The Greater Caribbean region covers an area of 4.31 x 106 km2 and consists of all of the countries that are totally or partially touched by the waters of the Caribbean Sea. This group of countries includes the Bahamas in the north, Trinidad and Tobago in the south, all of the archipelagos of the area, as well as the continental countries with Caribbean coasts, such as Central America, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico (See map). This includes twelve continental countries that border the Caribbean Basin, as well as fourteen island nations and seven dependent territories.
The Caribbean region has a large number of natural resources with great ecological and economic value, which face great pressure. Among these resources are the following:
Coral reefs are one of the most productive of all marine ecosystems. Nine percent of the world’s coral reefs are located in the region, covering nearly 20,000 square miles. Most of these systems are located near the islands and along the Central American coast. The condition and habitat of the coral reefs are extremely important for tourism, both for recreational fishing and diving, which are estimated to generate revenues of between $3 million and $4 million annually. Additionally, the region’s marine and coastal resources help sustain the tourism industry, which is estimated to draw 12 million visitors each year.
Beaches and Sand Dunes
Beaches and sand dunes play a vital role in protecting the interior land from the effects of tides and floods caused by hurricanes, phenomena that are very common in the region. Additionally, they serve as habitat for a variety of flora and fauna of great importance. Among others, they provide sea turtles with sites for nesting, protecting their eggs and continuing their cycle of life.
Mangroves and Underwater Prairies
Like the coral reefs, mangroves and underwater prairies are areas that are extremely important for reproduction, protection and development of a variety of marine and terrestrial wildlife. They also serve as nesting sites for commercially important fish, shellfish and mollusk species. The mangrove systems and underwater prairies maintain the physical stability of the coast and protect the interior land from the onslaught of tides, waves and floods caused by hurricanes.
These valuable resources face serious problems and threats, however that could reduce not only their ecological value, but also their contribution to the region’s economic development. In the case of the coral reefs, the threat comes from the presence of sediments in the water as a result of inappropriate use of soil in higher elevations and the dredging of bodies of water. The sediments block sunlight and affect the photosynthesis process, asphyxiating the system. Additionally, the shipping of oil and related products produces pollution.
The increase in the temperature of ocean water, as a result of global warming, has resulted in a bleaching of coral reefs, which leads to their disappearance and the destruction of entire ecosystems. It is estimated that more than 42% of the coral colonies in the Caribbean have completely bleached while some 95% have experienced some bleaching.
The breakup of the ice shelf, also as a result of global warming, raises the sea level, along with thermal expansion, affecting low-lying land areas. These phenomena will have huge repercussions on mangroves, beaches and sand dunes. It is estimated that the impacts on the region will be greater than on other areas because of the limited land size of the countries in the Caribbean, especially the islands, and because much of the population and the economic and recreational activities are located mostly in the coastal areas.
The mangroves and underwater prairies are under growing pressure throughout the region as a result of pollution, sedimentation, dredging and recovery of coastal land. The cumulative effect of these activities can drastically reduce or eliminate the productive capacity of coastal zones. Mangroves, which are frequently considered marginal zones, are being systematically filled in, dredged, and destroyed despite their economic importance. The indiscriminate filling of these mangroves and swamps for urban development is a mistaken planning and development policy.
At the same time, unregulated and increased tourism has also contributed to the deterioration of natural resources in the region. This sector, which is very dependent on the quality of the environment, has experienced sustained growth during the last decade, including visits by cruise ships. The cruise ship industry brings 50% of cruise passengers in the world to the Caribbean region. Although tourism accounts for a large portion of the gross domestic product of some of the countries in the region, it can cause irreversible degradation to many marine and coastal resources.
