Dr. Fraser- Point of View
October 26, 2007

Challenges of Independence

I am sure at some time on Monday, on one of the news programmes, I heard the Prime Minister pontificating about climate change, at a UNESCO meeting, I believe. I was some distance away and so did not hear the content of his speech. Climate change has now become a serious issue to us. In fact it appears to be high on the agenda of the Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting in Guyana. Finance Minister of Guyana the Honourable Ashni Singh declared at the opening of the meeting that one of the major challenges facing developing states relates to their susceptibility to environmental change.{{more}} I am saying all of this to express the hope that our Prime Minister now fully comprehends the importance of environmental issues to small developing states, especially small island states. And of course, behind my concern is the issue of the Cross Country road which still appears to be on the agenda. The point is that we cannot simply pull out climate change and treat it as though it operates in isolation from everything else. We might be able to blame the developing countries for their role in fuelling some of the environmental issues that are currently being debated around the world, but we also have to be responsible and to do everything in our power to preserve our part of the environment.

This is the context within which I want to deal with what I am referring to as challenges of Independence. As I suggested sometime ago and in a different programme, the media on the anniversary of independence have over the years been focusing on the achievements of independence. I am not sure how meaningful this question is 28 years after independence. There is certainly no doubt that our countries have moved forward by leaps and bounds, despite the problems we continue to face. Independence was never going to be a smooth road to some promised land. I believe that we need increasingly to focus our attention on the challenges of Independence as they increasingly manifest themselves. The world today is a vastly different world from that of 1979 when we unfurled our national flag and declared ourselves masters of our destiny, or at least some of us did.

Inevitably, we concentrated our efforts on the economic development of our country since our ability to meet the expectations of our peoples depended on the degree to which we were able to master control of our economy. But since we were not a community unto ourselves and needed to immerse ourselves in the operations of the global community, then what happened in that community would impact on how we go about our business. Environmental issues are not new to us, for as small islands there was always that vulnerability to environmental problems, which some persons fully appreciated. We live with a volcano. Like other countries in the region, we lie exposed every year to the possibility of onslaught from hurricanes. Our country is mountainous and that sets certain limitations on what we can do with our land space.

Increasingly, as we develop with a certain mindset, there was going to be a cost, involved. There is a view that development has to do with our ability to transform the environment. But there is a cost and today when we follow the environmental discussions about climate change and other environmental issues, we become more conscious of the fact that many of our serious environmental and other problems are man made, some of them having to do with the extent to which we try to transform our environment. Even issues of food security arise as we try to change agricultural land into housing estates and as we turn to developing our tourism product, into golf courses for the rich and famous.

That balance in nature has been seriously disrupted, and we suffer the consequences. Our relationship with nature/the environment has weakened as we try to imitate the type of development spearheaded by countries with larger land space and resources. On a clear day if you fly along the leeward coast, you become transfixed with the roughness and sheer ruggedness of the northern part of the island. We have a lot to do in mapping the environment of that area and providing an environmental profile of our country. Can we tap the resources with out destroying them? Have we seriously looked at the potential for ecotourism which would allow us to use what is there in a very creative manner? This in fact was one of the possibilities expressed in the environmental cataloguing exercise that was to inform the creation of a cross country road. The Ivor Jackson and Associates report stated, “Landscape appreciation should be one of the objectives promoted in the management of St.Vincent’s forests. A certain level of planning is required to promote the landscape as a product of interest for residents and visitors. We suggest that this could be accomplished as a component of an ecotourism and recreation plan for the central forests. The plan should among other things identify areas of outstanding scenic value and visual interest and delineate a system of trails that would provide access to these areas.”

There appears to be little interest in environmental issues, except on occasions when matters such as damage to our coral reefs and threats to the Tobago Cays arise, but then we soon lose interest and go on to something else. There is need for an active environmental group. One had hoped this role would be played by the National Trust, but I am not sure how that organisation sees itself. Development is holistic and involves the interplay of many forces. Behind all of this should be sensitivity to our environment and recognition of what could endanger it. We had long held up Haiti as an example of what damage to the environment can do to a country. As I look at the fires raging across areas of California and listen to the debates about climate change, I think we have to bring that debate home and to see climate change not as an issue in itself but as part of a broader framework that relates to the environment and development.

As we embark on a path of development that is still narrow in scope, and I reflect particularly on the way we are treating our environment in the pursuit of goals related to tourism and housing development, I see the environment and matters related to it as creating a serious challenge to us as we attempt to move forward in a manner where we are still not sure what development is really all about. Is it a coincidence that the theme of this year’s Commonwealth Finance meeting is Climate Change? Climate Change is an environmental issue, and the environment is a key factor in development. Let us hope that the Prime Minister’s Speech at the UNESCO meeting comes out of some deep reflection about the importance of the environment as we celebrate another year of independence. Climate Change is but one of the growing challenges that face us as we try to weave a path in the global community.