Thompson wants government to accept climate change as realityPOSTED: 11/10/14 12:43 AM
St. Maarten / By Justin Simmons – “I’d like to see our politicians accept the fact that climate change is a reality. I’d like to see our government and the population at large accept the principle of sustainable development and understand the need to develop St. Maarten in a sustainable manner,” says Rueben Thompson. The environmentalist pointed out that “Gonzalo was a reminder that climate change is very real.” Hurricane Gonzalo, and storms like it, are a consequence of climate change. He believes, however, that there has been a rise in awareness, amongst the population, of the need to protect the island’s natural and cultural heritage, and in order for the island’s politicians to survive, they will, at some point, have the jump on the environmental bandwagon. The environment, as Thompson explained, is something that affects us all.
In addition to accepting climate change as a reality, Thompson would like to see the St. Maarten government heed the recommendations that were made in a number of government-commissioned reports. He explained that some years back, a study was conducted and it was concluded that St. Maarten should maintain the water retention capacity of the ponds and lagoons and create additional water retention capacity. The report also advised the creation of water catchment basins in different districts and the improvement of St. Maarten’s natural and, in particular, the man-made gutters throughout the island. “Today’s reality is that we are decreasing our water retention capacity on the island by overdeveloping on the hillsides and filling in the ponds and lagoons,” said Thompson.
He pointed out that regionally, and internationally, decision-makers are paying particular attention to the protection of coastal environments (beaches, ponds and lagoons), as they are the first line of defense against large waves in times of heavy swell. They are also the first line of defense against rising sea levels, another consequence of climate change. “The rising of our sea levels is not something that might happen in the distant future. Our seas are already changing. You see that our beaches are getting smaller.” Seasonal beaches, such as Cupecoy beach, he explained, remain for shorter periods of time each year in St. Maarten.
On October 13, Gonzalo passed over the St. Maarten, wreaking havoc on the island’s wetlands, its coastal areas and areas that have been overdeveloped. Following the passing of Gonzalo, Thompson observed that many residents who live on the hillsides of the Dutch Cul de Sac valley lost their retaining walls and, as a result, their home patios. He explained that this is a prime example of the consequences of building in the island’s natural gutters, which manage the runoff water during times of flooding. “If we continue with these sorts of things – the irresponsible excavation of hillside, the filling in of our ponds and lagoons, the dredging of our coastlines and clearing of mangroves around the Simpson Bay lagoon – we are destroying the natural fortifications against the consequences of hurricanes,” explained the environmentalist.
He went on to say that Mother Nature has a way of mitigating the effects of hurricanes. The mangroves, he explained, help prevent the erosion of shorelines and act as natural windbreakers. As windbreakers, they help protect the vessels in the Simpson Bay lagoon from wind damage during hurricanes. Because trees, in general, serve as natural windbreakers, he encourages everyone to think twice about removing any trees from their yards, as is the mindset of many who sustained damage to their homes from trees during Gonzalo. These trees prevent erosion of yards and, quite often, catch the flying debris that might otherwise end up coming against the house. “We must be very careful not to destroy those components which may have relevance in minimizing the damage in the first place.”
When asked about the importance of young people’s involvement in the protection of St. Maarten’s environment, Thompson used an ancient Indian proverb to capture the essence of his response: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” Everything we do on St. Maarten, he pointed out, affects future generations. “Sustainable development is basically defined as developing in such a manner that we sustain our current needs without negatively affecting the capability of future generations to sustain their needs.”
Thompson went on to say that the responsibility for providing environmental education has been almost entirely left to the environmental organizations, particularly those that receive no financial support from government. Epic’s (Environmental Protection in the Caribbean) environmental education program has been running structurally since 2007. Since then, the foundation has provided environment education to thousand s of school children. “I think the environmental education program is an important way of increasing the awareness and knowledge of our natural and cultural heritage here on St. Maarten amongst the general population.”
From his experience, the environmental organizations give a voice to a great deal of the population, especially for people who do not want to voice their concerns because of fear of political retaliation. Rather than call government authorities, people, often times, call these foundations to report concerns of sewage running into their yards, flooding and irresponsible development in their neighborhoods.
“You often here our politicians mention the term ‘country above self,’ said Thompson, “and as much as they use the term ‘sustainable development,’ I think both terms have become a catch phrase to them… not to all, but to many of them.” He suggests that rather than loosely use the terms, content must be given to them. The people of St. Maarten, he added, need to assume a more active role and hold the decision-makers accountable. “At the end of the day, we are the ones who put those decision-makers in place, and, ultimately, we have to make sure they represent our interests. If we want to improve the overall quality of life on St. Maarten, we have to make sure our decision-makers make decisions in the general interest of the population.”