New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 292

Country profile
Dominica

Where is Dominica? 'Mal encaminado a Santo Domingo’: ‘misdirected to the Dominican Republic’. Even if they know no Spanish, most Dominicans are sadly all too familiar with this phrase, stamped on their mail which has made a time-consuming detour some 800 kilometres north-west. Dominica (pronounced Domineeca) is not the Dominican Republic. Around 65 times smaller, Creole-speaking and a former British colony, it has little in common with Haiti’s neighbour on the island of Hispaniola.

Nature is larger than life in what the tourist officials like to call the ‘nature isle of the Caribbean’. Sheer volcanic peaks are lost in clouds, impenetrable rainforest conceals a vast range of flora and fauna, violent geological activity has created steaming craters and a ‘boiling lake’. Awe-inspiring mountains, lakes and waterfalls are drawing growing numbers of walkers, botanists and bird-spotters.

The island’s rugged topography has been both a blessing and a curse. European colonists were deterred by its inhospitable terrain as well as the ferocious resistance of its indigenous inhabitants, the Caribs. For two centuries after Columbus first sighted and named Dominica, the Caribs fought off British and French settlers. As the island seemed unsuitable for sugar-cane cultivation, the European powers largely ignored it, and the Caribs escaped the fate that befell the indigenous peoples of other Caribbean islands.

Today, several hundred Caribs still live on the north-east coast of Dominica, in a reservation granted by the British in 1903. Making a living from subsistence farming as well as selling handicrafts to tourists, the semi-autonomous Carib community around the village of Salybia is the last existing vestige of the cultures which pre-dated European arrival in the Caribbean.

Dominica’s landscape has also protected it from the latter-day invasion of mass tourism. With few white-sand beaches, most of its coastline consists of black, volcanic sand. Yet with the advent of eco-tourism, Dominica’s isolation is fast disappearing. Cruise ships now call at the capital, Roseau, and Ports-mouth, allowing tourists to make a brief excursion to favourite natural sites. While the Government claims to be protecting these popular areas, conservationists argue that unregulated tourism will soon ruin the island’s distinctive eco-system.

Tourism may yet prove to be Dominica’s only option, as the banana industry, long the mainstay of the rural economy, is dying fast. From the 1950s onwards bananas dominated Dominica, growing on every steep hillside and providing a livelihood for thousands of small farmers. The impending collapse of the European Union’s protective banana market will mean that Dominica’s ‘green gold’, currently accounting for more than half of export revenues, cannot compete with large-scale Latin American production.

Dame Eugenia Charles, the tough-talking, conservative ex-Prime Minister once declared that bananas and politics did not mix. Yet Dominica’s fragile economy seems set to become the victim of superpower politics, as the US and banana multinationals line up to dismantle the European Union’s ‘unfair’ import rules. For an island repeatedly buffeted by hurricanes and other natural disasters, the end of the banana industry threatens yet further devastation amid the natural grandeur.

James Ferguson

AT A GLANCE

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ABBIE ENOCK /
CAMERA PRESS

LEADER: Prime Minister Edison James

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $2,800 (UK $18,340)
Monetary Unit: Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$2.70=US$1)
Main exports: bananas, coconut products, citrus fruit, garments.
Main imports: machinery, oil, manufactured goods.
The Government is attempting to diversify the economy away from bananas, concentrating on non-traditional agri-exports and the low-wage assembly sector. Tourism is also growing fast.

PEOPLE: 72,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 17 per 1,000 live births (Canada 6 per 1,000). Despite a relatively low standard of living, Dominica has made considerable progress in health since the middle of the century when it was infamous for lack of sanitation and resulting diseases.

CULTURE: France’s period as colonial master is evident in names, food and, above all, the French-derived Creole (Kweyol) spoken by all islanders. Independent from Britain only in 1978, Dominica remains influenced by British institutions, but younger Dominicans look more towards the US for cultural models and the hope of emigration.

Sources Human Development Report 1996; World Development Report 1996; Caribbean Insight; Latin America Monitor; Caribbean Development Bank; State of the World’s Children 1997.

Never previously profiled


STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A small commercial élite dominates, but the banana industry has created an influential class of small farmers.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
95%. Like many other Caribbean islands, Dominica has invested in primary education, with impressive results.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Self-sufficient in most foodstuffs and with well-developed hydro-electricity, Dominica has to import most manufactured goods.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Eugenia Charles’ strict rule has been followed by a more relaxed atmosphere but Rastafarians still face official hostility.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Eugenia Charles apart, politics are male-dominated. But women are prominent in the professions and influential in retailing and the rural economy.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
73 years (US 76 years). The result of both healthy lifestyles and adequate primary healthcare.


POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
After the attempted coups and authoritarian government of the 1970s and 1980s, electoral democracy seems entrenched. The ruling United Workers’ Party (centre-right, despite the name), Dominica Labour Party and Dominica Freedom Party cover a wide political spectrum, and elections are generally free and fair.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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