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Islands as a microcosm of the world

By Staff | Feb 3, 2015

To the editor:

We were four days out of Gibraltar, sailing to the Caribbean, when I glanced up from the compass to see in the distance Porto Santo, an island in the Madeira archipelago. A few hours later our ketch “Lady Luck” rounded the last point of land into a bay where two of Prince Henry the Navigator’s captains found refuge from a storm in 1418.

The island was starkly barren. There were no trees, no green leaves, not even a blade of grass. Deep ravines gouged in rock and gravel hills plunged into the sea. I wondered what terrible catastrophe had caused this destruction.

Portugal established a colony on Porto Santo a year later. One ship carried a female rabbit whose offspring thrived and devoured the native vegetation. The first settlers, with terracing and irrigation of the fertile volcanic soil, grew grapes, cereal crops and vegetables. These crops, along with fish allowed the early settlers to be self sufficient for food.

The Portuguese established a sugar cane industry, which made a few men wealthy but furthered environmental destruction. Christopher Columbus lived on the island for a while and married the governor’s daughter. His former home is now a tourist attraction. Intense agriculture and rabbits decimated the natural vegetation and caused loss of topsoil. This destruction caused by overpopulation, deforestation, intense agriculture and imported animals took place in less than five hundred years, scarcely the blink of an eye in the history of the world. The islanders are now dependent on imported food and tourists.

When Columbus anchored off the island of Hispianola 1492 the natives grew fruit, cotton and vegetables on rich soil. The land was covered with trees and native plants. The Spanish decimated the native population and commenced environmental degradation with gold mining and the introduction of cattle. France in 1697 took possession of Haiti and imported African slaves to produce sugar. Haiti became a wealthy French colony, but by 1804 at the time of the slave rebellion the island was almost entirely deforested and the erosion of topsoil was well underway.

During the 20th century, basic medical care reduced infant mortality but without birth control and massive outward migration, the population soared. Today, the Haitian half of the island is barren. Villagers plant corn on steep hillsides but tropical rains carry away the seedlings and topsoil. Except for a narrow coastal plain, the land is barren and rocky. Sediment and sewage have destroyed ocean reefs, depleting the population of fish.

Foreign aid temporarily supports Haiti but has failed to halt the environmental degradation, overpopulation and social unrest.

In Florida, greedy developers, the tourist industry, over population, invasive species and intense agriculture have fouled our waters and have almost destroyed our native flora and fauna. Despite great efforts in the past to preserve the natural beauty and tranquility of Sanibel, commercial interests are doing their best to increase tourism to the point where we have exceeded the “carrying capacity” of our beaches, natural areas and transportation infrastructure. We must learn from these other islands; there are no new islands to conquer.

John Raffensperger, MD