Preserving paradise

A nature foundation in St. Maarten is one of several groups struggling to safeguard the island's environment and heritage in the face of a tourism tsunami

Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 27, 2004 - Page T4

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ST. MAARTEN -- Andy Caballero stands surveying the turquoise sea from a rocky point on St. Maarten, the Dutch half of the tiny Caribbean island where he grew up.

He is here with Jesus Ruiz Lopez, a volunteer with the local chapter of the international group Ocean Care, and they are discussing where they will place the "reef balls" they have been building. The perforated concrete domes will be used to create an artificial environment for marine life and a place to transplant coral.

Caballero points out a small outcropping just offshore known as Pelican Rock, one of only two breeding grounds for the rusty pelican -- St. Maarten's national bird -- here in the middle of one of the country's last pristine diving areas.

"There are some really pretty diving spots just out here -- dolphins, sea turtles, humpback and minke whales -- we've snorkelled with them for hours," Caballero says. He is a marine biologist and oceanographer, and head of the recently established Nature Foundation of Sint Maarten, a non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting the island and its marine environment.

In 2003, Caballero and others like him were successful in having the marine area along the Dutch half of the island's coastline designated as a marine park, closed to fishing and boat traffic. But like much of this magnet for beach-loving tourists and cruise ships, St. Maarten's coral reefs and other remaining natural areas are struggling to survive.

"We've been doing underwater cleanups, planting trees, talking in schools every other week, but we can't do it all," he says. "Our resources are so limited."

The work done by Caballero is an example of how environmental protection is being addressed by various groups working throughout the Caribbean -- from international advocacy groups including Reef Keeper and Ocean Care to local NGOs. While it's still very much a piecemeal approach -- a separate group protects natural areas on the French half of this small island -- the Nature Foundation of Sint Maarten has joined others groups in Curaçao, Bonaire and Saba to form the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, in an attempt to jointly raise money and awareness for sustainable tourism in the region.

It seems ironic that Caribbean countries like St. Maarten -- long loved by tourists for their pristine white-sand beaches and clear blue waters -- should be facing the kind of problems seen in North America's densely populated, urban areas. But the small size of the island (only 96 square kilometres) means there is growing pressure on infrastructure -- from roads to water and sewage systems -- as more people arrive to visit or build holiday homes. Even the ocean is unable to absorb the waste dumped by cruise ships and pleasure boaters. A recent study of the local reefs conducted by the Nature Foundation and Reef Keeper concluded that the remaining coral reefs around St. Maarten are threatened by algae dominance, resulting from "increases in nutrient and sediment runoff due to coastal development."

While tourism has brought this once sleepy island a level of prosperity and employment that was unthinkable a generation ago, success has come at a price. Every day, several massive cruise ships dock off the coast of St. Maarten, spilling up to 20,000 tourists into the town of Philipsburg for shore excursions and shopping in the chic duty-free stores.

Since the first major resorts were constructed here 25 years ago, tourism has grown exponentially. Now, there are 6,000 hotel rooms on the island, plus 400 restaurants and 12 casinos on the Dutch side of the island alone. The international airport receives 10 flights a day, bringing a steady stream of the 1.2 million visitors who arrive each year. There's no question that St. Maarten has become a lively and popular sun destination with all of the comforts of home.

But now it's apparent that some stricter development controls may be needed to protect this paradise. The local government has hired a European consulting firm to complete a "carrying capacity study" to determine how much tourism the island's current infrastructure can handle and to create a tourism master plan for future development.

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