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  • Potter at Island Resources
    [Barbara Crossette has been writing about islands (at least in the Caribbean) for a long time. This article from the Outlook Section of the Sunday NY Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 11, 2000
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      [Barbara Crossette has been writing about islands (at least in the
      Caribbean) for a long time. This article from the Outlook Section of
      the Sunday NY Times provides some indication that she is even
      learning something about small island systems and the complexity of
      the issues that they face. bp]

      June 11, 2000


      Looking for Paradise? Keep Looking



      The Associated Press

      [Photo caption: Some Islands are volcanic as well as storm-prone.
      Montserrat lies half-buried in ash after a 1996 eruption.]

      UNITED NATIONS -- LT. JOE CABLE and Bloody Mary knew the score. Not
      even a South Pacific paradise like the fictional one created by
      Rodgers and Hammerstein is spared the ugly things in life like racial
      intolerance and war.

      Coups have now shaken Fiji and the Solomon Islands, catapulting those
      small ocean nations into the world's attention momentarily and
      exposing ethnic tensions and economic rivalries festering under the
      sun, somehow out of place in such a perfect setting.

      Or are they?

      Small island nations, truth to tell, often have very big problems.
      They are almost inevitably short of resources on land, and even when
      that is not so there is usually just one commodity to sell, putting
      them at the mercy of volatile global markets.

      All have the sea, of course, but their traditional fishing waters are
      invaded by the trawlers of industrialized countries.

      And those sleepy lagoons on the tourist brochures are rarely
      photographed after a punishing typhoon has torn down the palm trees
      and swept small villages and outriggers into the angry sea. In the
      mid-1980s, development in the Solomons was set back a decade by just
      one storm.

      Sometimes the catastrophes are almost beyond imagining. Think of
      those people moved away from Pacific atolls that became bulls'-eyes
      for atomic tests in the heyday of the nuclear age. Or of people now
      forced to watch generations of family graves being claimed by waves
      that lap higher up the beach each year because of global warming, a
      phenomenon only big nations have the power to reverse.

      In the Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, for those vacationers who
      take time to look, the biggest construction projects on view near the
      capital, Malé, are the piles of giant concrete jacks that form a
      seawall, the last defense against annihilation if seas continue to

      Sometimes, though, the problem is not too much water but too little.
      Some of the most sought-after tourist islands are popular precisely
      because they don't get enough rain. The Antiguan writer Jamaica
      Kincaid addresses the reader bluntly to make the point in "A Small
      Place" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988):

      "Since you are a tourist, the thought of what it might be like for
      someone who had to live day in, day out in a place that suffers
      constantly from drought, and so has to watch carefully every drop of
      fresh water used (while at the same time surrounded by a sea and an
      ocean -- the Caribbean Sea on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the
      other), must never cross your mind."

      History, too, has been unkind. Islands were snapped up in a day by
      colonial powers, whose plantation owners and merchants then
      rearranged the population. They shipped workers, or slaves, from one
      part of the world to another and, in the process, set in train the
      ethnic competitions that would one day blow up in places like Fiji --
      or Trinidad, where native people had to move over and share space
      with not only indentured workers from India but also African slaves.

      THE people of Sri Lanka, the glorious Serendip of antiquity, blame
      Britain for favoring Tamils over Sinhalese a century ago, setting the
      scene for the lethal ethnic divisions now tearing apart one of the
      most beautiful islands on earth.

      Colonial powers sometimes stick around and make trouble for a long
      time, say diplomats from the Comoro Islands. They blame France for
      fostering divisions in the Indian Ocean archipelago that together
      should form a nation. One island, Anjouan, left the group in 1997 and
      another, Grand Comore, flirted with secession in 1999. And although
      the United States had no historical relationship with Grenada,
      American troops stormed ashore in 1983 after the Grenadans were
      judged to have fallen too deeply into the orbit of Cuba.

      Island nations have searched for ways to enhance their clout,
      collectively. Last fall, they merited a special General Assembly
      session at the United Nations to air their fears. An "environmental
      vulnerability index" is in the works, intended to give them a
      recognizable way to demonstrate their frailty.

      Federations are usually not an answer to their weakness, since
      distances between islands are great and cultures can differ
      irreconcilably when they are separated by water.

      Think of the insular jealousies and rivalries that scuttled the dream
      of forming a Federation of the West Indies among the English-speaking
      Caribbean islands when they were emerging from Britain's colonialism
      three decades ago. Or of the example of Indonesia -- 13,000 islands
      put together by Dutch colonialists and forced to stay together by two
      Indonesian strongmen, Sukarno and Suharto. When hapless Sulawesi and
      Sumatra tried to break free half a century ago, they were bombed into
      submission not by the Dutch but by the new Indonesian government.
      Centrifugal forces persist in Indonesia to this day.

      And then there is Singapore, arguably the most successful of small --
      extremely small -- island nations, but one with considerable
      potential for trouble, since its population is divided among the
      majority Chinese population and strong Malay and Tamil minorities.

      Singapore, under its founder, Lee Kuan Yew, put considerable energy
      into making sure nothing awful could possibly happen -- and then wove
      a philosophy around it. Political and ethnic dissent were
      systematically suppressed in the name of unity.

      Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations and
      the chairman of a forum of small nations represented there, uses
      appropriately nautical terms to explain why little nations can't
      afford the luxury of unrest.

      "I think of it as crossing an ocean in a canoe or on an aircraft
      carrier," he said. The people on the aircraft carrier, he said, can
      jump around, even play football and the boat doesn't rock. In a
      canoe, all the passengers have to paddle in unison facing the same
      direction or there will be disaster.

      "The key point," he said, "is that in a small state your margin for
      error is smaller."


      Related Articles
      * Burst of Ethnic Tension in Fiji Threatens South Seas 'Eden' (June 7, 2000)
      * No End in Sight For Hostages Held in Fiji (June 6, 2000)
      * Fiji Military Takes Control and Declares Martial Law (May 30, 2000)

      * Join a Discussion on South Asian politics


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