Earth Day in the Age of Pandemic; the Dutch Caribbean Perspective

Cruise Ship leaving Sint Maarten (Marjolein Lopes Cardozo -DCNA/ SHAPE)

The ochre-colored african wind wafts through the Tanzanian veldt, ruffling the low acacia trees that grow scrubily between august Baobabs. The sun is setting and the malarial mosquitoes start their evening hymn. In between the metropolitan mounds of termite nests an animal is waddling. Some would call it an ugly animal; it looks like an anteater: same oblong, awkward body and pointed snout. But unlike an anteater this animal is covered in reptilian scales, somewhat like a large, land-locked and ambling four-legged fish. The animal is called a pangolin and it is being hunted.

Hiding behind one of the termite mounds is Andwele, from the Bantu-speaking Nyamwezi ethnic group, and he is poor. He hasn’t been able to provide for his family in some time and his children are hungry: there has been a persistent drought in this part of Africa and Andwele has been unable to make ends meet. Never before has it taken so long for the rains to come. It is as if the climate itself has changed.

As Andwele was returning from his meagre farming plot in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro he stumbled upon the pangolin as the animal was breaking open a termite mound foraging for food. Andwele loves and respects animals but he hasn’t eaten and has a cousin that can get almost a month’s salary for a live pangolin. He catches the ugly animal but while he does so his heart breaks as it looks at him with pleading puppy-dog eyes. But Andwele is hungry and so are his children so he stuffs the pangolin in his rucksack and the next day travels to Arusha to sell it.

Three weeks later the pangolin has traveled 9300 kilometers and finds itself in a small metal cage in a market in a medium-sized Chinese City. Although the city is considered medium by Chinese standards it is home to eleven million people. The animal is emaciated and covered in sores from being transported across the ocean in unhygienic conditions. It shares its cage with a bat, similarly covered in festering sores and lying listlessly at the bottom of its cage; resigned to its pending demise. Soon the owner of the stall removes the bat, the pangolin’s companion for the past four days. The two animals have been sleeping together, breathing together, shitting together. But now the bat is gone; it is being skinned after its head has been chopped off; the owner preparing it according to the traditional Chinese method.

Two weeks later a mysterious, pneumonia like disease is spreading rapidly in the densely populated city. But it is the Chinese New Year and people are traveling all over the world to be with their loved-ones. One of those people is Xi-Li who has traveled to Bergamo in Italy to be with her family. To celebrate the Lunar New Year they decide to eat a traditional Italian meal at a trattoria on the Piazza Vecchia. Xi-Li hasn’t been feeling well; she has a slight temperature and a dry cough but she’s travelled all this way and decided to enjoy the special occasion. In three weeks she’ll be dead.

Also at the restaurant is Massimo. Massimo lives in New York but travels to his home town often. A week after his meal he travels back to New Rochelle and kisses his wife hello. She notices he has a slight temperature but he insists he is fine. It is the eve of their anniversary and tomorrow they travel to Ft. Lauderdale to embark on a ten-day Caribbean Cruise; first Port of Call the tiny half Dutch half French Caribbean Island of Sint Maarten.

A month after his cruise Massimo lies in an emergency hospital tent. He has been intubated with a respirator because he is too ill to breathe on his own. He might not make it. Ten thousand of his fellow New Yorkers haven’t. His wife didn’t. All across the globe life has drastically changed. Normal will never be the same again. The world cowers in fear of a new pandemic. Economies are collapsing. Oil prices have collapsed. Governments are struggling. Three billion people are forced to stay inside. And there is only one thing on everyone’s mind: COVID-19.

The above is just one of the scenarios for the origin of a virus that has been dictating the human experience for the past three months, but it is the most plausible (5G towers and lab-gown conspiracies aside). The renown scientific journal Nature mentions that “researchers have noted that coronaviruses are a possible cause of death in pangolins (and) are a good candidate as a source for intermediate spread…pangolins are protected but illegal trafficking is widespread. It is almost certain that they are the source…likely having infected a bat with the bat infecting a human in turn…”

The global spread of the pandemic and our ability, or inability, to manage the infection has highlighted the role environmental degradation and social inequalities have played in these unusual times. It has highlighted the global nature of the human experience and that an act of wildlife crime (exacerbated by a just as urgent but not as highly publicized climate crisis) has resulted in communities, economies and societies now being on the brink of collapse.

It is no accident that my native Sint Maarten has per capita one of the highest per capita COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Caribbean region. The prioritizing of the bottom line over the welfare of citizens has been the focus for the economic development of the island since the tourism boom in the 1960s, with a reliance on a model dictated by fast economic growth to the detriment of environmental and societal safeguards. Island communities must now place focus on economic, social and environmental sustainability as our guiding principle should we want to survive.

One of the clearest and most obvious mistakes many of the islands in the Caribbean have made is an over-reliance on the Cruise Tourism industry. The Cruise Ship model for development, even before this crisis, has proven to not adequately account for the welfare of island societies and the natural resources critical to our ability to develop sustainably.  We should learn from this lesson and not have multinational tour companies dictate the governmental and economic policies of the Caribbean. Mass tourism on the islands, coupled with an unrestrained and ill-planned thrust to develop just for development’s sake, has resulted in significant discrepancies between various social strata, discrepancies further highlighted by the virus.

In order to emerge from this successfully the Caribbean has to alter the way we do business. Island’s such as Bonaire should learn from what is happening around them, and islands such as Sint Maarten and Aruba should learn from their own experience and move away from an economic model almost solely dependent on mass, lower-income tourism. Islands such as Bonaire and Saba are better positioned to emerge from this crisis scarred but not broken. Islands such as Sint Maarten and Aruba, who have invested significant infrastructure into courting mass cruise tourism and budget-minded travelers, often to the detriment of the population and the environment, will be broken for some time and will struggle to emerge successfully from this crisis.

Now should be the time for a renewed focus on building the resilience of our communities; counteracting deforestation, reigning in unsustainable coastal development, ensuring proper solid waste management, preventing pollution from entering our air and water, are all issues which exacerbate the negative health and economic effects faced by Caribbean Residents in a post-pandemic reality. As Caribbean people we cannot afford to loose focus; the region must get rid of the usual economic model that focuses on profit over people, further exacerbating income inequality. When we emerge from our houses we need to place emphasis on a more inclusive, sustainable future. After this crises there has to, finally, be greater emphasis on the critical role the three pillars of Sustainable Development must play in terms of resiliency, especially considering the potential new crises in what is predicted to be an above average Hurricane Season.

There also has to be closer regional cooperation, cooperation that does not adhere to the usual model defined by former colonial powers who apparently consider a billion euro grant to southern european countries more important than providing relief to former colonies whose natural and human capital have fostered their own economic development. There has been no time in history which calls for a greater Caribbean unity than now as we emerge from one of humanity’s most existential crises. The old ways won’t work, and despite what we are going through we cannot function in isolation nor can we depend on former colonial countries and western or eastern superpowers to support our development; that much is clear.

But there are encouraging signs. The encouragement provided by seeing our Caribbean environment healing should push us to foster and encourage further healing. Being isolated whilst being unified as a human race, unified by our common human experience of being shut indoors, physically isolated from friends and family, should unify us as global citizens while putting emphasis on local solutions for our societal ills.

We cannot go back to business as usual; let us use the healing of nature to enter into a new phase of economic development, of finally being sustainable. Let us perpetuate that healing.  Let us allow it to guide us into a more sustainable future. Let us ensure that wild areas and the animals that inhabit them are conserved. Let us manage our natural resources so that the goods and services they provide will be enhanced and secured. Let us make sure that the climate crisis is sufficiently addressed so that we can end poverty and global hunger so that people like Andwele are no longer forced to hunt wild animals to feed their families. Let us ensure, as we emerge from our cocoons, that we are on the right side of History. That we rise from our confinement a renewed, holistic and reinvigorated Caribbean society. Happy World Environment Day!

Tadzio Bervoets

Interim Director Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance

Sur Salinja 30

Kralendijk, Bonaire

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