Seven weeks in Dominica left much to reflect on. A beautiful and inspiring island in so many ways but nonetheless a tainted paradise with a worrying future. Dominica is known as ‘The Nature Island’ and appears at least largely unspoiled. Its dense forest and steep mountains meant it was less fought over during initial colonisation by Europeans. The land lent itself less well to large scale plantations and was easier to defend by native Carib tribes. It even became a stronghold for escaped slaves until a massive hurricane in 1813 stripped the forest revealing the hideouts to European invaders.
The lack of suitability for monoculture farming has been a blessing and a culture of subsistence farming has prevailed albeit this way of life is increasingly challenged by evolving tastes and habits. A big dietary favourite on the island, for example, is chicken which almost exclusively comes in the form of tortured, chemically polluted poultry from America.
Using any financial metrics Dominica is a poor country but it’s natural wealth is hard to beat. It has hundreds of stunning rivers and this abundance of water combined with incredibly fertile volcanic top soil means food is found everywhere. No one goes hungry. From mangoes, papayas and bananas to all manner of ground vegetables, everything grows and grows well. Discard your passion fruit in your garden and a year later more than likely you’ll have an abundant vine dripping in fruit. It is demonstrably possible for those living on and from the land to have a very high quality of life in Dominica with little money and the traditional diet has provided for long lives as well. The island boasted the most centenarians relative to population size anyway in the world. Whilst food is plentiful in Dominica it would be wrong to suggest that life is easy for all. Many people live financially precarious existences and support from the government is patchy and contingent on voting habits. Access to land is also a big issue. Whilst squatting rights are relatively sympathetic the option of owning land is out of reach to most and common land is virtually non existent.
The island is under pressure culturally and economically as a shrinking minority of inhabitants are seeking to continue to live within the islands bountiful means. The majority of rhetoric we encountered about Dominica’s future centred around wanting ‘progress’, seeking development and economic growth. The lack of an international airport has protected Dominica from Covid but more broadly it has prevented the island from being spoiled by overdevelopment for the sake of tourism. Look at a satellite image of St Martin to see how devastating this kind of ‘progress’ can be for a tropical paradise.
A regular theme in conversations with Dominicans was that they felt the island and its people needed to make more money and grow its economy, whether it be from larger scale agriculture, exploiting natural resources or the attraction of more tourists. It’s always interesting to ask in these instances why they feel they need to make more money because often the strength of the mantra of wanting more is not mirrored with a thoughtful understanding of why. The need for money is clearly understandable when one’s basic needs are unaffordable but this is very rarely the case in Dominica.
Whilst not entirely polluted by consumerism the trend towards this on Dominica, particularly with the young, is strong and surely accelerated with mobile phone proliferation. On the subject to phones it was a shame that we missed out on meeting so many young people because in the moment their screen took priority. None of these observations are of course unique to Dominica but there’s something about a tropical garden of Eden setting that makes them harder to stomach! Being relatively more financially secure it might be perceived as an uncomfortable position to take; challenging those that have less on why they should want more, but it feels an important question to interrogate given the great costs that more ‘progress’ and money will inevitably bring. It’s easy for us to point to examples of this at home of course.
Most Dominicans live in very simple self-built houses with family close by but the government is building more and more modern housing developments. These developments are the result of cosy deals with foreign investors, often Chinese, that line the pockets of the elite of The Island. Foreign Aid and investment deals have helped the Prime Minister of Dominica become the richest leader in the Caribbean whilst residing over one of the poorest islands. These bland housing developments consist of tedious concrete boxes that in the words of one resident ‘just make people more selfish’, the inevitable effect of atomising a population and breaking up community living patterns. These projects are also entirely without the flair and character that the old organically created villages hold and represents an attempt to flatten and tame the culture. No music allowed after 8pm and magnolia walls feel like they do a disservice to the vibrancy of the place and its people.
With our interest in food and growing we became friends with and encountered a range of farmers from Cocoa, the rasta living in a shack growing just more than he needs, through to the business motivated farmers like Jeffrey who was a man so busy it was incredibly hard to spend as much time with him as we would have liked. Jeffrey had lived abroad (New York & Sweden) and fully embraced the idea of work like crazy now to build a relaxing future. It’s unclear if that future will ever arrive for him however given the scale of his ambitions and propensity to take on goals by himself and for himself. Inspite of a work dominated lifestyle we were able to share some very nice moments with Jeffrey and he was incredibly generous for which we were extremely grateful. The fact we liked him so much made it all the more frustrating to see him existing in such a stressed and pre-occupied mode.
Cocoa however retains a more humble and slower approach. What Cocoa has less of in terms of things he makes up for with time in the present. He has the time to welcome new friends whole heartedly without distraction and to appreciate intimately his garden and be connected to the natural environment around him.
This is not to say that Cocoa represented a flawless model for agriculture. Even on his small farm there was an area that had been treated with Glyphosate, the deadly cancer causing herbicide. The use of chemical herbicides and pesticides was one of the hidden dark sides of Dominica. Bottles of Paraquat, a herbicide banned in the EU that is so deadly that 3 undiluted drops will kill a human, can be found littering banana fields. This poison is big business for the government which openly dismisses organic farming as being unviable whilst monopolising the import of Paraquat and other agri-chemical imports. An inspiring couple called Aubrey and Lulu with a permaculture farm (who we were sad to meet so late during our visit) told us that tomatoes from Dominica sent to America for testing were found to contain hundreds of times over the typical legal limit of certain chemicals. Whilst the market in Portsmouth was a feast of stunning fruit and vegetables it’s heartbreaking to consider that much of it is poisonous and not only that it’s poisonous because the government encourages it to be that way for example by promoting Paraquat.
The people of Dominica invited us so warmly into their stunning island that we left having made some incredibly positive memories and feeling enriched. The hope is that the type of progress that is sought in the future is one that breaks away from the exploitative global norm and instead puts a primacy on respect for the natural environment and providing for all the people. On an island as bountiful as Dominica it seems so evident that if this natural wealth was treated under a different paradigm, where the resources are treated as common and there to be used and not abused, it would be very possible for all to live extremely well in a long term sustainable way.