We Are Disregarding Our Environment at Our Own Peril

It is four in the morning and we have just crossed the Anegada Passage on a forty foot sailing boat. I’ve just spent three days racing in the BVI Spring Regatta and we are delivering the boat back to Sint Maarten. It was an excellent few days, with sailors supporting the British Virgin Islands in their first regatta since the disastrous 2017 Hurricane Season, just as they did in Sint Maarten a few weeks earlier for the Heineken Regatta.

It is a beautiful evening; we left in the late afternoon for the thirteen hour haul across the Drake and then the Windward Passages. The sea is calm and the wind favorable as we sail past Necker Island, the once luxurious home of Billionaire Philanthropist Sir Richard Branson, now a shell of splintered wood completely gutted by Irma and Maria. The sun set in the fiery glow of optimism that this time of day brings and the rising of the stars guide our way home across the Northeastern Caribbean. Before the moonrise we can see the bioluminescent organisms organize their own stellar constellation in our wake. And then, finally, the unblinking eye of the moon watching over us as we make our way overnight to Simpson Bay.

After about eleven hours we can just make out the lights of Anguilla ahead of us as we start to see the colors in the East softening with the rising dawn, and a breeze is picking up out of the Northeast. Suddenly, on that same breeze that has blown for centuries over our humming islands, a scent so acrid and chemical is being carried. A scent that burns our eyes and scratches our throats. After eleven hours smelling fresh air at sea we are confronted by our terrible post-hurricane reality. We have just been welcomed back by that which has been the defining aspect of Sint Maarten; the toxic, poisonous smoke of the Philipsburg Landfill.

We have barely one month to go before the start of what is predicted to be one of the busiest Hurricane Seasons in seventy years. Not good news for an island still reeling from the last season, but especially not good news in terms of an island failing in terms of resiliency, sustainable development and responding to our environmental disaster.

Make no mistake; Hurricane Irma and her aftermath are environmental disasters. The storm was fueled by the environmental effects brought on by Climate Change. The storm has impacted and affected our environment, and in turn, it has impacted our economy. Despite the total disregard for the environment on Sint Maarten the past few months, whether in terms of recognition from the highest decision makers of the land or the ‘small man on the street,’ the protection of our natural resources is the only way to recover from this event. Yet, the environment is again taking a back-seat on Sint Maarten. And this time it will be at our own peril.

Right after the hurricane the environment was the hot topic; the Nature Foundation received calls, emails, messages and requests of information from our community and from the tourism industry to get a status update on our defining tourism product: the beautiful nature of Sint Maarten. Cruise Ship companies and tour operators depended on clean beaches good water quality for guests to return. It were the updates on the health of our environment immediately after the storm that helped form the decision for tourism to return to the island. Scuba divers and snorkelers wanted to know the status of our coral reefs, a resource that provides fifty-million dollars to our economy annually.

But now that the dust has settled we are again struggling on the environmental front: water quality is an issue at our swimming beaches; wetlands are being filled-in and mangroves removed; sewage is being recorded everywhere; the work of environmental and conservation organizations are being largely ignored, under-financed and under-appreciated; littering and solid waste issues are on the increase; and we are being poisoned daily by the landfill.

If there is anything the past few months should have taught us is that our environment and our economy are inexorably linked, and the conservation of our natural resources coupled with the social support of our populace and the diversification of our economy are the only ways to ensure our survival.

The only way we can overcome this challenge, this major test of our resolve and of our love for this island, is to make our environment and the conservation of our resources a priority. Splitting Environment from the rest of the VROMI Ministry is something which has been suggested by various international organizations that visited Sint Maarten in the aftermath of the Hurricane, making the observation considering the environmental challenges that we face and the lack of attention it receives.

We are small yet diverse enough, and have enough dynamic minds on this island, to focus our rebuilding energy on sustainable development. We need to focus on the looking after of the social needs of our population (so many still without roofs, without jobs), the diversification of our economy, the protection of our natural resources and the support for renewable energy. We are contained enough as a community to ban the use of single use plastics, to protect our terrestrial ecosystems and to start to have a concrete and swift resolution to our solid waste issues. We need a national campaign regarding the beautifying of our neighborhoods, taking pride in our place and in our identity. Only then can we truly be St. Maarten Strong for to be Strong is to be Resilient and Prepared.

We are tying up the boat now to the dock in Simpson Bay, looking forward to have a solid breakfast and get some hours of good sleep. Hopefully, by the time we awaken from the nightmare that Irma has left us in, Sint Maarten will be at the pinnacle of sustainability in the region. And no longer will sailors smell us before they see us.

Tadzio Bervoets