of the project of conquest, colonization and exploitation of the region’s resources and its inhabitants. This has had serious implications on the evolution of the inhabitants, as well as the populations jointly, which range from the psychological, at the individual level of the population, to economic growth and development, among the countries collectively.
The Caribbean’s current population is approximately 286 million people, with the highest concentrations in the continental Caribbean. The insular Caribbean, meanwhile, has lower population density compared to the region as a whole, and also has lower growth rates (1% per year, compared to 2% per year in the continental Caribbean). Another important demographic element in the region is the essential statistics for measuring population, the birth and death rates. On this topic, it is important to note that despite the improvements in health and sanitation services, which have led to a higher life expectancy, there are still mortality rates that can be traced to poor services at the local or subregional levels. While the region as a whole shows relative demographic stability, at least in general terms, there are different trends in particular cases such as El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua, which have birth rates (percentage obtained from the number of births per 1,000 people in a given period) greater than 30 (the world average is 10).
As for the mortality rate (number of deaths per 1,000 in a given period), this statistic has remained stable in the region, with an average life expectancy of 70 years, with the notable and unfortunate exception of Haiti, which due to its impoverished condition has an average life expectancy of just 49 years. This is the lowest life expectancy in the entire hemisphere and one of the lowest in the world.
A third highly important demographic element in terms of analyzing the region’s population is the high level of migratory population movements as a result of economic inequality and poverty, political instability and, more recently, catastrophes related to natural phenomenon such as hurricanes and earthquakes. The frequency and significant impacts of these phenomena have been an additional cause of migrations, which have involved more women in recent times. Women now play a central role in emigration, in contrast to traditional patterns that were dominated by men. Overall, Caribbean emigrants, as well as those from the rest of Latin America, are moving in growing numbers to Europe, not to mention the constant flow to North America, particularly the United States and Canada, as their destinations. Pressure and incentives for emigration persist due to political and economic upheaval, along with the misery present in some countries. The phenomenon is ever more complex and continues to be one of the most serious challenges for the governments and societies in the region in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the interior spatial organization of each of the countries and territories in the Caribbean region retains the urban morphology inherited from the colonial period. Currently, the region’s urban centers still retain the morphology (the design, both structural and diagrammatic) of British, French, Dutch and Spanish architecture, combined with local elements. In most cases, the capital cities of the various countries in the region, especially in the insular Caribbean, continue to play the primary role in the urban structure of the sites. This influences and affects the concentration of regulatory activities (political and socio-economic) in these sites and makes decentralization more difficult because these primary cities are the gravitational centers around which the societies are built. This pattern of mobility means that approximately 65% of the population, and up to 85% of the population in some locations, is considered urban. There has been an unquestionable migration from the country to the city that is ongoing and is one of the most important elements for analyzing and explaining many of the complexes demographic, political, economic, and cultural realities that characterize the region.
These circumstances not only represent a public policy problem in terms of urban planning, but also for planning for the use of natural and environmental resources and the management and response to serious natural phenomenon, such as the threats from global warming and subsequent climate change. However, the various alternatives for facing these challenges continues to depend on a common political will and a visualization of the region as an entity capable of forming a united front against environmental challenges, as well as political and economic ones. Old obstacles to this unity continue to exist, despite big advances in recent years and the creation of regional institutions that are aimed at bringing about greater levels of integration not only on issues of trade and economics, but also on political and social issues.
Considering the current conditions facing the world today, the Caribbean region is currently in a moment of extreme importance for its future. In the measure that the region can improve economic conditions and relationships with the economic power centers at the international level through treaties, and in the measure that it can strengthen integration initiatives within the region, the Caribbean can not only become a vital space for the Americas, but it can also become an important producer and consumer and retake its position as a center of global commercial activity.
Author: Harrison Flores Ortiz
Published: May 11, 2012.
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