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How Climate Change Is Transforming Sint Maarten, a Place I Love

by Nina Bijnsdorp Mar 31, 2017

I WOULD NOT DESCRIBE what happened to my home of Sint Maarten, a Dutch island in the Caribbean, as climate change, but as a stagnation of change in humankind. The harsh changes to Sint Maarten’s environment have been caused by a lack of environmental education and understanding from the local community that lives here. My home was once a lush, beautiful island with salt ponds, never-ending mangrove forests, diverse local wildlife and old robust trees that hung over the roads, casting shade to protect its inhabitants from the Caribbean sun. Now, the island is starting to melt away behind the ever growing mountain of garbage that was placed in the middle of our historical salt pond — the same salt pond that was once the key reason why our forefathers settled here.

The great salt pond in Sint Maarten had always been a precious commodity, the Arawaks who inhabited the island before us, named this land “Soualiga,” meaning Land of Salt. When the Dutch Moored on the island in 1624, they discovered this Great Salt Pond and knew they had struck gold. The manner in which the salt was harvested was done in different ways. To be able to gather and bring this salt back to shore people built small strips of sand and rock on the pond’s surface. The ‘Dump’ was created as a temporary solution for getting rid of the garbage produced in Philipsburg, the city next to the pond, using one of these strips of sand to dispose of unwanted waste. Over the years this small heap grew and has never stopped growing since, creating not only an eyesore but a health and environmental danger to the inhabitants and visitors of the island.

Smoke rises every other week from the fires that burn in the middle of the dump site, bringing a heavy cloud of pollution over Philipsburg, which so happens to be where cruise ships come to dock and tourists come to enjoy the day. The island strives and lives off of tourism, businesses such as hotels, extreme sports providers, gift shops, restaurants and many more rely on tourists each day to provide them with a steady income. The beaches on the island, as beautiful as they are, are littered with bottles, plastic bags, containers and many other disposable objects. The reef has been dying slowly over the years along the coastlines of the island because of poor sewage systems, ground water runoff and constant new development being approved too close to the shores. The spillage of these development sites and the ground water runoff polluted with sewage and other harmful substances runs into the oceans destroying natural habitats of local marine life and taking away spaces on beaches that were meant for locals to enjoy. Because of climate change the reefs are subject to coral bleaching, something that can be very harmful to our economy seeing that we rely on our beaches and marine life to attract tourists.

I remember when I was younger, walking down the hill I lived on, along the wild Bougainvillea bushes full of purple flowers and along gigantic tamarind trees full of sweet and sour fruity treats. We would walk down to the beach on our bare feet and climbed in the biggest tamarind tree at the bottom of our hill to pick the best tamarinds to bring home. My sister and I would make tamarind butter in the kitchen of our house and would enjoy our snacks on our rooftop watching over the sea as the waves rolled in and out of the bay below. I remember snorkeling on the weekends and seeing so many fish that I couldn’t keep up with whether or not they were paradise fish, cuttlefish, lobsters, sea urchins and so many more of the other species we used to have here. The coral reefs were vibrant with life, home to so many incredible creatures, fauna and flora, the colors would almost sing. The ocean was so clear in each bay, you could see everything on the floor of the sea and you would find the most beautiful shells all over the coast.

Of course, Sint Maarten is still beautiful. There are still bays as clear as crystal and there are still mountains full of beautiful tamarind trees, but the amount has declined so much in such a short time, that it scares me for the future of my island. I see the trees being destroyed to build more than we need, while habitats of birds, bats, reptiles and other indigenous animals are being wiped away. It seems many people have short term profit goals set in their minds, not realizing that the natural beauty of the island is what pulls tourists to our country in the first place. Visitors come to Caribbean islands for the white clean sandy beaches, the clear waters, the beautiful marine wildlife, and the wild luscious mountains, trees, and flowers that are supposed to surround them. They come to escape the city life only to find a little Las Vegas instead of a real Caribbean island.

Climate change is something that we are creating as we keep polluting and using the earth without thinking about the consequences. Every year I can feel the summer getting hotter, and the winters getting colder. Every year the hurricane season is a little scarier — the things people throw out could come flying around the island causing damage to homes and people.

Although our 37 square mile island is only a minuscule contributor to climate change in the world, as a Caribbean island we are one of the most affected by it. Just like our coral reefs, our life and our economy rely on preventing climate change from progressing. I can feel that there are many who do want to see a change happen. There’s a younger generation of locals here that is striving for a better and cleaner island. As a small island we can’t stop climate change, but if we cannot change the minds and manners in our own country, how can we expect others to do so as well? As a country and as a community we need to start by petitioning for a more sustainable future.

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