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Home » Editorial » Dominica’s People Stay On The Island Despite Being In The Storm’s Eye

Dominica’s People Stay On The Island Despite Being In The Storm’s Eye

Ken Silverstein 

Once upon a time, I took my family on a Caribbean cruise that docked on the island of Dominica — 290 square miles of rugged mountainous terrain. We circled down and through its rainforest until reaching a splendid waterfall. It’s the only excursion I can recall from that summer trip nearly two decades ago.

Dominica is known as the Caribbean’s nature island — a big mountain emerging from the ocean. Agriculture once dominated the economy, but eco-tourism is now the primary breadwinner: waterfalls, hiking, and bird watching. However, the island sits in the center of a hurricane zone, subjecting it to repeated body slams. Ideally, carbon finance would cover the cost of repairs, although Dominica relies on its national pride and limited federal treasure.
“We always have our fingers crossed,” Dominica’s director of forestry, wildlife, and parks, Minchinton Burton, told me during COP28 in Dubai. “When we have storms and troughs, there is heavy flooding. The storms are becoming more frequent and intense — much different than in the past.”

Hurricane Maria, with Category 5 winds, hit the island in 2017, wiping out 226% of its gross domestic product. That led to the defoliation and destruction of 85% of the country’s forests. Six years on, it is still recovering.

In actuality, 60% of Dominica’s landmass is forests. The trees are not just economic engines. They also absorb atmospheric CO2, benefitting the advanced nations that produce most of the CO2. The country’s deforestation rates from agriculture and construction are nominal, although natural disasters have taken a toll economically and environmentally.

That’s why climate finance is vital to low-lying and island nations, which are developing and producing minimal CO2 emissions. Yet, they suffer the wrath of extreme weather events and the subsequent damages: coastal erosion, rising tides, and deteriorating infrastructure.

To that end, some advanced nations vowed to contribute to the “loss and damage fund” at COP28 in Dubai. For example, the United Arab Emirates promised $100 million while the European Union swore $245 million, with $100 million coming from Germany. The United States and Japan will kick in $17.5 million and $10 million, respectively.

“We are skeptical about loss and damage,” Director Burton says. “We aren’t betting our lives on it based on experience. Most of the time, the funds trickle in.”

How Island Nations Remake Themselves

Each journey begins with a single step. However, the loss and damage contributions are more like a slow crawl. Consider Africa, with 1.3 billion people: Climate change costs $5 billion to $7 billion yearly — projected to rise to $50 billion by 2030. The African Development Bank said the continent needs $2.7 trillion between 2020 and 2030.

U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry added that Africa is home to 17 of the 20 countries hardest hit by climate change. Indeed, cyclones have walloped Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, while floods have ravaged Nigeria. And the horn of Africa suffers from an enduring drought.

“We urge the parties to honor their commitments to those countries that contribute less CO2 but do not have the domestic resources to fund climate action,” Filipe Nyusi, president of Mozambique, told a gathering at COP28. The country, which runs primarily on renewables, contributes a fraction of the globe’s CO2, yet extreme weather can devastate its economy. For example, Mozambique has 2,700 kilometers of low-lying coastlines characterized by coral reefs, estuaries and mangroves.

Dominica and Mozambique have tropical climates that make them prone to natural disasters — even more so in the age of climate change. Indeed, human-generated greenhouse gas emissions lead to a warmer atmosphere and more rainfall, exacerbated by hotter oceans.

How does Dominica heal itself after hurricanes and storms? It has a loyal citizenry that stays and rebuilds. After Hurricane Maria, very few countrymen and women left for “greener pastures.” While local funds pay for most of the rebuilding, the country has a program that allows foreigners to get citizenship if they invest in critical projects — everything from roads and bridges to hotels. It attracts people worldwide. “Golden Passports” cost at least $100,000.

That has enabled the government to slowly rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The country lost 95% of its housing stock, prompting policymakers to target public funds to remake a quarter of all homes, or 7,000. Those new houses can withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

The Economy And The Natural Environment Are Linked

Beyond that, the government is moving aggressively to renewable energy resources, aiming to go all-green by 2030. Dominica Electric Services now provides hydroelectricity and diesel generation, although the utility is expanding its solar, wind, biogas, and geothermal resources; the country’s location and geology are perfect for geothermal energy.

“We aim to be climate resilient,” says Director Burton. “We pay the most for climate protection but contribute the least CO2. We are on the frontline of the climate battle. Our economy and the natural environment are tied together, and people visit Dominica to explore our natural assets. We have no choice but to conserve them. Our people are committed to the rainforests and habitat, but we can’t do it alone.”

I understand the country’s draw — the same magnet that evokes reverence from fellow travelers and national honor among its people. However, heavy rains and hurricanes can destroy Dominica economically and environmentally. That’s why it needs carbon finance, which can insulate it from extreme weather and protect its infrastructure.