By Haslam, Nick
Geographical , Vol. 82, No. 10
In direct line of fire of the 18th-century Portuguese cannons on the crenellated ramparts of Sao Tome's lime-washed fort, the silhouette of a huge oil exploration platform, like some ghostly square rigger, can dimly be seen on the horizon. With oil-rich strata recently discovered close offshore, the islands of Sao Tome and Principe are poised at a vital crossroads. International tenders for the rights to drill on the seafloor have fetched high prices, leading to speculation that the islands would make the perfect permanent platforms for oil processing and transhipment.
Yet for the moment, the determination of Santomeans, as locals are known, to protect the unspoilt beauty of their remote islands from destruction remains consistent. 'Oil,' says Sao Tome's prime minister, Rafael Branco, as he looks out over the shimmering expanse of the Gulf of Guinea, 'is a source of great wealth, that's true. But how long will it last--30 or 40 years? Here in the islands, the pristine nature of our beaches and rainforest can last far longer. It is in our interest to ensure it stays that way.'
Africa's second-smallest independent nation, with a population of nearly 200,000, the two tiny islands of Sao Tome and Principe sit just north of the equator, 200 kilometres off the shore of Gabon. The mountainous, thickly forested islands are of volcanic origin, lying on the Cameroon fault line, which extends to Lake Chad, far to the north on the African mainland.
They were uninhabited when they were first discovered in 1470 on the feast day of Saint Thomas by explorers Pedro Escobar and Joao de Santarem, who claimed the islands for their native Portugal. Within half a century, large numbers of slaves had been brought in from nearby west African countries to plant and harvest sugar cane, which flourished in the humid climate and rich soil. Over the next 200 years, the colony became a trading post and depot for the transatlantic slave trade, but it wasn't until coffee and then cocoa were introduced during the late 18th century that the economy began to boom.
By the mid-19th century, Sao Tome had become one of the top cocoa producers in the world, and its arabica coffee was famous in the coffee houses of Europe. Huge patrician estates, known as rocas, each with a church, school, hospital and stately manor at its centre, were set up, farmed by thousands of slaves, to be replaced by bonded labour from Mozambique, Angola and Cape Verde when slavery became illegal in 1875.
The 20th century brought stirrings of unrest from the immigrant workers, who found that conditions had little changed since the time of slavery. Portuguese colonial governors ruled with a rod of iron, brutally suppressing resistance and punishing revolt leaders with forced labour in work gangs. But it wasn't until 12 July 1975, following the end of the dictatorship in Portugal, that the islands finally gained full independence. Portuguese land owners and colonial administrators fled en masse, fearing reprisals. The large rocas were seized and occupied by the workers and the islands went through two turbulent decades, supported by Soviet, Angolan and Cuban aid until perestroika during the 1980s.
Today, the country has a stable democratic multiparty system in place, but although small amounts of coffee and cocoa are still exported, the economy is moribund, with an average per capita wage of little more than one euro a day. Most of the rocas have fallen into disrepair, the vast plantations engulfed and overgrown by the encroaching forest.
But sitting on the sidelines of Africa may prove to be the key to the future for Santomeans. With fertile soil and seas that teem with fish, islanders never go hungry, and their slow, easy-going approach to life--known locally as leve-leve--gives these remote islands a special and unique charm. Old rocas, with grand plantation houses now roofless and decaying, are home to the second or third generation of descendants of the bonded labourers who once worked on the land. …