How one Caribbean fishing village is navigating the stormy seas of adaptation

SOUBISE, Grenada -- When Hurricane Ivan slammed into this small island almost a decade ago, Esley Sanderson leaped from inside his house to save his life.

At 2 a.m., water started coming up his front doorstep. The house slid on its pillars and crumbled, so the fisherman hurriedly told his son "Let's go" and dived into the road, twisting his foot. After hopping through rising waters to a church shelter, Sanderson huddled in the basement as his foot swelled and the roof peeled off. The next morning, his family could not find the spot where their house once stood amid smashed debris.

"Everything was gone. House gone. Boat gone. Stove gone. We had no water or clothes. We washed clothes in the river. It took us a long time to come out of it," Sanderson recalled, sitting under a sign that read "Jesus never fails" on the porch of his current house.

Now the Grenada government is trying to relocate Sanderson and others out of this fishing village dominated by shacks on stilts and concrete blocks into apartments on a nearby hill built by the Chinese government. They know that Hurricane Ivan was not at full strength when it hit Grenada in 2004 and did not carry the added punch of current sea-level rise, yet it still damaged or destroyed 89 percent of the housing stock and killed 39 people.

But despite the dangers, some residents are resisting the move out of objections to the apartments' housing design and concerns about being too far away from their fishing boats.

As climate change brings new dangers to the shores of small island nations, the tiny village of Soubise underscores a central challenge facing debt-ridden Caribbean countries. They are heavily dependent on outsiders, and there are often few options to protect the poorest, most vulnerable communities. The options that do exist are often small or piecemeal, with little money for major infrastructure projects.


Plans for climate resilience can easily run into delays or messiness because of economic pressures or difficult-to-implement agreements with foreign nations, which have their own Caribbean agenda.

The Chinese-built houses in Soubise, for example, spent years in limbo partially because of the Grenadian government's financial situation. Like many Caribbean nations, Grenada allocates about 30 percent of its budget for debt and doesn't have the staff or resources to implement many policies quickly.

In this environment, outside groups are trying to fill the gap. The Nature Conservancy, which recently opened an office on the island, is focusing coastal restoration efforts on the Soubise region, considering its demographics and existence a few feet from the sea. Most Soubise residents wade directly from their backyards to anchored fishing boats a few feet offshore and do not have any type of housing or health insurance.

The dynamic is not unique to Grenada. Groups like the Caribbean Network of Fisherfolk Organisations are warning that many fishing villages across the region may have to retreat or relocate in the coming years. In west Barbados for example, land extensions that used to rise above the high-water mark are disappearing, eliminating critical ledges for boat repair, said Patrick McConney, senior lecturer at the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.

"If coastal communities are not aware, informed and organized to act, their capacity to adapt will be low," he said.

'I want to stay here'

In Soubise, the yellow row of apartments sits up a steep paved road about 10 minutes away from the village. They could be at home in 1950s suburban America, except there is no one living in them, and the electrical wires lead nowhere.

There is no sewer system, and the electrical panels on the home fronts are rusting near encroaching weeds.

"I always get sad when I see this," said Tyrone Buckmire, secretary and executive officer at the Grenada Fund for Conservation.

The Chinese government handed the houses over to the Grenada government after Grenada cut ties with Taiwan in 2005. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding, followed by a 2010 building spree. It was part of an ongoing flow of aid after Ivan, including plans for China to construct a $68 million soccer and athletic stadium.

However, China outlined many of the engineering terms and constructed the houses with many of its own workers. The memorandum of understanding required Grenada to finish the sewage, electricity and water infrastructure, according to government officials.

The Grenada government initially could not raise the necessary capital to honor its part of the agreement, said Crafton Isaac, an official in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, conveying information from a former housing official. "The lack of money has prevented resettlement," he said.

Furthermore, the resulting design did not sit well with some members of the community, although many still burdened by memories of Ivan said they are happy to live on the hill.

"Building the houses is a good thing, but how they built is not so good," said Martin Collier, a 45-year-old fisherman with a red turban, sitting on a bench with community members on an 80-degree November night. "The spaces are small."

For Sanderson, the issue is that some of the Chinese apartments are divided by a single wall, as part of the same home. His wife and children and all his belongings can't fit into half of a house, he said. Currently, he, his wife and seven children live crammed in four rooms.

"Let my family in one house," he said. Otherwise, he said, they probably won't leave the village.

Others like Geron, a local fisherman who declined to give his last name, say they don't want to go at all, considering the hardship that living up a steep hill would create for getting to boats every morning. "I like the breeze and the air. I want to stay here," he said.

When good intentions go bad

Part of what is happening is a bit of a culture clash, according to Terry Charles, director general of the Grenada Red Cross. While apartment buildings may be common in Asia, Grenadians often view them negatively or associate them with crime, he said.

"It's an important part of the culture for Grenadians to have a distinctive space, even if it's small or unkempt. They want a house their way," Charles said. He argued the community was not properly consulted about its needs for relocation.

