Montserrat: ‘Ash to cash’


Ryan Schuessler (The Guardian) reports on how Montserrat is beginning to reconsider Soufrière Hills as a resource to rebuild the economy through geothermal energy, sand mining, and tourism:

All that can be seen of Plymouth, Montserrat, is a scattering of roofs and the top floors of the tallest buildings, just poking out from a barren landscape of ash and boulders. The rest of the town is buried: a modern Pompeii slowly being reclaimed by the mountain. [. . .] In 1995, a series of eruptions began that almost completely destroyed two-thirds of the tiny island, a British overseas territory in the eastern Caribbean some 30 miles from Antigua. Years of ash and boulders from the volcano have buried most of Plymouth, although the town is still officially the capital.

It’s still a grim sight, but 20 years after the first eruption, Montserratians are beginning to reconsider Soufrière Hills. The nation’s government, elected at the end of 2014, is now betting the country’s future, in part, on the very volcano that almost destroyed it. The eruption is the past, they argue; geothermal energy, sand mining and tourism are the future.

“We have learned to live with the volcano,” said the island’s premier, Donaldson Romeo. The “long, hopeless period” that began with the eruptions is over. “Ash to cash,” he said with a grin. “Before the volcano, we were standing on our own two feet,” Romeo added. “Here we are 20 years later, with lots of money spent, but we don’t have the programs that will assist us in achieving [self-sufficiency].”

The majority of Montserrat’s annual budget comes from the United Kingdom: since the crisis, British taxpayers have invested more than £400m in aid to the island. A new airport and housing for displaced residents are among the improvements made possible through those funds.

But “ash to cash” has been slow to materialize. Talk of geothermal development, like many projects on the island, has been going on for more than a decade amid concerns, both in Montserrat and the UK, of local mismanagement of aid money. Yet Romeo says the island is poised to finally spring forward with a refreshed relationship with London.

[. . .] “It’s like a gold mine on Montserrat,” said Claude Hogan, Montserrat’s minister of agriculture, trade, housing, lands and environment.

“The sand mining operation is something that I think is good for the country,” Wade said while pulling over to let a truck pass on the road running along Plymouth’s ruins. “It needs to be controlled more by the government so that more people can benefit [. . .].”

Development of geothermal energy has moved more slowly; local residents recall officials discussing the idea decades ago. Two wells have been drilled since 2013 at a cost of £8.5m, paid for by the UK Department for International Development. The agency is planning to drill a third this year, and local officials expect that project to begin in March. “The energy is vast,” said David Thomson, managing director of Montserrat’s utilities. “It’s there.”

[. . .] It’s that natural beauty that draws in Montserrat’s small but growing number of tourists. In 2015, a regional cruise line began making regular stops in Montserrat. Local drivers and tour operators congregate at the island’s tiny port each Tuesday, looking to cash in on tourists who want to see the volcano.

In 2015, licensed drivers like Wade secured permission to take visitors to see the ruins of Plymouth, which many locals hope will draw more tourists who come to ogle at the “Caribbean Pompeii”.

[Photo credit:  Plymouth, the abandoned capital of Montserrat, in 1997. Barry Lewis/In Pictures/Corbis.]

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