Beating off the waves – Survival or Development?

And it is not just a case of moving houses from one side of the island to the other.  One of the major government policies over recent years is to reduce the dispersion of populations across the archipelago, and focus development, housing and facilities in fewer islands.  The cost of administration, the logistics of education and health care, the isolation of some communities from entertainment, social care and job opportunities have caused this policy to be actively developed.  Thulusdhoo already as an administrative centre for the whole atoll is one of the islands targeted.

We saw plans for about a hundred new housing plots over the western end of the island, as well as the small nature reserve there is an open scrubby area of ground where some cattle were grazing and crops grown, and various boatyards and workshops in different states of repair.  According to the map we saw this would be overlaid with the same grid iron pattern of streets and house plots that dominated the rest of the island.


Plans for an island – is it sustainable?

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Melting Pot or Basket Case?

My return trip was punctuated by the confiscation of a deodorant aerosol at Port au Prince Airport (for personal use I deduced) and meeting up with a guy I had not seen for ten years as we both were in transit at Guadeloupe Airport.

Haiti was a difficult place to work in, but beneath the tension and the exposure to desperate poverty and future planning, this was just another Caribbean island with a soupcon of Latin American spice and African verve that made it a melting pot of creativity.  I hope there is enough entrepreneurship , of the right sort, a will to make things better, and a way of bringing the whole community with you as opposed to making a quick buck and scrambling over everyone else, to make the country a better place.

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Kinam at night

The natural disasters and the anarchical structure of the country will make development a difficult task – even if slow progress is made now, there is a strong probability another natural or manmade disaster will take place to knock everyone back.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – The First Disruption

Three events occurred at the Kinam that disrupted the routine.  I’d escaped Hurricane Isaac’s clutches in Guadeloupe, but the storm steadily progress westwards into the Caribbean Sea and then gradually twisted north west to head directly to Hispaniola.  It made landfall at Jacmel, about 35km south west of my hotel.  The rain pelt down on the tin and wooden roofs of the hotel and the wind whistled around the corridors, but the staff had carefully tied everything down or carried loose items indoors so apart from a slightly flooded courtyard, the hotel escaped any damage.  But as I listened to the wind that night, I could not help to think about the thousands of people already exposed to the open air from the quake, now trying to keep hold of everything they had left, keeping the rain out from any gaps in their canvas, hoping the flood water and the associated mud coming down the steep slopes would not inundate them and ruin those precious belongings.  And worst, hoping that no flying debris or mudslides would harm their loved ones.

Alas, twenty four people died that night in Haiti because of the storms.  Maybe not the thousands that had been killed in the earthquake, but still more trauma, heartache, and sheer wretchedness for so many in this already beleaguered country.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Meeting my coworkers

The tall thin figure of Jean Luc came out from the reception area and greeted me with a large hug.  Our ability to talk to each other was limited.  Jean Luc – although from Canada and had learnt his English at school, rarely got to practice it.  For me, I was terrible at learning languages at school, and although I had worked a lot with Linguaphone CDs and tried to practice when in francophone countries, the big time gaps in between trips to French speaking countries meant I lost a lot of the syntax and rhythm.  Consequently it would take several days to get back to a general conversation level and, when ordering food and drink, anything out of the usual patter would confuse me.  Added to this in many countries there was a local patois, often Creole, both the accent and dialect would obfuscate any French in amongst it.

But we had to work together off and on for the next few months, so we had to make the effort.  Jean Luc was supremely patient with me but I soon realise we did share a language – in a stupid sense of humour.

Christophe, as well as his own excellent technical specialism, was the lubricant for the whole team – patiently translating back and forth from French to English, and organising much of the interaction with the Haitian clients for the field work elements of the trip.  When he emerged from his room that first evening,  we ordered some food then Chris and Jean Luc briefed me on the situation so far.  The plan for the work was coming together but there were still a series of bottlenecks to solve.  And now I was here I needed to try and source all the data I needed.  Fortunately, Haiti was well organized for GIS and there was a centre which housed the repository of all Haitian data.  I thought that a visit there was the major thing I needed to do in my week on the ground.  But I also had to visit the Department of Fisheries so they knew I was on the ground and I could fathom out if they had any useful data, and I wanted to get a feel for the fish farm and fish cage industries that did exist.


Jean Luc and Chris

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Looking down on the city

It is curious in consultancy to come in cold to a project and meet your collaborators for the first time.  When I was with NRI it was common to work with outside agencies, but you often had a team of in house people supporting you.  As an independent, I am often thrown together as the GIS expert in a team of other specialists.  In this case, although Christophe lived in Brighton he was an economist from France, and Jean Pierre was from Quebec and a fisheries expert – we had to very quickly build our personal relationships, understand each other’s technical backgrounds, and throw ourselves in to having a  united front with our clients and donors to meet the requirements of the project.

