Islands at Risk


IS Paradise an island? The ancient Greeks believed that the spirits of their dead heroes inhabited the Elysian Fields in the Isles of the Blest, far away to the west beyond Calpe and Abyla, the Pillars of Hercules.

Centuries later, searching for Paradise, the Irish monk Saint Brendan (484-578) sailed far into the Atlantic Ocean, where he came upon an island of unsurpassed beauty and fertility which he believed to be th"Promised Land of the Saints". Saint Brendan's sacred island remained clearly marked upon most maps for over a thousand years. Even today most travel agents have at least one "island paradise" on their books with which to tempt clients anxious "to get away from it all".

Is Hell an island? For millions of Africans sold into slavery, the Island of Goree off the coast of Senegal, near Dakar, where they were held before being transported across the Atlantic, was the gateway to Hell, and few names so readily evoke the notion of Hell on earth as that of Devil's Island.

Paradise or Purgatory, Heaven or Hell, islands leave no one indifferent, least of all scientists. It was no accident that Darwin's momentous The Origin of Species was the outcome of a voyage to the Galapagos, the Islas Encantadas, Vhet "Enchanted Isles" as they were also called, for by their nature islands offer the scientist special opportunities for research. As Darwin wrote of the Galapagos in his Journal on 8 October 1835, 'The archipelago is a little world within itself...", and "The natural history of these islands is eminently curious and well deserves attention".

Echoes of these words can be heard in those written almost a hundred and forty years later by a group of experts gathered in Paris, in 1973, to outline the scientific content of the MAB project on The Ecology and Rational Use of Island Ecosystems: "Islands offer an exceptional opportunity to study, under relatively controlled conditions, the entire spectrum of ecological, demographic, economic and social factors that influence population/environment relationships. This is particularly true as population/environment systems on islands are small and easity modelled, and can at the same time be representative of larger systems." The final sentence of the above declaration not only re-introduced the notion of the island as a microcosm, Darwin's "little world within itself", it also explains why MAB island research is concentrated on small islands. The 1 973 meeting of experts defined "small" as meaning having a surface area of 10,000 square kilometres or less.

Briefly stated, the objective of MAB island research is to promote sustainable development of small islands and rational management of their natural resources.

A number of primary research themes have been selected as being necessary for the achievement of this objective:

* the management of environmental resources by island populations;

* the impact of external forces on islands, in particular the effects of tourism;

* the impact of the introduction of alien plants and animals on island ecosystems;

* the impact of migration;

* the impact of agrochemicals on island environments and societies;

* the islander's perception of his or her special social and natural environment.

Implementation of these general lines of island research within MAB has been largely shaped by the situation and problems of each specific island or island group.

The South Pacific was the focus of initial island research work in MAB, followed by studies in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and other regions.

Experience from a selection of these projects provided one of the basic inputs to an inter-oceanic workshop on sustainable development and management of small islands, held in Puerto Rico in November 1986.

Organized by the US-MAB Directorate on Caribbean Islands, the workshop was sponsored by the MAB Committees of the United States and Canada, Unesco, UNEP and UNCTAD.

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