By Jiwe Browne
Early last January, many Antiguans and Barbudans reacted with dismay to media images of widespread destruction of mangrove forest in the ostensibly protected Northeast Marine Management Area (NEMMA). The area is part of the Yida Corporation’s holdings, slated for development as a tourism enclave. The furore subsided, only to be followed by further removal of swathes of forest, and construction of multi-story edifices, major roadways and other infrastructure in the area. The bulldozing of Antigua and Barbuda’s remaining mangrove forests should call for heightened concern and remedial action in the face of the looming reality of catastrophic climate and other environmental disruptions.
This past July, UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened a UN Climate Action Summit for September 23, 2019, affirming that, “We are here because the world is facing a grave climate emergency. Climate disruption is happening now, and it is happening to all of us … We are in a battle for our lives.”
The UN summit is one of a number of important international meetings taking place late in 2019, meant to galvanize the urgent action needed to halt global warming and other ecological catastrophes. Perhaps the most important event that will take place during this period has been convened by young people around the world. The International Youth Movement for Climate Justice, spearheaded by the indefatigable Danish teenager Greta Thunberg, has been joined by a growing list of international organizations in calling for a Global Climate Strike on September 20 and September 27. The Climate Strike is posed as a series of actions – most prominently student, community and labor stoppages – aimed at drawing attention to and demanding decisive government interventions to address the escalating climate crisis and its increasingly grave consequences in both the global north and south.
Last year, a well-publicized report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave us 12 years to halt emission of greenhouse gases before we incur runaway changes that threaten human civilization. Currently, as one headline (El País) put it, “Siberia Burns, Greenland Melts and the Amazon Blazes.” Our region has seen intensified hurricanes, prolonged drought, coral bleaching and massive seaweed invasions, all associated with global warming.
Recently, catastrophic wildfires in the Amazon basin have drawn world attention. That conflagration, with dramatic repercussions for the global climate, is attributable to the same megalomaniacal economic agenda that has brought us to the brink of ecological calamity in so many domains.
In June, the UN’s Inter-governmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued another report warning of the accelerating extinction crisis which could doom up to a million species of organisms by mid-century, “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
The latest IPCC report, released on August 8 and titled Climate Change and Land, points to land degradation as a major cause of climate disruption, reduced capacity to mitigate the effects of climate change, and deterioration of other ecosystem services that become even more vital in an epoch of climate crisis, such as water availability and soil fertility.
In the global south, mangrove forests lie at the nexus of these environmental concerns. Once extensive in coastal areas and river basins, mangrove ecosystems (mangals) have been reduced by 67 percent worldwide. The elimination of mangals has had severe repercussions for coastal societies in the face of the hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons that affect these regions. Study after study has shown that mangrove forests attenuate storm surge and protect coastal lands and environments. Recognizing this, many nations have made mangal restoration part of their climate mitigation plans.
Climate mitigation is not the only important function of mangals. Acre for acre, mangrove forests store more carbon than any other ecosystem – more, even, than the rainforest currently burning in Brazil.
Mangals are also critical for soil and land formation due to the rich layers of organic matter deposited by resident flora, fauna and microbes, and sediments trapped by mangrove roots. They also provide nurseries and habitats for the variety of marine life upon which Antiguans and Barbudans depend, from the coral reef creatures that draw tourists, to the fish that supply local fisheries. All told, the United Nations Environmental Program estimates that such services, generally, are worth US $33,000 – $57,000 per hectare per year.
In Antigua and Barbuda, mangals and adjacent ecosystems are home, nursery and feeding ground to a number of endangered and unique plant and animal species, including the Antiguan racer, the East Indian whistling duck, the tropical mockingbird, numerous fish and other land and marine creatures. Scientists believe that there are several unnamed species of plants and animals on the NEMMA islands, which could be exterminated before they are even catalogued.
These ecological functions must be of concern to the Antiguan and Barbudan people whose homes and workplaces largely lie within earshot of the sea and whose livelihoods mostly depend on coastal activities. According to FAO data, Antigua-Barbuda’s mangals have declined by more than half between 1980 and 2005 alone. The largest remaining expanse is currently being bulldozed by the Yida Corporation in violation of Antiguan and Barbudan law. According to the Ministry of the Environment, the Yida project will entail removal of 75 percent of mangroves on its land.
Rather than razing what remains of this protective barrier between the Antiguan and Barbudan people and looming climate-related disasters, the authorities should be restoring mangrove forest around the island, as other Caribbean nations such as Belize, Guyana, Jamaica or St. Martin are doing.
It is worth underlining that the agreement between the Antiguan and Barbudan government and Yida guarantees the latter the right to 100 percent profit remittance and tax exemption, even granting the right to annex additional land and exploit marine resources, while making no mention of what portion of income would accrue to the nation. The contract makes only vague reference to job creation and training, while a further proviso allows the corporation unlimited employment of foreign technical personnel.
Instead of handing this national resource over to Yida, the authorities could be promoting autochthonous, self-managed and ecologically sustainable development in and around mangals and other vital ecosystems. There are any number of economic activities that could be envisaged under such a development program, including eco-tourism, artisanal fishing and agro-ecology.
Creation and dedicated support for agricultural and fishing cooperatives and associated productive activities, and worker-managed ecotourism complexes, could create jobs, stimulate local economies and benefit the nation, while protecting the people from the impact of climate change. Such a development plan, one promoting ecologically sustainable jobs and social wellbeing for the majority, can form the basis for Antigua and Barbuda’s “Green New Deal.”