By Sean Rose
The road to recovery and reconstruction for St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) during and after the 2021 eruption cycle of the La Soufriere volcano, is paved with challenges and transformational opportunities.
Since that memorable morning of April 9th, 2021, a series of ginormous volcanic explosions have emitted tonnes of pulverized rock/ash, destructive pyroclastic density currents, mudflows and other volcanic projectiles.
Vincentians have traditionally used the sand and boulders from the volcano in construction. Every eruption cycle increases the volume of those building materials. Behind the clouds of uncertainty are opportunities to recover and reconstruct even better.
To date, there’s a trail of damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to preliminary estimates.
Scientists from the University of the West Indies (UWI) Seismic Research Centre, currently monitoring activities at La Soufriere repeatedly warn, that in light of the ongoing volcanic eruption, the threat posed by mudflows will remain in play for some time to come.
The annual hurricane season, which officially starts on June 1, and runs through to November 30 is likely to usher in another wave of destruction to public infrastructure and residential property. The likelihood of ongoing disruption and displacement are harsh realities, especially for our people living along the foothills of La Soufriere. In the words of Grammy award-winning reggae-dancehall entertainer Mark ‘Buju Banton’ Myrie, it’s “Not An Easy Road”.
Over 14000 residents from the north-eastern and north-western communities on mainland St. Vincent were forced to leave their homes since the explosive eruptions began on April 9th. The displaced families have had to seek refuge in designated emergency shelters, private homes, and hotels located in the southern sections of the island. An estimated 7000 people have taken refuge in over 80 shelters-mostly school buildings, receiving 21000 meals daily, among other relief supplies.
The magnanimous task, being coordinated by the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO), is made even more complex with the logistical challenges of distributing relief supplies of food and water to private homes, including those housing another 7000 or more evacuees. As pressure builds on limited space and amenities at private homes, more evacuees will seek accommodation at the various designated shelters.
Historically, displacement and voluntary migration to the southern sections of SVG have occurred after the explosive volcanic eruptions of 1812,1902 and 1979. More Vincentians have shown a tendency to emigrate because of the devastation and discomfort after periods of explosive eruptions. History is very likely to repeat itself on both counts as a direct result of the 2021 eruptions.
In my conversations with a wide range of people, I’ve been asked, “what led to the formation of residential communities in such close proximity to an obviously dangerous volcano? Let the records show that it was the forces of man, specifically the British colonial forces, that displaced our Garifuna & Kalinago forebears, (erroneously labeled “Caribs” by the Colonizers) from the safer and more hospitable areas of St Vincent. It was not the forces of nature that forced them to live beyond the Rabacca and Wallibou rivers in the northeast and northwest, respectively.
Advancing “The Case for Caribbean Reparatory Justice, (2014, pg.12) Dr. Ralph E. Gonslaves confirms this fact. He noted that, “the British systematically deprived the Kalinago and Garifuna people of their lands; the indigenous people (the Kalinago) and the Garifuna (the descendants of persons of mixed blood kalinago and African) were pushed to the worst and most inhospitable parcels of land in the north-east of St. Vincent amounting to 238 acres.”
Several historical accounts of the decades long Garifuna & Kalinago resistance to some overzealous French settlers and the invasive colonial brigands of Britain, which ended with the forced removal of Kalinago and Garifuna people to Rotan in 1797 all agree that hitherto, “the heart of the [Kalinago & Garifuna] country stretched from the Byrea River to Rabacca,”(The Rise & Fall of The Black Caribs, I.E Kirby & C.I Martin, (1972). Kirby and Martin made it clear that the Grand Sable area was the most densely populated area on the eastern side of St. Vincent. Looking at the area today we can see why that was so. Flat lands spanning hundreds of acres, easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, clean rivers running from the lush mountainsides and rich volcanic soil to farm. Oh how close it must have been to the biblical “Garden of Eden”. Then came the devious invaders from France and Britain in the 1500s onwards.
According to I.E Kirby & C.I Martin, (1972, pg. 6&7) “The mountainous nature of the island’s terrain and the large number of [Kalingo & Garifuna] inhabiting it combined to make the Europeans give St. Vincent a fairly wide berth, and in the Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle in 1748, St. Vincent was declared to be neutral. It is, however, not accurate to say, as some historians have done, that the [kalinago & Garifuna] were left unmolested…The English monarchs were continually granting the place to one duke or another.
A Frenchman, M. DuBlanc, even declared war on the [Kalinago and Garifuna who] had to repel two serious efforts at settlement, one by the English and the other by the French. Despite all this, the [kalinago & Garifuna] in St. Vincent not only survived but also prospered. They came to be regarded as the warriors who would assist their [neighbours] in other islands in the struggles against the Europeans. It is reported that they possessed some large canoes capable of carrying up to 60 warriors.
