Investigating the Feasibility of Establishing a Biosphere Reserve on the Northeast Coast of St. Lucia
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The feasibility of establishing the northeast coast of St. Lucia as a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve was investigated. A Biosphere Reserve is a concept of sustainability that attempts to harmonize development, the welfare of the people, and the maintenance of a healthy ecological system while learning how to manage socio-ecological systems on the ground (UNESCO 1996a). The west coast of the island is heavily concentrated with commercial, tourism, and residential developments while the northeast coast of the island consists largely of dry forest and small, rural communities. The northeast is thus seen as the next frontier for development. However, in contrast to the west coast, conservation and habitat development in the dry forest on the east coast of the island remains possible because large scale tourism development is still in the planning stages there. This research investigates the feasibility of designating the northeast coast of St. Lucia as a Biosphere Reserve as one possible approach to sustainable development especially with regard to biodiversity conservation, tourism, and rural livelihoods. The dry forest is understudied in St. Lucia as are the concepts of sustainable development. The investigation of this study can highlight the sustainability deficiencies that could potentially hinder a biosphere reserve designation. Thus, this research focus and its findings have the potential to address a matter of key concern in St. Lucia’s sustainability planning efforts. Two hundred and fifty individuals participated in interviews and surveys which constituted the potential stakeholder groups of a Biosphere Reserve. They included community members, civil society, government officials, tour operators, tourists, developers, and private land owners. Qualitative analysis within the context of a sustainability framework revealed various themes pertinent to the designation of a Biosphere Reserve. The use of the statistical program NVIVO and Microsoft Excel were employed for such analysis. The results were analyzed using a combined sustainability framework of the Gibson sustainability assessment criteria (Gibson et al 2005) and the ecosystem-based approach (UNESCO 2000) which is promoted by the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2000). The conceptual framework is the product of conceptualisation prior to the analysis of results as well as having emerged from the analysis as a piece of grounded theory. The sustainability criteria embraces the principles of socio-ecological integrity, precaution and adaption, livelihood sufficiency and opportunity, socio-ecological civility and democratic governance, inter- and intra-generational equity that must be integrated to achieve overall positive benefits towards sustainability (Gibson et al 2005). The ecosystem approach and the sustainability criteria overlap significantly however there are areas where they complement each other. The ecosystem approach espouses adaptive management principles to foster learning within unpredictable socio-ecological systems and promotes decisions that employ precaution but that also lead to better understanding of socio-ecological systems (UNESCO 2005). The ecosystem approach also espouses using economic incentives to protect biodiversity in opposition to market distortions that often undervalue ecosystem services. Major findings of the analysis included the weakness of the development process on the island; its lack of rigorous policies, the absence of a national land use plan and low public participation; all hindrances to sustainable development and to proper environmental management. Attempting to compete internationally while trying to maintain the island’s natural, cultural, and human resources has become an exceedingly difficult challenge and the island has often resorted to the high-density mass tourism route for economic development while the ideal aspiration has been for low-density, environmentally friendly and socio-culturally acceptable tourism. Furthermore, mass tourism impacts negatively on the environment and the majority of the economic benefits are repatriated to the countries of origin. Hence, there seems to be a disconnect between the relevant authorities who have the power to implement acts, laws and plans with the technocrats who prepare those plans and who are involved in research as well as with civil society and the general public who have concerns about the environmental toll and the overall direction of the tourism sector. People need development within their communities and see the dry forest as suitable for large scale development, more than likely of the tourism form. The ecosystems on the northeast coast which include the dry forest, mangroves, beaches, and the marine environment provide considerable ecosystem services to the people and to the island, such as natural hazard regulation, the provision of food, fuel, erosion control, water purification and waste treatment as well as the cultural services of sense of place, inspiration, and recreation. The northeast coast is therefore not yet ready to be designated a Biosphere Reserve as it must overcome certain challenges that impede sustainability. The major arguments point to the need for stronger policies for conservation, land use development, and equitable economic benefits for all from the tourism industry. The resolution of many of these issues lies in the structural changes of governance, constitutional reform, empowering the local citizenry through the building of human and social capital, and the creation of a democracy that is more participatory. Civil society and local governance are very weak within the communities and must therefore be built up in order for people to develop a sense of ownership and control over the development of their surroundings. People must be sensitized and educated about the dry forest as an important ecosystem that needs preservation. These are grand feats that will require a lot of time, vast amounts of effort, and a common vision before the designation of a Biosphere Reserve can be contemplated. Based on the research outcomes a preparatory phase of no less than 10 years to make the northeast coast an area suitable for a Biosphere Reserve is recommended. During this period of time significant gains should be made towards sustainable community economic and social development, environmental education concerning northeast coast ecosystems of the dry forest mangroves, and coastal systems, communities should be educated on Biosphere Reserves, small-scale sustainable tourism should be undertaken as well as other economic development initiatives in other sectors such as agriculture.