No Bird Is an Island

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Since 1997 the U.S. has successfully argued to the World Trade Organization that the EU's policy of setting aside a portion of its market -- about 7 percent -- for bananas exported from the eastern Caribbean is a violation of free-trade rules. The American government has also retaliated by levying stiff tariffs on some EU exports. The European countries are expected to cave in to the economic pressure and drop the banana subsidy eventually.

In response to the looming banana crisis, Dominica has attempted to diversify its economy. It has encouraged cultivation of other crops, such as coffee and dasheen (a plant with a tuberous root, similar to a potato), and pursued the cut-flower trade and offshore banking opportunities.

But Dominica's primary economic hope is to capitalize on its status as the "nature island of the Caribbean," to attract tourists. "For years we have been saying "ecotourism,'" notes David Williams, Dominica's superintendent of national parks, "but bananas were king."

The island boasts none of the white sand beaches (or lavish casinos, for that matter) that make other Caribbean islands popular destinations for well-heeled tourists. What it does have is the only unblemished tropical rain forest in the region. There are more than 1000 species of flowering plants on the island, including 74 known types of orchids. In some parts of Dominica, primarily the area around Morne Diablotin, tracts of land smaller than three acres are home to more than 60 unique plant and animal species. If the Morne Diablotin National Park is approved, more than a third of the country's land will be permanently sealed off from development by authority of the Dominican constitution. Dominica hopes to distinguish itself as the Caribbean destination for ecofriendly travelers, much as Costa Rica has done in Central America.

Williams says that the country's citizens are beginning to make adjustments to the new economic realities. Many of the Dominican citizens who once tended crops, he notes, now ferry tourists around the island in vans. "Those guys were banana farmers not too long ago," he says.

A few blocks from the sisserou's home at the Botanical Gardens is the seat of the Dominican government. It is a drab concrete bunker of a building, noteworthy for its hurricane resistance rather than any redeeming aesthetic qualities. When not studying the nests of rare parrots in the bush, Reillo spends much of his time within this building as a sort of single-issue lobbyist. This afternoon he has exchanged his hiking boots and shorts for loafers and olive green slacks.

The air-conditioned office of Eliud Williams inside the governmental headquarters has become quite familiar to Reillo. Williams is the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment and essentially the top administrator dealing with the establishment of Morne Diablotin National Park.

The parliament is meeting today, and Williams is overwhelmed with work. A bevy of people pass in and out of the office with papers for him to sign or documents for him to look over. "It's been an impossible day," Williams says, sighing.

Reillo and Williams have now done all they can to make the national park a reality, leaving it in the hands of the cabinet. The conversation turns to other matters. Two jacos have been located in a private collection in Houston, and the owners have agreed to turn them over to Rare Species. Reillo and Williams are working out the details of a letter essentially giving the nonprofit group permission to take care of the birds on the government's behalf.

Another concern of Reillo's is the captive breeding of jacos -- or lack thereof. The birds at the Botanical Gardens have failed to lay fertile eggs, and Reillo suspects that the gawking tourists may be disturbing their concentration. He is lobbying to seal off the visitors further away from the jacos. "I prefer to move the public and not the birds," Reillo quips later, "but that's because I'm not that fond of people."

Turning his attention to the establishment of the national park, Williams notes that the establishment of Morne Diablotin is simply a continuation of the government's decades-long commitment to protecting the environment. "As a country Dominica recognizes that it has valuable natural resources, and notwithstanding who's been in government, there is a consistency of ensuring that natural resources are preserved," Williams says.

Williams further notes that if the land is not protected, clear-cutting of the forests is an obvious danger. "The biggest threat to land degradation and destruction of that kind of natural resource is poverty," he says. "If people are poor and they don't have means, they will degrade the land."

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko