The health of our oceans and seas is inextricably linked with the health of our planet and all life on earth. Many nationalities, including mine, have a special relationship with the sea.
The truth is, the sea has a special relationship with all of us.
It keeps us alive.
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres
United Nations Conference on Oceans
UN Headquarters, New York. 5 June 2017
Caring for our oceans, and more broadly, the environment, is a shared responsibility among all peoples. It is a moral duty that transcends national borders, as well as cultural, social and political differences that may create ‘islands’ in society. Caring for the environment is more than receiving economic gains or simply ‘fattening the eye’ from the natural beauty that is endemic to the Wider Caribbean Region (WCR). It is, rather, a matter of life and survival for present and future generations, and as stewards of these natural resources, each individual must take stock of the impact of their actions on the environment.
With their diverse, yet interconnected historical and cultural backgrounds, along with their shared marine and coastal resources, the mainland countries and islands of the Wider Caribbean can be likened to members of a family. There are diverse ‘personalities’, as members set their own priorities and long-term plans and head their ‘households’ according to their own circumstances and leadership styles. There are varying levels of living standards and socio-economic development among each member, impacted by different hardships and responses to internal and external shocks over the years. Some ‘members’ have ‘households’ that are more largely populated than others, while some, because they are uninhabited by people, are just there to be admired!
In the same way that families share a unique connection through a common kinship, so too are the countries of the Wider Caribbean bound geographically by the Caribbean Sea. The Wider Caribbean Region comprises the insular and coastal States and Territories with coasts on the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, as well as waters of the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to these States and Territories. In spite of the region’s political, cultural and socio-economic differences, these countries all depend on their marine and coastal resources. Caribbean biodiversity provides subsistence, fishing, water, materials, employment, coastal protection and well-being to these populations. Protecting and caring for these resources is therefore a matter of safeguarding the very means of survival of this ‘family’.
While families, however, thrive under collaboration and good relations, they also come upon challenges from time to time. The current COVID19 pandemic attests to the need for togetherness and solidarity to overcome this health emergency which is affecting all levels of society. It is also an example of how unforeseen occurrences can strain the resources and capacities of families, and furthermore, the extent to which the actions of one individual can impact the collective society, negatively or positively.
While there are many external shocks that countries have no control over, preventative actions can be taken to reduce their vulnerability and increase resilience, for example, preparing for the impacts of storms and hurricanes. On the other hand, challenges such as pollution, overfishing and habitat degradation are the direct result of our own actions. These issues also have direct and indirect consequences for the environment which sustains us. In one of the most comprehensive studies on coral reefs in the Caribbean, the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 (Jackson et. al, 2014) notes that average coral cover in the region had declined from 34.8% in 1970 to an average of 16.8% in 2012, and they remain highly threatened. Overfishing (mainly of parrotfishes), high human population density and coastal pollution were assessed as just some of the drivers of this drastic decline. Evidently, the challenges we face sometimes are brought upon ourselves by our own misguided actions, or inaction. The good news, however, is that the burden of steering this ship in the right direction does not rest on just one member of the family- each individual action counts as it is, indeed, a ‘family affair’.
Human populations and their production and consumption patterns are major drivers of change in the condition of the marine environment and its ecosystems (State of Marine Pollution report, 2020). The growth of the population and economic sectors such as tourism will intensify pressures on the marine environment from land-based sources and activities if appropriate management measures are not taken.
According to the 2019 report led by the World Bank on Marine Pollution in the Caribbean: Not a Minute to Waste, 80% of marine pollution of the Caribbean Sea results from “direct or indirect discharge of solids and liquids from land-based sources such as rivers, outfalls, waterways, agricultural runoff, and infrastructure”. This means that over three-quarters of the contamination in the Caribbean Sea is a result of human activity on land.
Over the years, governments in the Wider Caribbean have made strides in protecting the region’s marine resources and biodiversity through collaboration and the sharing of best practices. Regional projects and activities, for example, have been implemented to improve wastewater and solid waste management, as well as to protect coral reefs, mangroves and marine species. More recently, for instance, over 14 governments in the Wider Caribbean have taken steps to ban the use, distribution and/or importation of single-use plastics and Styrofoam. Five countries so far have also joined the regional Clean Seas campaign to encourage a multi-stakeholder approach to reducing the quantity and impact of trash in the Caribbean Sea, and in marine and coastal zones.
Increasing environmental awareness and sensibility is crucial to this movement to protect the Caribbean Sea and sustain the Caribbean ocean economy. While governments must do their part to ensure that policies, laws and institutions are in place to address the issues of pollution and habitat degradation, citizens also have to be on board. The long and short of this family dynamic, is that the actions of one member have an impact on the lives of others. A simple action such as properly disposing of garbage in a trash can is a moral responsibility that demonstrates respect for a clean, decent and dignified life, not to mention the impact it has on the aesthetics of a community.
As we commemorate World Oceans Day and celebrate together the beauty, wealth and the promise of the ocean, let us remember that oceans are the lungs of our planet, providing most of the oxygen we breathe. They are a major source of food and medicine and a critical part of the biosphere. Keeping our marine and coastal environment healthy and pollution-free must therefore be the priority of everyone in this Caribbean family.
For a cleaner and more sustainable ocean economy in the Wider Caribbean, for present and future generations, achieving it together is so much better.