Though the 2021 eruption of La Soufrière was not the product of climate change, it helped bring attention, both on land and at sea, to the impacts of the growing global crisis.
Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves has been among Caribbean leaders calling on the developed world to play its part in assisting Small Island Developing States (SIDS) deal with harsh realities brought on because of their actions.
Speaking at the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) 9th meeting of Council of Ministers on Environmental Sustainability recently, the Prime Minister said that sourcing funding is also a challenge, at high cost to the people of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
“I’m talking to the rich countries of the world, and when I have to borrow to do that, because of the problems you created for me, you then tell me that my debt to GDP is too high, and that I must go on the IMF programme to squeeze poor people further,” the Prime Minister said.
“You tell me,” he asked, “if this world is fair? So, when you’re talking about environment, please don’t forget the history and don’t forget these contemporary realities.”
There are however those with an eye on existing domestic resources who believe there need to be better streamlined allocations across communities.
This has brought attention to climate justice and equity not only as a function of global dynamics, but how scarce resources are distributed domestically to address emerging concerns.
In most instances, especially now in the post-eruption phase, the challenges of an equitable transition, by communities and sectors, to the new realities are being highlighted in ways that had not otherwise been very notable.
Fishing communities, for example, are increasingly being required to deal with low catches and hazards such as The Bends – a potentially deadly condition divers experience when emerging too quickly from ocean depths.
A rise in cases has trailed both changing ocean temperatures and accompanying lower catches, and an increase in toxic wastewater run-offs into the sea, drawing divers further out to sea.
Farmers are meanwhile confronting hardships occasioned by prolonged periods of drought, even as they recover from damaging volcanic ash. This has meant greater investment in resources and employment of new, more costly, cultivation methods.
Though the government has invested increasingly heavily in addressing these and other challenges of the climate crisis – the 2022 national budget devotes over US$26 million (EC$77M) directly to environmental protection – there is concern that much more needs to be devoted to this strong challenge to development.
Fishermen Risking Lives to Feed the Nation
There are more than 800 registered fisherfolk in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. At the best of times, adequate fish stock is now harder to find.
During the annual hurricane season, the job becomes riskier, but staying at home and riding things out are not an option in the face of difficult financial times.
President of the National Fisherfolk Organisation, Rose Place fisherman, Winsbert Harry, knows the ensuing risks very well. Of the four mishaps he has experienced at sea, two were due to the challenge of bad weather.
Other fishermen freely offered stories about their own experiences when asked by CIJN.
Harry has himself been fishing for 20 years. He says when he first started, everything was relatively close to shore but now he and his colleagues travel up to 50 miles out at sea to get a steadily diminishing catch.
Added to this, the Calliaqua fish market, on the outskirts of Kingstown, is undergoing rehabilitation and adding to the woes of the fisherfolk.
Raul Lewis and Joe Dublin of the Calliaqua fisheries operate from the Canash beach front which is less than a mile away from Calliaqua. For these fishermen, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and kingfish are popular catches.
But in recent years, there have been near-shore scarcities, forcing the fishermen to spend longer times at sea. For the larger boats, the fuel cost can run a bill of close to US $370 dollars (EC$1,000) daily. Some days they make a profit, other days they return home with just enough to cover the fuel cost.
Another fishing community is Barrouallie in Central Leeward. The fishermen here are well known for the hunting of pilot whales, also called blackfish. Recent studies have found high levels of mercury in the marine mammal found in waters off the islands.
Like their fishing counterparts in Kingstown and Calliaqua, Barrouallie fishermen are feeling the brunt impacts of the changing situation. The government has attempted to assist them, but there are concerns about the distribution of financial aid.
Currently, the processing of blackfish is done on the beach front in Barrouallie as a state-supported processing plant is still not fully in operation.
Vice President of the Barrouallie Fisheries Cooperative, Winston Hazelwood stated that they are generally doing better as a fishing community but would like to have the technology to trap fish.
Fishermen however say they now have to be extra careful, especially during the hurricane season which is now witnessing more intense rains, storms and trough systems. They would like to see more done to help bring awareness on climate change, more equitable financial support and new technologies to the industry there.
Further, they are advocating greater use of four-stroke engines which are more environmentally friendly. Four-stroke outboards are known to produce far less harmful emissions and can be as much as 90% cleaner than similar sized two-stroke motors.
In the Grenadine island of Bequia, a one-hour ferry ride south of the mainland, many fishermen say they feel forgotten. They point to the fact that only the fishermen with larger boats are reaping the benefits of the ocean.
Paget Farm hosts the most active fishing community on the island.
