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Trouble in paradise

Accident waiting to happen: a freighter in Dominica's Portsmouth Bay, wrecked by a hurricane. What a mess if it had been an oil tanker.

Photo: Sebastian Johns

Things seem strangely out of place in Dominica these days. This natural jewel of the Windward Islands in the eastern Caribbean is a small island state smothered in thick green volcanic jungle. It survives on its beauty and an ability to produce food for export that is rare in its part of the world. Yet an oil refinery is planned on Dominica’s southwestern coast to service the petroleum needs of the dozens of English-speaking micro-states that dot the ocean from Trinidad in the south to Puerto Rico in the north. An unlikely statue of Simón Bolívar, the South American liberator, has been slapped up near the capital, Roseau. So what’s afoot?

Venezuelan oil money is being thrown around all over the eastern Caribbean as Hugo Chávez tries to outflank US influence in the region. Dominica has become the main regional point of entry for the Bolivarian Revolution. Not only has Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit committed in principle (pending environmental impact studies) to the controversial oil refinery, he has also announced that the small island state will join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) – Chávez’s economic counterweight to the US-inspired Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Cuba and Bolivia are ALBA member states. Other islands reportedly considering following Skeritt’s lead include St Vincent to the south and Antigua to the north. Dominica is also benefiting from Venezuelan largesse in the form of aid to upgrade the Melville Hall airport, provide university scholarships to Dominican students and improve the island’s agricultural economy.

It is, however, the oil refinery that has drawn the greatest attention, much of it highly critical. Dominicans have been burning up the phone lines on the island’s lively talk radio scene to express their doubts about whether the air pollution and oil spills that accompany a refinery are compatible with the sustainable development and ecotourist ambitions long associated with the Caribbean’s ‘Nature Island’. Bernard Wiltshire, President of the Waitukubuli Ecological Foundation and an outspoken environmentalist voice on the island, is typically blunt: ‘What development can a Venezuelan oil refinery lead to in Dominica? We had decided to go into tourism after bananas were affected… Now we are planning to build an oil refinery. What kind of picture are we painting for people who plan to come here?’

Add to this the relatively few permanent jobs created by a refinery and its impact on fishing, and the carbon-based future looks far from rosy. Dominicans who share fierce democratic sensibilities rooted in Caribbean political culture are particularly critical of Skeritt’s Labour Party for the secrecy and lack of open discussion around such life-changing issues as the refinery and ALBA. The refinery controversy in particular has reached such a level of intensity that the Skeritt Government has been forced into a partial climb-down, suspending its previous decision – at least for the moment.

This is by no means the first time Dominica’s ecological credentials have been called into question. Some seven years ago the environment minister, Athie Martin, resigned his position in protest against Dominica’s support for Japanese whaling policies at the International Whaling Commission. Japan was a major aid donor for Dominica. Sadly a little money goes a long way in a small and poor country. In trying to combat US bullying throughout the Americas, Hugo Chávez is in danger of creating his own form of manipulative big power politics.

*Sebastian Johns*

New Internationalist issue 410 magazine cover This article is from the April 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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