By Sean Rose
Recently, I posed a series of questions as a bypass route on a road infrequently traversed. The matter of long-term residential occupation below the foothills of La Soufriere, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). The heart and soul of the volcanic red-zone.
In part-1 of the conversation we accepted that there is a long-established precedent for the abandonment of villages once located along the foothills of our majestic La Soufriere. Most notably, after the eruption cycle of 1902-03. Alternatively, we can argue that the volcano only erupts every 50-100 years. There is no need to disrupt the lives of the approximately 6000 people who live along the northeast coast of the volcano.
Notwithstanding the forecasted mudflows, that scientists say can occur for another two years, threatening private and public property in the heart lands of the volcanic red zone, some residents north of the Rabacca valley are not easily swayed to relocate farther south either. Some say they don’t want to return, and others are adamant that they will rebuild.
Hundreds of homes and other buildings were adversely affected during the 32 explosive volcanic eruptions, April 9-22, 2021. If you like to read deep into numbers, consider that SVG is a plural state with 32 isles and cays. Ponder on that fact. Beyond my numerical digression, the cataclysmic nature of the our 2021 volcanic events in SVG have left a trail of damage, particularly in the red and orange zones, totaling over Eastern Caribbean EC$500 million.
On May 11-12th 2021, the SVG government passed a supplementary budget totaling $117.9 million to finance the rollout of a national cleanup and restoration campaign. The top eighteen, in terms of expenditure, from a list of 30 areas covered by the supplementary budget, were highlighted by Finance Minister Camillo Gonslaves at the May 11th sitting of parliament.
- Ash cleanup, debris removal and river cleaning – $28 million.
- Income support to farmers in the volcanic red and orange zones $10.5 million.
- Supply of meals to displaced nationals in shelters – $7.5 million.
- Building materials to homes damaged during the volcanic events – $6.5 million.
- Agricultural production support – $5.5 million.
- Construction and reconstruction of homes – $5 million.
- Community brigades and road cleaning crews – $5 million.
- Repair of roads and bridges – $5 million.
- Income support for none-farmers in the red & orange zones – $4.5 million.
- Income support for farmers who live outside the red and orange zones – $3.8 million.
- Enhancement of the SET program – $3.5 million.
- Accommodation & meals for displaced people staying in Hotels and Guesthouses – $2.5 million.
- Transportation & related logistical services – $2.4 million.
- Purchasing of prepackaged food boxes – $2.25 million.
- Purchasing of heavy equipment & vehicles – &2.25 million.
- Food vouchers to people in need of financial support – $2 million.
- Restart of the Love Box distribution program – $2 million, and;
- Two million dollars to enhance the work being done by the government’s Department of Social Development. A total $100.2 million, or 85% of the supplementary budget.
The Finance minister summarized saying; “The volcanic catastrophe has upended the national economy. And has dramatically exacerbated the vulnerability of individual Vincentian workers. Particularly, the farmers and the small business persons who live in the red and orange zones of St Vincent and the Grenadines, on both the windward and the leeward side of the country.” “Many of these individuals”, he further noted, “face lengthy periods of reduced or nonexistent income, before they can restore their earning capacity, or their ability to independently support their families”.
Additionally, water collection and storage facilities servicing communities in Fancy, Owia, Sandy Bay and surrounding areas were wiped out by mudflows/lahars. It will take much time, effort and money to restore water supply to those communities. That fact raises a plethora of health and related concerns. For instance, the Sandy Bay water supply service was upgraded in the mid 1980s at a cost of just around EC$2 million. The project was funded largely by the Baptist Foreign Mission and executed by the St Vincent Baptist Mission in concert with other local agencies. Additional water storage facilities were installed. The supply of potable water to Sandy Bay residents and neighboring communities had improved dramatically. The cost of restoring that service in 2021-22 could climb easily to EC$10 million. The timeline for the return of pipe borne water to the affected areas is still buried in the ashes of uncertainty.
Electricity services will not be restored above the Rabacca valley anytime soon either. At least, not until inspections are done at every home, says the electricity services company, Vinlec. Meanwhile, anyone who decides to ride out the storm on the fanciful wings of resistance, disguised as resilience, have a few obvious options. They may attempt to rediscover springs and other sources used by generations gone by. Water quality may be overlooked for convenience sake. Health and safety concerns may be sidelined when survival instincts are at play. The attached inconveniences could quickly leave many bewildered, especially the younger residents. Some will dance to the beat of their own drum. Others will hum echos of “dis ya meat hard fuh boil”.
