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Economic recovery in the Caribbean islands is impossible without nature conservation

It is evident that the lack of tourism due to the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will cause the Caribbean islands to solve a large number of economic challenges in the short term. It seems obvious that priority should be given to income collection, the services sector and tourism. What surprises the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI) foundation, a marine biological research station and manager of the national parks on Curaçao, is that in the Netherlands’ proposals (so-called country packages) for (economic) recovery of the CAS islands ( Curaçao, Aruba and St. Maarten), nature conservation (protection) is lacking, while this is a requirement for such sources of income.

“By not including nature (protection) in the country packages, the direct relationship between nature protection and tourism, and thus the economy, is insufficiently recognized,” says Paul Stokkermans, director of the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity foundation ( CARMABI), a marine research station, and also manager of the national parks, in Curaçao. It amazes the director that in the proposals of the Netherlands (the so-called country packages) for (economic) recovery of the islands, nature (protection) is missing, while this is precisely a requirement for economic recovery.

Curacao Nature Conservation | Dive News Curacao
A healthy reef community dominated by reefbuilding corals at the eastern side of Oostpunt. Photo by Dr. Mark Vermeij
Nature of undeniable importance

The fact that the “nature movement” on the islands used to be best known for all kinds of objections to intended developments has created a culture in which economic development and nature conservation seem to have become two incompatible goals. The unfamiliarity with the economic benefits of “nature” apparently comes from two sides and therefore “Nature conservation” probably does not appear in the country package that was presented to the islands on behalf of the Netherlands. Strangely enough, it is economists, not “conservationists”, who endorse the importance of “nature” for economic development. CARMABI wants to appeal to the Dutch government and that of the six islands to include nature (protection) in the country packages of the CAS islands. This also applies to the BES (Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba).

According to Dr. Mark Vermeij, ‘Nature’ is not the number of birds that you encounter on a walk or the protection of ‘everything that lives’ at all costs. “Nature provides many unexpected benefits to humans: the sea produces the vast majority of the oxygen we breathe, coral reefs form natural breakwaters to protect buildings on nearby coasts, coral reefs produce sand that creates beaches, and coral reef organisms produce substances that prove successful in combating previously incurable diseases. Even someone who never enters the water, or lives far away where coral reefs are found, experiences these benefits, ”says the scientist.

Economic value

The benefits of well-functioning reefs are even more apparent through tourism and fisheries. The University of California, after years of research, calculated that Curaçao would lose $ 374 million in tourism revenue if coral reefs disappear[1]. Similar calculations exist for all islands of the former Netherlands Antilles and the income generated directly through (eco) tourism, fishing, etc. from nature-related activities is between 21 and 63% of the gross national product.[1-4]. Even if the underlying calculations are approached conservatively, the economic contribution of “natural ecosystems” is substantial. The lack of “nature” in the negotiations about the economic independence of islands like Curaçao is therefore incomprehensible.

However, keeping such “resources and attractions” instantaneous remains a problem. Ironically, it is the islands themselves that have recently recognized the economic value of functioning ecosystems and implemented measures to counteract further deterioration, such as the creation of a marine park around the reefs near Oostpunt (in the top 3 of the best reefs in the region), designating 30% of the coast as fish-free zones to restore fish populations and establishing 5, now internationally protected, coastal areas. Opportunities to finance the protection of such areas and improvements to sewage treatment plants for cleaner coastal waters through minimal “eco-tax” contributions from visiting tourists are currently being explored.

Unique opportunities for eco-tourism

In a world where the demand for eco-tourism destinations is growing, the Caribbean islands within the Kingdom could play a prominent role in the region. Recently, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have summarized more than 35,000 individual studies on the state of Caribbean coral reefs between 1969 and 2012[5]. The eastern part of Curaçao along with Bonaire Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico have been identified as the “healthiest” (“best”) reefs in the Caribbean. As a result, the “Dutch Caribbean” offers unique opportunities for (marine) ecotourism in the region. However, strategic benefits such as these are not taken into account to achieve a more independent future for the tropical islands within the Kingdom. Talking about the economy of the Caribbean islands without the economic contribution of coral reefs is comparable to talking about the economy of Paris without the Eifel tower, Egypt without pyramids or Saudi Arabia without oil. Natural resources and attractions contribute substantially to the economy of a country or city.

It is precisely in this respect that the islands offer unique economic opportunities and CARMABI hopes that by including nature (protection) in the country packages, the Dutch government will be able to estimate the nature of the islands on its (economic) value.

Carmabi Foundation

Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI) is a non-profit foundation and has been active on the island of Curacao since 1955. The organization started as a marine biological research institute, but over the years it has also focused on the management of nature parks and nature and environmental education. The organization now consists of 4 departments;

  • Research
  • Natural park management,
  • Nature and environmental education,
  • Ecological advice and consultancy to third parties.
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