As we begin a new year, memories of Hurricane Irma are still fresh. On the island, there are still a million reminders of the destruction, big and small. But we’re also moving on. As we turn toward the future, we should try to make it a better one.
St. Martin faces many challenges, but at the heart there’s really just one question: How do the people of St. Martin prosper in the long term?
Of course, the island is prosperous in many ways. Over the last 50 years, it has built up a huge tourism industry for such a tiny island. But, like many places, the prosperity has been unequal and unsustainable. Poverty and unemployment are too high, and issues like pollution and waste management are threats to both health and the local economy.
Unlocking the value in St. Martin’s nature and heritage could make a big positive impact. Irma reminded us we live here at the grace of mother nature, but we need to take that to heart. Our health and survival depend are tied to the health of the island. Air we can’t breathe and seas we can’t swim in are bad today. If they continue, these environmental issues will eventually bring down the entire economy.
Nature and heritage are also undervalued as assets. St. Martin makes money from the beach and the sea, but other things are mostly ignored. History, architecture, birds, archaeology, wetlands and lizards that live nowhere else on earth all have unused potential. There are efforts to highlight and share these things, but they have yet to get the attention they deserve.
Nature and heritage can be part of a tourism offering that is unique and sustainable. Education on these topics should be available to everyone. Today’s schoolchildren should be tomorrow’s experts on everything that makes the island unique. They should enter the workforce with the skills to take on rewarding jobs or start their own businesses.
Understanding and valuing nature and heritage also gives us the incentive to protect them. Many on the island are frustrated with the lack of progress on environmental issues, or the failure to preserve historic sites. When it is strong and widespread, the will of the people will ultimately bring change.
In Irma’s shadow, we have choices about how to rebuild, what to protect and how to tell the story of the island. It’s a chance to build a better future. This is a test.