Barbados and SIDS

Anna Karima Degia (ELP 2019) | General Manager, Belarusian Environment Movement, Barbado

Just a few moments ago, in geologic time, an island was formed near the boundary of two tectonic plates at the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean. First, the subduction of the North American Plate below the Caribbean Plate caused the formation of an undersea ridge made up of Oceanic sediments. Over time, a peak emerged, exposing the Oceanic sediments to the atmosphere. A bit later, still on geologic time, when conditions were suitable, corals colonised this ridge, and built reefs in the shallow waters around the emergent peak. Uplift continued, pushing those early coral reefs above the surface where they fossilised to form the “coral cap” that covers approximately 85% of the island surface. Uplift happened in stages, producing distinct coralline ridges on the west and south sections of the island.

Terrestrial ecosystems developed in the gullies and coastal wetlands, forming an ecosystem complex from “ridge to reef.” In this complex, each ecosystem influences the water as it flows, providing “buffering” that is beneficial to the other ecosystems in the complex. Gully vegetation slows the flow of water, increasing the opportunity for infiltration to groundwater, and retaining sediment. In coastal wetlands, mangroves naturally process pollutants and improve water quality. Buffering also occurs in reverse, from reef to ridge: coral reefs act as “natural breakwaters” protecting the coastline, and seagrass beds and coastal wetlands also offer secondary coastal protection. Because the island is isolated, overall biodiversity would have been relatively low, but characterised by high levels of unique species.

Between 350‐650 AD, the island was settled by Amerindian people, who lived here for several hundred years. In 1492, Europeans turned up to “discover” a region that these original settlers had known about and been living in for all that time. At some point, the name Barbados was given to this small island. The name appears to be a bastardisation of Portuguese for “bearded ones.” There’s a story about trees and beards or trees that look like beards or something. In 1627, the island was colonised by the British, beginning by far the ugliest period of our history ‐ over three hundred years of horrific exploitation ‐ of people, land and resources. We could safely say that UN‐sustainable development started then.

In 1966, Barbados gained independence from Britain, having never fallen into the hands of any of the other colonial powers. The new country developed relatively early compared with the rest of the region. In 1992, the international community recognised that a distinct group developing countries, known as small island developing states (SIDS), shared certain challenges with sustainable development. Yet against this backdrop, Barbados excelled. Indeed, Barbados has been posited as a “model” for sustainable development of SIDS (read more). In 1994, we hosted the UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of SIDS, which produced the Barbados Programme of Action (read more). In 2002, Kofi Annan said that Barbados is a country that “punches above its weight” (read more). Bad ass.

I learned most of this in school, some later as an adult. I went to the Village of Hope exhibition that accompanied the US SIDS conference in 1994, although I do not think I understood much. In 2007, I returned to Barbados from university, to begin my career and life. I was naive and uncertain. In the same year, a global financial crisis struck. Can anyone say external shock? If you didn’t get that, look up those SIDS challenges.

Almost ten years into my life back on the rock, we marked 50 years of Independence. Side note—it is really not that long when you think about it—my parents can both remember before we became independent. Anyhow, you will note I said “marked,” not “celebrated.” That 50th should have been a big deal, but I felt flat.

I had a lot going on. In 2017, I made an important decision to change career paths and left behind an incompatible situation. But a great deal of my frustration was bigger than just my circumstances—I perceived my country on a path that scared me. I felt my quality of life directly impacted by circumstances that seemed beyond my control. The financial crisis was not entirely to blame. Someone said to me that such concerns were not unique to Barbados, but I could not shake the feeling that in such a small place, we do not have room for error.

It was hard not to take work home. I worked on engineering studies and infrastructure projects that touched on broader issues, and it was the broader issues that concerned me. I could see how so many things were linked. The legacy of the colonial era remains strong and manifests itself in numerous ways. From an environmental perspective, the extensive land clearing and intensive sugar cane agriculture of the colonial period decimated much of the island’s already limited natural resources. Since we developed relatively rapidly, much of our post‐independence development occurred before the concept of sustainable development even existed. The natural environment is highly modified, and many Barbadians do not appreciate nature or understand its role in our quality of life.

Our high population density exacerbates scarcity issues—scarcity of land, water, and food. Critical infrastructure and tourism plant are aging. Sargassum seaweed influxes get media attention often because of tourism impacts, but more importantly this issue directly affects local quality of life. Climate change impacts exacerbate existing sustainable development issues through rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, sea level rise, and ocean acidification.

As a SIDS, while we make only the tiniest contributions to climate change, we are disproportionately impacted by its adverse effects. Despite our development achievements, including a high human development index, we are vulnerable—environmentally, socially, and economically. And in large part because of our high HDI, we struggle to fund our sustainable development and climate change adaptation needs.

While a great deal of this is beyond our control, it is also critical to acknowledge our own role in this mess. We have an educated population and progressive policies on paper, but governance in recent decades has not effectively delivered sustainable development.

As it turns out, I was not alone in my concern about the path of the country. In May 2018, the majority of citizens exercised their franchise and changed the government in a landslide election. Whatever your views on politics, this is hugely significant. Now we stand, as I see it, at a turning point.

So does this mean that the Barbados model is dead? Do we have to start over? I think a model may be useful to show what works as well as what does not. This says to me that we have to learn and adapt. We have to cast a critical eye over what has occurred to understand the issues and take action to resolve them. The model shows us that sustainable development is not a goal that one reaches only to stop working. It is a constant balancing act. As a model, Barbados has a responsibility to itself and others. And although, or perhaps because, there is much beyond our control, we must be vocal. The advocacy of SIDS has played an important role in pushing for climate change mitigation, and this work must continue.