These they would launch and sail with amazing dexterity for the islands where their assistance was needed. It is clear, too, that when the [locals] in the other islands were defeated and had to flee, it was to St. Vincent they came. For instance, Van der Plas suggests that the Bayabous, a tribe of [locals], were forced to flee their native Guadeloupe and settle near to a river midway on the east coast of St. Vincent, thus giving the place their name Biabou, which today is a large village about 13 miles from Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent.”
According to various historical accounts, it was the colonial powers of England that decimated the livelihoods of the local population in the 1700s, and forcibly relocated many to live along the foothills of the La Soufriere. It was not because those lands were deemed best suited for residential purposes. This historical wrong has deeply impacted our Vincentian DNA. It also narrowed the scope for meaningful urban planning and development in SVG. Unquestionably, it also forms part of our quest for reparations following the myriad of genocidal and other atrocities committed against our forebears by the colonial forces.
After decades of resistance to the get rich quick schemes of the invading English, a reservation was created, “at Old Sandy Bay, which, like all reservations, proved inadequate. The first Government to take any interest in these people removed them to their present home, New Sandy Bay, a much less inhospitable area. Such of the [Garifuna] as did not surrender, the most elusive ones, went into the bush mainly in the Upper Massarica Valley now known as [Greiggs]. Later they were given a reservation in this same area at the foothills of Petit Bonum. Others on the Leeward side were given an impossible area at Morne Ronde and near the Lariki River, where only iguanas seem able to survive. The [Garifuna] in the latter areas fled in terror before the 1812 eruption of the Soufriere, both Morne Ronde and Lariki lying directly in the path of mud, dust and ash coming from the volcano. Afterwards they were given lands at Rose Bank and Windsor Forest. A few migrated to Trinidad in 1812”, I.E Kirby & C.I Martin, (1972).
In a previous article, the 2021 SVG Volcano Eruption: Impact, Response, Resilience, Recovery & Reconstruction; we observed, among other things, the challenges associated with the process of recovery and reconstruction in communities to the extreme north of St Vincent. Although that process isn’t an impossible task, for some residents it will be too expensive. In some circles, residents of communities closer to the volcano are being persuaded not to resettle in the face of active danger, ongoing disruption of lives, livelihoods, and the destruction of property. Others posit an opposing view to stifled calls for the abandonment of villages north of the Rabacca valley.
Fortuitously, there may very well be a practical solution to this centuries-old problem. Alternatively, we can consider a land exchange arrangement for residents seeking to relocate from the extreme northeast and northwestern sections of the mainland. I am not suggesting an abandonment of the pristine communities located north of Chateaubelair or the Rabacca river. On the contrary, we propose a mutually beneficial land exchange arrangement for persons who are unable to reconstruct, or those seeking to relocate further south. This is expected to be, undoubtedly, transformational. This would give planning and other government agencies ample room for disaster mitigation and response considerations in the areas identified as most vulnerable.
An arrangement of this type could be buttressed by an environmental protection covenant. A land-use policy to guide future activities in those areas most prone to volcanic and other disasters. This covenant would determine allocations for residential and commercial property development in specific areas, guided by strict building codes.
The land-use policy would also provide renewed guidance for agricultural and industrial activities – such as light manufacturing, farming and agro-processing; eco and heritage tourism, inclusive of recreational, entertainment and hospitality based investments. This approach will demand development guidelines without ambiguity.
Lands suitable for the creation of new residential communities are located across St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Hundreds of acres of government and privately owned lands in areas of the country that are further removed from our majestic La Soufriere. There is Park Estate in Bequia where government owns somewhere in the region of 675 acres of land. There are 75 acres of government-owned lands in Fenton of which at least 50 acres can be transformed into safe residential accommodation for displaced nationals. Also, there are portions of government-owned lands along the Mandela/Leeward Highway, between the western towns of Layou and Barrouallie. Also, there is the Mount William Estate, near Byrea Village, where a small portion of an estimated 2500 acres of privately owned lands can be transformed into a residential community, without stepping unto the traditional farmlands. I am confident that a transformative approach of this type can help us address many of the perennial problems that threaten sustainable development in the northeast and northwest of mainland St. Vincent.
We can’t wait for the dust to settle after a commendable national emergency response to the April 9th 2021 explosive eruption of La Soufriere. There are uncertainties hovering over the length of time evacuees will remain in shelters, adding to further loss of instructional time for students in primary and secondary schools. Even in this apparent moment of despair, we have a unique opportunity to swiftly open all doors to an emergency relocation and reconstruction program. The clock is ticking.