IT was a point of immense pride for me, as a young Caribbean citizen, that the new Chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne made a strong call for climate reparation against the backdrop of the natural disasters that have plagued the Caribbean just this year.
According to the Prime Minister, the volcanic eruption in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the massive flooding in Guyana and Suriname, and the recent passing of Hurricane Elsa have underscored the vulnerabilities of the region.
These natural disasters, he explained, adversely impact lives and livelihoods in the Caribbean, constantly placing the countries of the Region in a precarious state.
In light of this, he firmly stated that those irresponsible countries that damage the environment with their emissions and practices should be held accountable. And he called on CARICOM to take up the mantle of pushing for climate reparations.
Contextually, reparatory justice relates to the action of making amends for a wrong done, by providing payment or other assistance to those who have been wronged.
Reparations, as I have written about several times before, have been something that CARICOM has been advocating over the past few years through the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC). And through CARICOM’s 10-Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice, the Community is seeking to have the European powers that exploited the Africans and Indigenous people pay for the injustices.
The link between the colonial exploitation and injustice meted out to our ancestors who toiled on the Caribbean plantations and forged the nations we live in today and the environmental challenges we face today, might not be readily apparent and cannot be explained in this column alone. But, simply, it all comes back to the systemic issues that have contributed to our underdevelopment.
Wider Caribbean Historian, Professor Verene Shepherd, in a panel discussion earlier this year posited, “… it is impossible to examine the present ecological crisis in vulnerable Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Caribbean without recalling and understanding the manner in which we have been subjected to the precarious position.”
First and foremost, the geographic location in which the Caribbean nations have been established is vulnerable to natural disasters- earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. All of these, in one small region. And, Professor Shepherd underscored that our ancestors were “forcefully transported” to this Region so that their labour could be exploited to enrich the European powers.
Geography aside, however, she draws attention to the land degradation-caused by the monocropping of sugar and mass deforestation led to the loss of valuable, protective forestry. The production of sugarcane, research Professor Shepherd referenced, has led to the loss of species and habitats.
And even worse, she stated, is the dynamic of the “Global North” and “Global South,” or the “developed world” and the “developing world” which illustrates global uneven development.
Certainly, the Caribbean Region and Caribbean people are not wholly absolved from their poor or loose environmental decisions. Yet, I wish to draw attention to one of my favourite on-campus experiences during my time at the University of the West Indies (UWI)- a panel discussion on building a resilient Caribbean.
Malini Maharaj, who was an assistant lecturer in the Department of Economics in the Faculty of Social Sciences (also my Introduction to Microeconomics lecturer!) explained that in the Caribbean, the major sources of income are all natural-resource based. As such, she contended that once something happens to the environment, there will be complications in how Caribbean nations create incomes.
Importantly, she also highlighted that “the economics” of environmental protection makes it difficult for Caribbean countries to ambitiously pursue certain environmental goals- no matter how environmentally prudent such actions would be.
My economics lecturer illustrated the point anecdotally, relating that a hungry man cannot be told not to cut down a tree if that is his only source of income to buy food. Despite all of the wider environmental benefits that can be garnered from allowing this tree to grow, it is the only foreseeable source of income.
Let’s look at Guyana, for example. We are not unaware that pursuing an oil-and-gas trajectory might not be the most environmentally sound decision. The recent destruction of swathes of mangroves at Malgre Tout/ Versailles, for the creation of a shore base, is a good example of how economic development may result in some amount of environmental destruction. Yet, it has been said that the revenues from this industry are needed to usher in Guyana’s low-carbon, sustainable future. It is the dichotomy that we seemingly cannot avoid.
Insofar as we do make decisions that affect the state of our environment, I agree with Professor Shepherd’s assertions that we are least responsible, given our history as exploited colonies that have grown up in a global world order where we have always been second to the nations built on the Caribbean people’s struggles. And I agree with her assertion that we must advocate for a reparatory approach to addressing this issue.
So today, when we think about the impact of poor environmental decisions–such as harmful emissions from fossil fuels, pollution, and degradation — we must think about the historical context of it all and why calls for climate reparations are not outlandish and unjustified.
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