To turn up at the donor’s office for that initial meeting with my team was quite a challenge in itself – especially since I had come direct from the airport after many hours of travelling.  But I managed to hold it together while we talked with the EU delegation and then I was driven off to the hotel.  The Ibo Lele Hotel was up a long winding steep road above Petionville.  It seemed to be common in Haiti to drive in the back of the hotel, against the hillside. The functional areas were all hidden away here including reception, and the rooms, the restaurants and the pools were out front, hanging on the edge of the hill with stupendous views across the city.

The Ibo Lele Hotel had a kind of Spanish feel to it, hacienda style, but with a Haitian twist and the poor construction of many a hotel I had visited.  My room had several routes to it, all of which means going down and up stairs.  Maybe it was the lie of the land that had stopped them building  a single storey across the whole plot; more likely it was just jerry-building and ad hoc extensions that led to the maze of corridors and alleyways.

I spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from the travel in my room.  Towards dusk I got a call from Jean-Luc, he and Chris had got back from their meetings and would meet me in the restaurant in half an hour.  I went out to grab a beer and wait and look out over the valley from the terrace.

The huge throbbing metropolis was laid before me, from the sea in the west to a large salty lake to the east.  A mass of houses interspersed with occasional industrial units, intensive farm activities, fuel storage tanks, and in the centre the long green strip of the airport where occasionally I could see planes landing or taking off – the silvery American Airlines plane in particular glinting in the low angle sunshine.  The noise of traffic, a few boom boxes and heavy thuds from building sites or dumper trucks somewhere out in the suburbs, drifted up to my hilltop viewpoint.

Behind the city a wall of mountain reached as far as the eye could pan.  In some places houses clung to the hillsides, in others great landslip scars were clearly visible with the naked eye.  A covering of grasses was discernible on these hills, but so few trees.

Directly below heavily walled compounds shielded the villas of the Haitian rich, glimpses of swimming pools and tennis courts in amongst the thick lush ornamental trees.  To my left, the distinctive steeple of a yellow church in Petionville – in the central square – poked out above the other buildings and trees.

Walking the Beaches – Slow progress

Just to show how useful it is to look-see again, we were surprised by the little headland that separates the bay into two places- making the water look like a pair of tonsils on the map.  Rather than the expected smattering of high price villas, there was a tightly packed community with narrow streets running down to the seafront and one or two jetties which contained artisanal fishing boats instead of the big plastic dinghies in front of the resorts.  This was a predominantly Creole community, no doubt housing just those people who were to service the richer residents and tourists.  When the coast tucked back against the main road another small public beach marked the end of this district and the more expected high status villas returned.


The end of a tough walk round the bay

One problem with walking a coastline is that if it takes more than a couple of hours you will necessarily run into tidal issues.  Mauritian tides are not huge as they are in greater latitudes, but they still fluctuate and when you are using your GPS and noting down all the facts on your survey notebook, you might not notice the water lapping round your feet.  Towards the end of our day on Grand Baie this proved a challenge as to complement the incoming tide, the next stretch of coast consisted of the high class villas with their extensive dividing walls coming right up to the water’s edge.  We had to carefully negotiate the hard concreting , assorted gabions, piles of rocks and walls.  The water had relentlessly climbed up and in some places was splashing well over the areas we had to walk through.  I worked out this was not just due to simple tidal issues.  This west side of the bay was far more exposed to the narrow opening and tide, wind and waves bashed in here regularly.  Any sand that had existed had long been washed away and if nature had been left to its own devices a much more incised lobe would have been carved out.  Instead people had done their best to protect their coastline and the hardest forms of  protection had been bought in.  Unfortunately this now had caused the energy of the waves to be stronger – with nothing to drag and lessen their impact even the smallest wave seemed to bash against the defences, and when it found a weakness it mercilessly exploited it.  We saw so many broken down walls or  rusted gabion cages, and behind the plots of land scoured out even more vigorously  by the water.

Eventually we reached a rocky headland and completed our survey on a short stretch of public beach at the very north of Grand Baie.

We headed back to our car – as the crow flies not so far away but on the other side of this incised bay and thought – this was our smallest pressure zone.  Would we be able to complete the others in the allotted time – both the sea and the land sides?  Well, we had committed to them so we just had to take the plunge; and we also realised that although much of it was easy observational work and walking, when something difficult cropped up like a tide, fenced off areas or deep mud  and jagged rocks, it would slow us down significantly.  We consoled ourselves that the Grand Baie Pressure Zone was the most built up, busiest and most complex from a human perspective, but it was still a tough task.

