Mining on "Nature Island": The Dominican Government's Resource Extraction Plans Anger Conservationists

Article excerpt

In the tiny Caribbean country of Dominica, conservationists are clashing with the government over how best to fit economic needs with ecological protection.

The self proclaimed "nature island" suffers from widespread poverty, worsened by declining banana exports.

At a recent international eco-tourism conference, Prime Minister Edison James confirmed his intention to emphasize resource extraction in order to boost the island's economy with foreign investment. "It is obvious that we place much value on our environment and its protection.... but we have a responsibility to exploit the natural resources of our country in a manner which can generate economic growth," he said.

National conservation organizations adamantly oppose this plan. They say the plan ignores the opportunity to combine protection of the island's lush natural environment with lasting solutions to alleviate the poverty. These include re-orienting the mono-species agricultural sector towards something more ecologically benign and sustainable, and building on the country's existing ecotourism sector.

Dominica has historically relied on its volatile agricultural industry as a main source of revenue. But according to Mona George-Dill, the banana monoculture - the island's number one export - is fraught with problems. George-Dill is a leading local conservationist and managing director of the non-profit, self-funded Springfield Centre for Environmental Protection Research, and Education (SCEPTRE).

The mountainous island presents challenging growing conditions, and in some years, tropical storms devastate the loosely rooted banana trees. With deregulation of the European Union's banana market, Dominica's export prospects are waning. Farming plots are small and the crop cannot be grown cheaply enough to compete with the large plantations and fertile soil of Latin America.

George-Dill recommends that Dominica look at switching to breadfruit, "fwaise" (mountain raspberry), mangoes, avocados, star apples, mangosteen and other native plant species that grow abundantly, could sell easily in foreign markets and are less harmful to the island's ecology.

James, in contrast, is promoting copper mining and quarry operations in the island's interior. These, he hopes, will bring new jobs and more money for education and health care.

James says when people are poor, the environment is at greater risk - those who can't afford to buy fish or chicken may hunt protected wildlife species for food and people who can't afford cooking gas will cut wood to burn. The Dominica Conservation Association (DCA) is trying to convince the government that mining prospects will not be a viable solution to these problems.

Because the land is so rugged, the island's dense rainforest has so far remained relatively untouched. Sometimes described as a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years, the island seems ideally suited for eco-tourism. …