The series of explosive volcanic eruptions at La Soufriere, which began on April 9th 2021, have also unearthed an urgent need to make right an unconscionable historic wrong committed by the colonial forces of Europe in the late 1700s. It was the British government and their colonial representatives, backed by their armed forces who pushed the Garifuna and Kalinago people to extreme north of the island, to eventually occupy lands and live along the treacherous slopes of the volcano. That is the documented fact. The Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, Vol. 356, May, 01, 2018 cited the following. “In 1763, the French surrendered St Vincent and the Grenadines to the control of the British, under the treaty of Paris. The British colonists appointed a Governor, and commissioned John Byres to complete a survey of the island (Byres, 1777). This survey detailed the way that the island was divided into freehold and leasehold parcels of land, cultivable lands for sale as plantations, and lands allocated to the [Kalinago & Garifuna].”
Since the 1700s, disruption and displacement have become the existential reality for residents living under the canopy of our volcano, every 50-100 years.
According to some imprecise measurements taken recently using, all of the residential communities located north of the Rabacca river are located less than three miles from the summit of La Soufriere. I hold the view that future development activities, strategic planning, ongoing community sensitization programs should permeate the livelihoods of Vincentians who chose to reside north of the Rabacca valley.
The cost of relocation versus reconstruction, in the volcanic red-zone is sure to detain policy makers for the weeks and months ahead. A proposed alternative residential development in the Mt William area surfaced recently. The modern layout looks impressive. Lands just west of Byera Village, in close proximity to the Pamelus Burke Primary School were identified as the perfect location for the detached town houses. One wonders if the concept ever landed on a table for consideration. Maybe it was shelved by the shifting waves of noise and melee generated, largely, by uniformed talk show hosts and deejays on the popular radio stations in SVG. Looking at the proposal through my futuristic lens, it is clear that establishing a new community in the Mt William area would have a positive influence. Apart from a modern residential community with first world features, the development would drive an expansion of primary, secondary and tertiary level institutions in the neighboring communities of Byera, Colonarie and Georgetown. A large residential development of that kind is likely to stimulate a demand for modern commercial spaces and recreational development in the nearby areas.
The ground breaking development could also bring into sharp focus, an urgent need to repurpose the beachfront area from Byera to Colonarie Bay. It will be a useful tool to confront the realities of global climate change, rising ocean levels, and more dangerous and increasingly frequent hurricanes, and other storms. Costal protection is essential to to life and living in small island states. This defense mechanism can include the replanting and protection of sea grapes and palm trees along the bay, among other considerations for improved environmental management practices in the general area. The Byera to Colonarie coastline isn’t immune to the erosive patterns that spawned sea defense projects at Georgetown and Sansouci. It is in our best interest to transform the low lying areas from Byera to Colonarie from being residential to recreational spaces. Those vulnerable areas can spawn new commercial opportunities. An ideal space to welcome walkers, joggers along footpaths spanning the perimeter of the beachfront; an elevated board walk at a strategic point; kiosks; bicycle lanes and more.
The beach front stretching from Byera to Colonarie is already a popular nesting site for sea turtles in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Since January 1,2017 the Vincentian government made it illegal to catch or disturb the nesting sites of sea turtles. The area is also a perfect landscape for transformative environmental protection and conservation methodologies.
Resistance and resilience are deeply embedded in the Vincentian DNA. People have chosen to re-occupy places that were declared unsafe for residential purposes. The Byrea beach front is one such area. Although not threatened by lahars, as some of the villages further north, the Byrea to Colonarie coastline is also becoming progressively unsafe for residential occupation. The urgency to identify new areas for safe residential occupation extends beyond the contours of the volcanic red-zone.
The task before us is ginormous. Our nation beckons us to work in unity during the restoration and reconstruction activities, following the 2021 volcanic eruptions. To confront the ever present threat posed by the Covid-19 virus, in addition to a multiplicity of other health and economic impacts.
The topics raised in this two part discussion have not been exhausted. I’ve only scratched the surface to shed light on some of the opportunities and challenges for displaced residents of the north. Nonetheless, we are bolstered by our inherent resilience, confident that we will rise from the feverish ashes of COVID-19 and the volcanic ash of our majestic La Soufriere.