Landscape Change in Small Island Contexts: Research by Eloise Stancioff

Landscape Change in Small Island Contexts: Research by Eloise Stancioff

By Eloise Stancioff

In the Caribbean region, landscape change is part of the region’s history. The Caribbean exemplifies man-made changes to landscape, beginning with Amerindians, continuing to the importation of exotic species through the colony area, extreme land degradation caused by sugar plantation, forced settlement of millions of enslaved Africans, diverse populations of indentured laborers, and continued mixing of cultures from globalized interactions today, such as tourism. This has led to not only intense environmental degradation, introduction of new species, but also the fostering of diverse cultures and communities – creating today’s melting pot of environment and community. Today, the small islands of the Caribbean are often described as vulnerable: with limited resources, growing populations and a dependence on unsustainable economic markets.  This perspective often overlooks the adaptability or resilience of these island communities.

However, with climate change and intensifying economic connection, landscape change will only increase, bringing not only changes to the ecology but to the customary practices and traditions that play an integral part in the rural community. How do we address these landscape modifications to build more sustainable and equitable land management techniques? This research integrates human and ecological aspects of agrarian landscapes by investigating how land degradation or land change impacts cultural ecosystem services, that ultimately disrupts community wellbeing. By analyzing, a complete socio-ecological system or landscape, this research integrates the ecological and human dimensions of landscape change.

First, as a primary goal, the research focus is established together with local communities or stakeholders, identifying both direct and indirect causes of landscape change. Second, by using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods, but grounded in local participation,  the research indicates  that landscape change never happens in a vacuum but rather, it is always a part of a larger socio-political context and historical background that must be considered.

For example, in St. Kitts, the end of the sugar industry brought the nationalization of more than 40% of the island. Instead of distributing this land, it lays fallow, preventing access to important agricultural fields in the mountains.  On top of this, this area of rich history and heritage is also undergoing severe coastal erosion. By working with communities there, we built a coastal erosion model to explain past shoreline change and predict future changes. Such a tangible and useful output can be used by local government stakeholders as a baseline for coastal management .  Furthermore, as we worked together with local communities, we were able to identify what were the most important landscape places through the creation of a Restoration Priority Index. Such information can be used to foster development in the area by acknowledging the importance of heritage and culture.

Another example, the Kalinago Territory in Dominica remained relatively isolated and rural while international banana exportation provided a stable and regular income to the community up until the early 2000s. With the end of the banana industry came a decline in agriculture and dependable income, leading to environmental changes, like more slash and burn small style agriculture and increased run off into rivers, but also cultural changes such as declining community involvement. Together, with the Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Kalinago Affairs and members of the Kalinago Council, we created an entire GIS database of the Kalinago Territory, including community and environmental data. Furthermore, we implemented an agricultural land survey, providing farmers with GPS technology to map their exact land acreage. Through such tangible research deliverables, research in both St. Kitts and the Kalinago Territory provided valuable outcomes for landscape management that can be sustained and developed further by both communities.

Such case studies minimize  the doomsday perspective of small islands fated to disaster. Rather, this research provides new insights on resiliency by placing Caribbean communities as central to the equation. By investigating the synergies of nature and community within landscape change, this research proposes that local communities assert local agency.  This moves away from how local communities fit into global phenomena of land change, to how communities can assert their diversity within a global process.