Many fishermen there are in fact divers for lobsters and conch. The Bends is becoming a more frequent complaint. An estimated four divers have died from the condition over the last five years.
Dufton Ollivierre, who developed the condition 40 years ago said that more men are taking the risk of staying longer at the bottom of the ocean to have a good catch. Ollivierre, who is partially disabled because of the Bends, knows of at least 10 men who came down with a condition, including those who did not recover.
Ollivierre is hoping that a decompression chamber should be made available in Saint Vincent which could allow many to live normal lives if they are treated quickly. One diver said he resorted to skin diving, minus scuba gear, after he saw his trainer develop the condition and never recovered.
Responding to Needs
Minister of Fisheries Saboto Caesar said he is aware that there are some disgruntled fishermen, hence the commencement of national conversations with the fishermen to address their concerns.
He said, a decompression chamber for divers is being looked into seriously as one should be in the country very soon, but in the meantime, support will be given to divers who develop the Bends.
During the course of June, Caesar met with fishermen and distributed gear and other devices.
On June 11, 2022, a US$555,000 (EC$1,500,000) National Fleet Expansion programme was signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Kingstown Cooperative Credit Union. This will pave the way for fishermen to source funding to improve their fishing fleet. An additional USD$4 million (EC$10,810,200) was sourced from the Venezuelan Government to assist the programme.
The government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has also drafted a 12 year National Economic and Social Development Plan NESPD 2013-2025.
The policy document is geared toward preserving the environment and building resilience to climate change.
Farmers Struggle During Drought
Meanwhile, low crop yields were recorded by some farmers especially those who live on the foothills of La Soufriere volcano following the 2021 eruptions.
Farmers from Fancy, located under the shadow of the volcano, were among the 2,875 displaced registered farmers who felt the impacts. The farmers complained that due to the drought spell experienced over the ensuing months, they lost certain crops.
The hurricane season has brought heavy rainfall and some relief, but during the drought, farmers complained about an insect infestation which destroyed some crops.
Chemicals and pesticides were used to rid them from farms.
While the farmers welcome the rains, they are praying that it is not too much that can wash away their crops.
St Vincent has an average annual rainfall of 3,800mm in the central mountain area and around 2,000mm on the coast.
Farmers in Rosehall, the highest settlement on mainland Saint Vincent, were also affected by drought and insects but some had better crop yields than others.
Farms in Rose Hall were also affected by the 2021 eruptions. They have since taken on the initiative to utilise barrels and water tanks, some at their own expense, in preparation for a drought.
Farmers in Fancy and Rose Hall said the government promised to assist financially. Some said they received support and are thankful, others said they never received any support.
They would like to see more done to ensure equal distribution of support and asked if officers carry out a proper needs assessment.
Minister Caesar told CIJN that his Ministry has limited tractors services to plough volcanic soil and due to the topography of the communities, it makes it even more difficult. But in the meantime, he indicated that tools and water tanks will be given out to farmers and fertilizers will continue to be subsidized.
Ban on Chemicals
The Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has also now banned dangerous pesticides such as roundup, touchdown, glyphosate and restricted the aerial spraying of crops.
This is all part of the government’s environmental advocacy to deal with health and climate change challenges. Commenting on the use of pesticides, Minister Caesar admits that while the government has banned some chemicals, there are still many harmful chemicals in use.
During the intense rainy season, runoff of pesticides has nowhere to go, but into rivers and streams and into the ocean.
Hotels and apartments are also evident along the coast and visitors use the beaches daily, especially on weekends.
In the fishing community of Rose Place there is a small river that runs into the ocean which is used as a run-off and in Barrouallie there is a deep drain used for such a purpose.
Near Canash beach, there is a marina where yachts and boats are docked. There is also a huge drain which has to be cleared often for stagnant water to runoff.
This beach is also used by sea bathers. Proprietor of Canash Beach apartments Bert Williams would like to see the yachts move further away from the beach.
Vincentian Environmental Specialist Dr Reynold Murray said the government has improved its waste management processes but noted that there is no proper monitoring or enforcement of regulations.
Dr Murray added that the government needs to address climate change holistically and involve all stakeholders regardless of political persuasion and seriously comply with the climate change conventions they signed on to.
PM Gonsalves however insists that considerable attention is already being paid to the emerging issues. “Look in our budget,” he said, “and you will find that some 40 % of our capital expenditure is on issues touching on climate change – land degradation and biodiversity.”
His lament about the difficulties associated with external financing to pick up the tab, reflects the uneven impacts of the climate crisis, along with the global and domestic measures intended to address it.
The country’s famers and fisherfolk know the story all too well.
This project supported by Open Society Foundations