The state of our environment: A retrospect and hope for 2017



Dear Editor,

I have had the privilege to have traveled extensively both for work and for pleasure, although sometimes during those travels the circumstances I found myself in were the least bit pleasurable; having dysentery on an eight-hour bus ride with no toilet in Tanzania comes to mind.

Travel, whether representing St. Maarten and its nature abroad or for personal reasons, causes reflection and thus, as I sit on a plane on the tarmac in Bangkok waiting to continue on to Qatar, Amsterdam and finally home, I reflect on our environment during a very tumultuous 2016.

2016 saw significant issues facing our nature as we develop from a young nation into a country finding her place in the region and in the world. An island strikingly beautiful yet faced with issues damaging to our fragile environment and economy. It is our nature and the goods and services that it provides that drives our economic wellbeing; our sea, beaches, hills and lagoon are the things that make us an important player in the Caribbean Tourism Market.

Early last year on my way to Bimini in the Bahamas to attend a shark conservation workshop I stopped over briefly in Nassau, where I was amazed to see a large resort development sitting completely empty. Chatting with the taxi driver, he explained that the development was a large project funded by the Chinese and subsequently left bankrupt, causing significant ecological and economic damage.

I was worried to hear about similar developments occurring on St. Maarten and I hope that whatever occurs remains transparent and takes into account the significant ecological concerns the whole island shares.

Similarly, I was discussing the Chinese project with a highly placed politician who was open to my concerns, until I mentioned sharks. He called me crazy for wanting to protect these highly endangered and ecologically significant animals and suggested I seek professional help. I was bothered by the still ongoing ignorance on the importance of these animals so critical to the health of our ocean.

While in Japan and Vietnam, I saw firsthand shark fins being sold on a tremendous scale, wiping out these animals at a rate of up to one hundred million a year. That is why I was so happy and proud of my government when they declared shark protection for St. Maarten. I am also proud that St. Maarten and myself, are a part of a regional push to enact shark conservation in the Caribbean, ensuring that these majestic species can continue to maintain the balance of our precious Caribbean Sea.

Another group of majestic creatures that call our waters home are marine mammals, whales and dolphins in particular. I have had the privilege of swimming with both in the wild, sharing intimate space with another animal at least as intelligent as I am. It has changed my life. It is for this reason why I am again very disappointed in the rumors regarding the possibility of a captive dolphin facility on St. Maarten.

Dolphins are highly intelligent, sentient, and highly social creatures and penning them up for our amusement is criminal. Worldwide there is a movement to stop these activities and places that keep dolphins in captivity have been faced with international condemnation. It would be sad to see the same happen here.

Our local ecosystems are also still under threat. The Simpson Bay Lagoon is still continuously under significant pressure although now, with the listing of Mullet Pond as a Ramsar wetland of international importance, there is hope in conserving some of the last mangrove strands left in the Simpson Bay Lagoon. Hopefully we can avoid becoming like the Bay of Tonkin in Vietnam where I recently saw the type of destruction the removal of mangroves can have on a wetland, including damaging floods and immense fish kills.

Our coral reefs are also still facing threats despite our hard work in managing the Marine Park. We are facing unprecedented ecological change in the face of climate change that will significantly impact our reefs. But I have been inspired by the people of Jamaica who have helped us implement our coral gardening project here on St. Maarten, made us aware that rewilding our coral reefs is not only the ecologically, but also the economically sound thing to do.

Finally, I can’t end this letter without mentioning two things that are essential to the true conservation and management of the environment on St. Maarten: the establishment of a terrestrial protected area and a solution to the Philipsburg landfill.

We urgently need an area on land to be protected and conserved, where our endemic orchids, reptiles and insects can thrive and fulfill their ecological role, a role in which we all play a part as inhabitants of our island nation and of the earth.

But the single biggest issue is the landfill. I think I have said enough on this, to the point of sounding like a broken record in fact, but for the sake of this country, its people and the nature that makes us unique we must find an urgent solution to this environmental disaster.

While living in Tanzania in Africa, I saw first-hand the effects landfills can have on a population, from birth deformities to cancer to asthma. And I am worried that, based on the surveys which were conducted by the Nature Foundation, we have been seeing a spike in these cases on St. Maarten. Solve this urgently!

My stopover is coming to an end. Time to pack up and settle in for the long flight. I am looking forward to being back on my rock and I would like to wish all a happy New Year and St. Maarten the stability we need to conserve our land and our sea, to ensure our people are healthy and for us all to realize that Nature is Our Future. Happy 2017!

Tadzio Bervoets

Nature Foundation St. Maarten