The increase in tourism and its impact have had negative repercussions for the region’s resources. The most important impacts on the environment from tourism are:
1. Construction of hotels and other installations (marinas, canals) in sites with high natural value
2. Discharge of used water, often untreated, directly into coastal bodies of water.
3. The use of all kinds of recreational vehicles, which can destroy the dunes and their vegetation.
4. Collecting of coral and overfishing, including spearfishing.
5. Sand extraction and coastal deforestation for the development of tourism facilities and residences.
Another problem the Greater Caribbean region faces is deforestation. In the measure that the countries in the region promote economic development programs in manufacturing, tourism and agriculture, the destruction of forests is increased. In many countries in the region, the impact of deforestation is so severe that it has begun to affect productive capacity in both the medium and long term. It is estimated that more than 2 million hectares of tropical forests in the Caribbean are destroyed annually while only 70,000 hectares are reforested.
Associated with deforestation are the problems of erosion and sedimentation. Many of the most important watersheds in the region suffer from the effects of the destruction of vegetation for agricultural use, for use as firewood and the production of charcoal, and construction of housing and highways. This problem is greater in the Caribbean countries of Central America and the northern part of South America where an estimated 500 metric tons of soil per hectare is lost to erosion each year. Soil erosion interferes with the hydrological cycle and increases the amount of sediment in bodies of water, including estuaries and coastal bays. It also interferes with the use of water for agriculture, recreation and for public water supplies.
Sand extraction to meet the needs of the construction industry is another one of the serious environmental problems faced by the region’s countries. It is one of the causes of the destruction of beaches and dunes, particularly in the island areas of the Caribbean.
Loss of biodiversity is another serious problem. One of the most important factors that affect this situation is the modification or elimination of habitat due to pressures for urban development and tourism. Such is the case with the sea turtles whose nesting sites have been affected by the development of new projects. Similarly, migratory aquatic birds have been impacted by the filling and elimination of wetlands and saltwater lagoons. Another factor associated with the loss of biodiversity is a lack of economic resources and the standard of living. In these cases, difficulty finding food leads to the use of wildlife species such as the manatee and turtles to meet these needs, as well as the use of body parts from turtles, such as the shell, for making crafts and decorations for personal use and for sale.
Another aspect to consider is the risk of natural and technological disasters. Among the natural risks are hurricanes, the presence of active volcanoes (Martinique and St. Vincent), earthquakes (Haiti) and droughts. Hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. At the same time, the intense shipping traffic of all types, the extraction of fossil fuels and the presence of major chemical and pharmaceutical complexes exposes the region to the risk of technological disasters that threaten natural systems.
Protection and Appropriate Management of Natural Resources as a Guarantee of Sustainable Development for the region
Actions aimed at improving socio-economic conditions at the regional level should take into account the primary importance of appropriate management of the natural resources mentioned above. This is because the social, economic and political well-being and progress in the Caribbean are closely tied to the health of its natural systems. Toward that end, here are a few strategies:
1. Evaluation of the impact that public policies on development can have on the region’s natural resources, such as developing agricultural projects for export, attracting tourism activities with high environmental impact, mining, and marine resources (i.e., overfishing).
2. The use of integrated planning in the region’s development strategies. In recent years, the concept of holistic or integrated planning in development programs has taken a preeminent position. This focus, unlike a segmented focus, includes all components so that actions in one area do not limit possibilities in other sectors. The application of this approach to planning has a great deal of validity in the region because of the close ties between the various zones (interior land, the coastal areas and marine systems).
3. The involvement of all sectors (actors) in making decisions about development policies. The various sectors with an interest in the process include the government, businesses, community leaders, academia, and the users of the resources.
4. The creation of institutions and centers for making decisions that work efficiently and effectively. One of the areas that needs attention is the creation of regional institutions and rules to address incidents that affect the entire region, because of their size and nature, or that are common throughout all the region’s countries.
5. The creation of a Regional Center for Environmental Education and Research. This institution would be charged with developing training programs and projects to create public awareness and would coordinate research projects with the universities to meet particular resource management needs.
Author: Carlos Maysonet
Published: December 26, 2011.
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