This type of cultural mismatch can be seen throughout the Caribbean on various issues, despite good intentions, according to Mark Konold, manager of the Caribbean project at the Worldwatch Institute. Sometimes donor countries will assume that standards for things like energy efficiency that work in one country can easily be replicated in the Caribbean, where the harsh environment of constant heat, humidity and fast corrosion due to the saltwater air can actually make those approaches almost worthless, he said.

But it goes well beyond the energy sector, Konold said. The problem "is writ large for a lot of initiatives."

The money funneled from developed nations to the Caribbean also goes far beyond China and Grenada. Countries like South Korea and Venezuela are investing in the region as well, sometimes to recognize companion efforts or to gain favor in international forums.

Grenada might have a small population, but when the votes of five or 10 island states are added together in the United Nations, that can make a difference on issues sensitive to Beijing like human rights, Rush Doshi, a China analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group, said about China's interests in the region. While isolation of Taiwan was an important factor originally, China's Caribbean assistance now is driven by a desire to buy Caribbean influence at a bargain in a region of profound strategic importance to the United States, he said.

Two of the Grenada government bodies involved in the resettlement efforts in Soubise -- the Ministry of Social Development, Housing and Community Development and the Physical Planning Unit -- did not comment for this story.

Can mangroves help where apartments can't?

But Aria St. Louis, head of the environmental unit in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, emphasized that the country is working on various climate change policies that could have an impact on Soubise and other coastal areas, including development of a national coastal policy and a water mapping project that will help people locate critical water supplies after disasters (see related story).

She argued that Soubise residents also have a certain level of responsibility, considering that they have chosen to build on top of a beach.

"If people are trying to help you move, you help yourself as well," she said.

In a budget statement this month, Prime Minister Keith Mitchell said the government secured the assistance of China to complete housing infrastructure at Soubise and two other locations, with a goal of completion by June 2014. "Those houses were not built just to sit there as ornaments," Grenada Housing Minister Delma Thomas said in announcing a financing agreement with China in April.

But Buckmire of the Grenada Fund for Conservation said there have been similar promises in the past about housing completions from prior Grenada governments, and it's hard to know whether this time will be any different.

"I'll believe it when it happens," he said. Even if the houses become operational, it won't resolve the situation for everyone, he added. Relocation is more difficult now that the immediate post-Ivan momentum is gone.

In the meantime, an important part of the answer for Soubise is restoration of the ecosystem, Buckmire said. His organization is working with the Red Cross as a partner on the Nature Conservancy's "At the Water's Edge" project, which in part aims to fortify the coast near Soubise by planting mangroves. The government has been helpful in endorsing on-the-ground projects in general, he said.

Looking to the future

Ivan destroyed many of the country's mangroves, which not only act as a buffer against storms but filtrate water to protect sea grass beds and coral reefs, which in turn add more protection against storm surge.

There's no money for sea walls, and "they don't work after a while anyway," said Buckmire, standing in front of a bay where water has taken over much of a once-expansive beach because of former offshore dredging and sea-level rise. Squatters in the area regularly place makeshift walls of tires to keep out the sea that sink into the sand.

In the past three years, the Grenada Fund for Conservation has planted thousands of seedlings around the country to transform mangrove forests to their original states after they became dumping grounds of trash after Ivan's destruction.

Near Soubise, at Telescope Beach, the plan with At the Water's Edge is to plant up to 300 meters of shoreline with mangroves in the water this winter. When the mangroves grow, they also may provide a sheltered area eventually for fishermen to tie their boats to during incoming storms, which will minimize losses of equipment, Buckmire said.

After conducting a comprehensive survey of the community this year, the Red Cross found that community members did not have proper facilities to store boats in event of storm surge.

There are also preliminary discussions about an eventual mangrove island offshore Soubise to absorb wave energy, if money emerges for the concept.

"One of my biggest concerns is not a direct hit from a hurricane, but when we get the tail end of a storm," he said. When Hurricane Lenny hit far north of Grenada in 1999, the edge of the tail winds caused severe flooding, and "people were literally swept away eating lunch," he said.

The Nature Conservancy also is trying to build cohesion in the community so that people take ownership of their land. The organization is working with an architecture firm in Miami to outline ideas for a new building on stilts in the village that would provide a community hub, as well as a potential spot for boat storage, said Vera Agostini, a senior scientist at the Nature Conservancy.

A successful redesign of the village "may help them relocate. It may help push that conversation along," Agostini said.

Many of the decisions about who lives where in Grenada are made on a case-by-case basis, as there is not extensive zoning. Rules that do exist are not always enforced. A lot of the coastline is privately owned, and there is pressure for the government to make permitting decisions that bring in needed dollars, Buckmire noted.

Charles said one of his biggest concerns for Soubise is that if relocation occurs, the land would eventually be sold off to a developer who might build a hotel or a marina. It's one reason, he said, why the partners in the At the Water's Edge project are spending months holding community meetings and involving locals in the mangrove plantings to ensure the community guides the process.

After all, Charles said, people don't want children "cursing their parents 10 years from now" about the land they gave up.



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