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
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
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
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