As far as you can go – Dinner with the Governor

Probably because it had the best of both worlds – lots of greenery and a drier, temperate climate, many of the more salubrious properties were located here in St. Paul’s, as well as some of the island’s institutions.  The district is named after the island’s cathedral,  modest in size but distinctive architecturally with its tiny bell tower at the west door (which with religious perversity is of course at the east end of the building).  Just around the corner is Plantation House, where the Governor of St Helena resides.  St Helena has several grand edifices, often of that clean cut Georgian style, but none are as arresting as Plantation House.  Not just its size but the bright yellow cream exterior with highlights picked out in white at the time, and also its long sweeping lawn looking out towards the ocean to the north west it is positioned well to be admired by all who approach from town.  I once was invited to dinner at the Governor’s House.  I parked my car up and walked over the gravel path to the imposing porchway.  Greeted by one of the governor’s staff I was one of half a dozen he had invited that night.  At the time, the Governor was Michael Clancy.  I already knew him – I had been walking with him with a Sunday group and come across him a couple of times in meetings I had held on island.  His wife was usually off island, having a busy career in the UK.  What it must be like eating alone in this big empty house, I did not dare contemplate.  While trying to look sophisticated and act all bonhomie, I could not help gawping at the eclectic collections of paintings, porcelain, furniture and curios in the residence.  Most had some connection with St Helena, and I was taken aback by the number of artists who had painted scenes around the island.  The old maps also fascinated me of course.

We were taken in to a private dining room and sat round a large table.  A waiter served the food from silver salvers and porcelain tureens, but I must say the quality, while nourishing, was more homely than haute cuisine.  A vegetable soup that could have come from a Heinz tin, beef with veg, and a thick crusted apple pie with custard.  Like most of these types of dinners, it was not just a courtesy invitation, Clancy was there to ask advice and gain knowledge.  Being my first visit on the island I had little local experience to offer but I did try and make comparisons with Caribbean Islands.  Trouble is only a couple of Caribbean islands are comparable enough in size with St Helena and none had the issues of isolation that the Governor was dealing with.  Another guest that night was Nigel Kirby.  I had been on the ship down with him and knew him to be the long term project manager to evaluate the needs for an airport on the island, develop the options for how to build it and tender it out to commercial concerns.  At that stage the negotiations had already been going on for many years.  There was a push from the British Government to give air access to St Helena as supporting the RMS was incredibly costly.  In some ways the subsidy to keep people on St Helena was one of the largest of any of the UK Overseas Territories, but much of it went into getting people and cargo on and off the island.  Relatively speaking the incomes and standards of living on island were very low, and there was a lack of investment in on-island infrastructure, industry or environment.  The issue of changing the method of access to St Helena had so many implications on the landscape, economics and culture of the island that the debate had been a difficult one for an island who had not had such a huge issue to deal with since Napoleon had been incarcerated there.

As far as you go – the Zones of St Helena

I was lucky enough to learn quite a lot about the forestry of St Helena from working with Myra who ran the Forestry division.  On the wall of her large office at the end of ANRD’s building, she had pieced together Photostat maps of the whole island.  On this mosaic, the plantations were all marked and named, in a similar manner to the parcels up o  Diana’s peaks were labelled for the conservation effort.  There was a legal area of woodland, called the National Forest, some of which was now open ground, but this map showed the areas which had once been commercial forest.  With a complicated coding system, the map also showed you what species existed in these forests.  It was predominantly a type of pine tree and eucalyptus – that stalwart of colonial timber.  But there were other coniferous and deciduous trees which meant a walk through these areas was always interesting and ever changing.


Myra’s Maps

Four areas had more concentrations of woodlands than others, and they were places I found very special.  The house I stayed at on my first visit was nestled in amongst Alarm Forest.  To the South east of Diana’s Peaks was Levelwood.  There was a village called Levelwood but it had no real centre – a place called Woody Ridge was about as close as you would get to a village green and the rest of the houses were scattered around the adjoining ridges.  The main road below Diana’s Peaks zigzagged in and out of the forest.  To the south west there were plenty of plantations hidden away in valleys below Blue Hill, and then around Scotland and Broad Bottom were some of the most picturesque wooded valleys.


Forest in the Green Heartland

As you dropped down beyond this Green Heartland, the soils became drier and the terrain less exposed.   This drier area is given the term “Intermediate Zone” for planning purposes.   More people lived here than close to the peaks and future development is focused here.  The south east side of the island was more exposed, indeed the rest of the islanders could be quite rude about living in the most easterly village, Longwood, as it always seemed to be raining and have a vicious gales blowing in from the sea.  Levelwood too was wet.  More people settled in the St Paul’s district on the north west side, of which Scotland was at the top end.