EPIC, SXM-Pride on World Environment Day

Today Saturday June 5th 2010 marks the 38th annual commemoration of World Environment Day by the United Nations and thousands of organizations around the World. 

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This year’s theme is "Many Species. One Planet. One Future". The website of the United Nations Environment Programme or UNEP as it is more commonly referred to, features an interesting article on this year’s World Environment Day, parts of which read as follows:

"A total of 17,291 species are known to be threatened with extinction – from little-known plants and insects to charismatic birds and mammals. This is just the tip of the iceberg; many species disappear before they are even discovered.

The reason? Human activities. With our present approach to development, we have caused the clearing of much of the original forest, drained half of the world’s wetlands, depleted three quarters of all fish stocks, and emitted enough heat-trapping gases to keep our planet warming for centuries to come. We have put our foot on the accelerator, making species extinctions occur at up to 1000 times the natural rate.

As a result, we are increasingly risking the loss of the very foundation of our own survival. The variety of life on our planet – known as ‘biodiversity’ – gives us our food, clothes, fuel, medicine and much, much more."

During a recent conversation a friend of mine expressed the opinion that St. Maarten is a microcosm of the world, I smiled at the word as I hadn’t much heard it in quite some time. The word microcosm is derived from the Latin microcosmus and means a little world. Using it to describe St. Maarten would therefore imply that St. Maarten or events occurring here are a reflection of what is happening globally albeit it on a diminished scale.

My friend was of course very right with his analogy as evident in the fact that the above text from UNEP’s website could easily be used to describe much of what has been happening on St. Maarten over the past four decades;

A comprehensive Biological inventory of St. Maarten’s Flora and Fauna has never been carried out as environmental foundations simply can’t afford the costs associated with such a project, with the rate of development and the resulting habitat destruction on St. Maarten it is very plausible that "many species disappear before they are even discovered" or in any case before they can be documented as found on St. Maarten.

Explosive, largely unplanned and unregulated development has lead to the destruction of 14 of St. Maarten’s 19 ponds an alarming three quarters of the island’s wetlands as opposed to the drainage of "half of the world’s wetlands" which UNEP’s text refers to. It seems we have surpassed the rest of the world in the rate of the destruction of wetlands. Not particularly an accomplishment to be proud of.

From an economic perspective we too are "risking the loss of the very foundation of our own survival", we are jeopardizing the viability of our tourism driven economy through the systematic destruction of the very foundation on which it is built: St. Maarten’s Natural and Cultural Heritage.

This is not just something that the environmental foundations have been indicating, but is actually also being pointed out by many other residents, return visitors, international experts and well read publications such as the National Geographic’s Traveler magazine.

"Dutch St. Maarten is in trouble. St. Martin, the French side of the island, is promising in terms of balancing development with the natural resources. The environmental and ecological quality of Dutch St. Maarten is threatened by overdevelopment".

"This island presents one of the best examples of what islands should avoid in tourism development. Tourism has gobbled up the culture of the island, which now is defined by the hotels, casinos, and other modern developments—not the island’s historical, artistic, culinary, or other local heritage. Quality of life is a major consideration for residents as well as visitors". National Geographic, Traveler, 2009.

It is high time that our decision makers take these issues more seriously. Government needs to work towards insuring that development on St. Maarten takes place in a sustainable manner, through the implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation such as Zoning plans, an environmental framework ordinance and the Marine Park Ordinance and construction of proper waste and sewage treatment systems and associated infrastructure.

Sustainable development itself is defined as "(Economic) development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". (Our Common future, The World Commission on Environment and Development; The Brundtland Commission)

Tourism and tourism related services are the driving force of St. Maarten’s economy, accounting for an estimated 80% of the island’s economic activity. Sustainable (economic) development in St. Maarten, therefore calls for sustainable tourism (main economic pillar). Sustainable tourism in turn may be defined as tourism which is developed and maintained in such a manner and scale that it remains viable in the long run and does not degrade the environment in which it exists to such an extent that it prohibits the successful development of other activities.

The durability of the tourism product including (St. Maarten’s) hence greatly depends on the level of nature conservation and environmental care and requires a balance between tourism and the environment.

"Tourism development and environment protection are intimately linked. The natural environment can attract tourists and tourism investments, and therefore it can be the basis for generating economic development. However, if tourism development is not managed properly, it can devastate the environment and undermine the tourism activity itself in the long run." (Briassoulis, 1995).

Part of the problem on St. Maarten is that the Portfolios of Environmental affairs and infrastructure and development are coupled and have historically been held by the same Commissioners. These Commissioners and Department Directors (in this case sector ROB) seem to have more of an affinity for road infrastructure projects or other forms of construction then for safeguarding the environment and do not seem to understand the necessity of a balance of both.

The aforementioned was once again evident from Commissioner Heyliger’s speech during April’s meeting of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance in Philipsburg. The Commissioner spoke of often having to choose between "development and progress" on one hand and the safeguarding of the environment on the other. A clear signal that the Commissioner does not understand the dynamics of the topic, as "economic development and progress" on St. Maarten or anywhere else for that matter will not remain viable in the long run if the environment is not sufficiently protected.

It is my opinion that the time has come for the portfolios of Environmental affairs, and infrastructure and development to be separated, held by two different (perhaps "professional") Commissioners and managed by civil servants with a better understanding of environmental and sustainable development issues.

St. Maarten Pride Foundation and EPIC have been advocating environmental protection, working to create environmental awareness and providing environmental education for a number of years now. This school year alone EPIC, for example, provided interactive environmental education classes to approximately 1468 students during the foundation’s four month long environmental education program. The time has long come for Government and the relevant commissioners in particular, to start to carry out their responsibilities in safeguarding St. Maarten’s environment and heritage for current and future generations of residents and visitors alike to enjoy.

Rueben J. Thompson

Vice President

St. Maarten Pride Foundation

Project Manager

Environmental Protection In the Caribbean

Board member

Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation