SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT: Doing more harm than good
I HAVE BEEN FOLLOWING the issue of the Sargassum seaweed with both alarm and wonderment. My wonderment has been at the sheer force of nature to do what it will despite our best efforts. It reminds us that our lives and our social and economic well-being are closely intertwined with what happens in our environment.
While I like everyone else am dismayed at the impact of the seaweed on our beaches and tourism, I am, however, alarmed that approaches to addressing the issue are simply about making the seaweed disappear as fast as possible. The urgency and anxiety around the issue has primarily been about its impact on our tourism product, which to some extent is fair enough. However, thus far it has not been clear that the immediate solution to getting it off our beaches – which seems to be primarily shovelling the seaweed away – takes into consideration that this approach alone can have longer term impacts on our coastal environment, thus endangering the very tourism product we are trying to protect in the short term.
I completely appreciate that the issue is complex and the solutions are expensive and perhaps not easy to implement. More importantly, I can also assume that there is a feeling that perhaps there is not enough time to implement long-term strategies in the face of the immediate fallout to tourism. However, my caution is that we ought to be very careful that taking the easy and perhaps cheapest way out at this point will not result in longer term and expensive consequences later. I am completely alarmed to see large heavy duty equipment on the beaches shovelling up mounds of seaweed, sand and whatever else lies underneath. What I do not see in the pictures are the environmentalists and scientists closely supervising to ensure that the work is carried out with the necessary care (perhaps I am just looking at the wrong pictures).
We will make it disappear and tourists will smile for today but will they be smiling next year when there is little sand on the beach and nothing for them to go snorkelling and see except for the seaweed which lies below. It is a (catch-22) that I am hoping that we have carefully considered. More importantly, if we are fixated only on the impact on tourism then it further demonstrates that the Small Island Developing State that pioneered the sustainable development agenda has itself not fully come to grips with what is necessary to maintain the delicate social, economic and environmental balance. Am I more concerned about how the seaweed should be treated as opposed to ensuring that our beaches can be enjoyed? No actually I am just as concerned – as we all should be. There should be no one or the other.
Somehow we believe that the beaches, sand, sun and everything else which make up our natural coastal environment will continually drop like manna from heaven regardless of how we treat them (we should read the story of Exodus again). Current statistics indicate that “only 20 per cent of the Caribbean ocean ecosystem is in a healthy state, that close to 80 per cent of Caribbean beaches and coastal zones are eroding at an increasingly rapid rate – between 1 to 7 metres – a year, costing the Caribbean up to a US$1 billion annually, putting the lives and livelihoods of 70 per cent of persons and communities at risk” .
If our solutions to addressing the Sargassum seaweed issue do not take into consideration the already dire situation, we run the risk of further damaging our coastal environment and delicate ecosystem – the impact of which will be felt not only in the tourism sector. As usual those with the authority and resources treat us like sucking babies too ignorant to understand and to fully discuss and engage the issues. No one has said what are the protocols for removing the seaweed from the sand. What is the plan for replacing the tons of sand that we are also removing as we make the seaweed disappear? What is the long term plan for dealing with the Sargassum seaweed issue?.
I do not have the answers. Given the silence of the environmentalists in the discussion, perhaps they do not have any answers or even concerns. I could just be a lone wolf howling in the wind and crying fire. Something tells me though that what we think we are saving now by treating the matter in this way we will pay dearly for in the long run.
Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Email firstname.lastname@example.org