I dropped in to Kingstown a few times during this contract and it gave me a chance to explore both the city and the country more deeply. There is a habit on my kind of work that you are always thinking of the passport stamps. As long as I step into a country, stay there a night, say, I can record that I have been to a particular country – and gradually count up to the 204 states and multiple autonomous territories. So many I have never returned to so my single snapshot in time and space is all that is stored in my memory. When I return to a country it is revealing to see it again – some places familiar, others changed from the last time I have been there. But more interesting is stay somewhere new , have a new rhythm of life there, and meet new people; it allows you to see the whole country afresh, go down new roads and have new experiences which change and hopefully enrich your overall perspective of a country.
This project gave me the chance to do that for St Vincent. The first work I had done there had been natural resources based, particularly to do with the sea and its reefs, rocks and sandy bays. This project was about the whole of St Vincent, which put a bias on the land. New issues were to come out for me; land rights, disaster management, and in particular the process of diversifying agriculture, from which the need to make a national GIS had come.
St Vincent, like many small island nations, had been developed through colonial times to provide one commodity to their respective empires. For St Kitts this was sugar, for Grenada it was spice. For St Vincent it was bananas. Many of the volcanic valleys were cleared of their natural vegetation and planted up with row upon row of banana plants. For years and years, extending past the colonial period, the whole industry of St Vincent was geared around the growing, harvesting and shipping. Boats from the UK would regularly call in to Kingstown harbour and the lorries would pile down from the leeward and windward sides of the island to load them up for shipment. I’d seen it myself on previous visits.
But St Vincent’s banana industry was in decline. The economies of scale that were gained from mass production could not be emulated on the island; indeed some of the individual competing plantations in Latin America were larger than St Vincent itself. Also, it was incredibly risky economically to put the vast majority of your land and exports into one single item, at the whim of global markets and fashion. The Government of St Vincent had become convinced by this over the years. And the European Union were sensitive to it too. The treaties of the EU preclude favourable trade to former colonies, but they realised that they had a legacy of obligation not to leave these countries stranded with no guaranteed market, so had set up a large fund to help stabilise export earnings from these countries.
St Vincent needed to find a use for the large areas of banana plantation that were being taken out of production due to falling export trade. Left fallow they could easily become a tangle of weed, or worse still cause horrendous soil erosion that could store up trouble for the rest of the country, causing landslides, cutting off roads, clogging up watercourses and smothering coral reef. The programme we were a part of was meant to put together a package of interventions to help diversify the land use; for agriculture, tourism or construction, while retaining the balance of soil and vegetation for a healthy environment. Basic to this was understanding the characteristics and potential of the land, and that meant you needed good information from all government and non government agencies to do that analysis. Hence our project to systematically gather and catalogue all the existing GIS data for the Ministry of Planning.