Photo by Sebastian Johns

When Hollywood wanted to film the Pirates of the Caribbean they yachted and limoed Johnny Depp to the ‘unspoiled’ Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica to do his thing. Reportedly there was no place fancy enough on the island for Depp and his fellow stars to hang their hats so they were forced to wine and dine offshore. The cast and crew celebrated their hardship experience in a post-production ‘Dominica Survivor Party’. Herein hangs Dominica’s tale – poor people living often hard lives in a place rich in beauty and vibrant popular culture.

Dominica is a small island both in population (72,380) and size (754 square kilometres). Yet the island feels a lot bigger than this, with dozens of mountain peaks, waterfalls and some say a river for every day of the year. This is what the tourist promoters like to call the Caribbean’s ‘Nature Island’.

Roseau, the capital, is a tumbledown kind of town known to raise the eyebrows of the cruise-ship tourists who pour out of their floating apartment buildings and flood the waterfront – ‘This place is pretty poor, Marge.’ Roseau’s ramshackle tin buildings and dirt streets reveal the status of Dominicans in the way the world measures wealth (the second lowest income per capita in the Caribbean after Haiti).

But that is not the whole story – Dominica is rich in many ways as well. In beauty, natural resources and food it is unequalled anywhere in these parts. For a small Caribbean island, Dominica is amazingly self-sufficient in feeding itself, even exporting food to neighbouring islands. So while people tend to be cash-poor you won’t find starvation or even malnutrition on the island. Back in the days when slavery was the scourge of the Caribbean, it never really worked that well in Dominica. It was just too easy to run away and live off the mangos and dashin that grow in profusion in the volcanic jungle that coats the place. This is perhaps why Dominica is the only place left in the world with a population of Caribs – the indigenous people that once inhabited this region, 2,000 of whom still live on the eastern coast.

Dominica nestles among the Windward Islands between two of the last vestiges of French colonialism, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Unlike its prosperous neighbours, Dominicans do not have access to the European market or to French social security. The island, which celebrates its 30th year of independence in November 2008, has had to make it pretty much on its own. It has done pretty well, all things considered – swinging back and forth from Right to Left. But there has sure been some excitement – a pseudo-Rastafarian rebellion that terrorized the island back in the 1970s, for example; and an abortive invasion by US-based white supremacists back in 1981 who planned to turn the island into their own little gambling and tax haven (it’s unclear what they planned to do with the Dominicans). High and low points of recent political history range from Prime Minister Eugenia Charles (the Caribbean’s first female leader) making common cause with Ronald Reagan to intervene in Grenada, through Labour’s Rosie Douglas, who cosied up to Cuba, to the current leader Roosevelt Skerritt, who is steering the island towards the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez.

By and large, Dominicans bear the shifts in the political wind with sceptical good humour. The undermining of the critical banana crop when the big US brands took EU buyers to the WTO over ‘subsidized’ prices for the delicious little mountain variety on which Dominican farmers have come to depend is another matter. This and every imaginable political issue gets thoroughly aired by the Calypsonians who take to the streets and airwaves every February come Carnival time. Dominicans, like most of the others in the Caribbean, combine a fierce sense of democratic autonomy with a wry eye on the outside world: ‘What will they be up to next and how will it land on Dominica’s shores?’

Sebastian Johns

Map of Dominica

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*

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