St. Maarten’s Wetlands in Danger of Disappearing

Great Salt Pond

A post by Peter Jordens.

Laura Bijnsdorp of NTR Caribisch Netwerk reports on the state of St. Maarten’s wetlands. “When I arrived here in 1973, there was not one house surrounding the lagoon,” Elsje Bosch, former director of the St. Maarten National Heritage Foundation recalls. Today that is very different; little undeveloped space is left along St. Maarten’s Simpson Bay Lagoon.

Kippy Gilders, project manager at Environmental Protection In The Caribbean (EPIC), is currently researching the economic value of St. Maarten’s lagoons and ponds. Her extensive report will take over a year to complete, but once it is concluded, it will be presented to government and stakeholders in an effort to protect the remaining wetlands. Gilders held a community meeting recently to discuss priorities according to the public when it comes to preserving and protecting the island’s ponds and lagoons. The small group that attended the meeting expressed their excitement about the report which aims to assign an economic value to the wetlands: “Money, not conservation, talks in St. Maarten”, said Falco Vliegen, a resident of the island.

“Wetlands are one of the most undervalued ecosystems in the world because they are misperceived as ‘wasteland’,” Gilders explained. Intact wetlands can make a number of important contributions to the ecosystem, such as through food provision, medicinal plants and building material. They also provide water purification, storm protection and flood mitigation. In addition, wetlands provide a vital habitat for 12 percent of the world’s animal species. “During the migratory season, we can see over 40 species of birds during a single tour,” Ilja Botha, founder of the eco tour company called Sea Grape Tours. St. Maarten’s wetlands also have a significant cultural value. “The main reason why St. Maarten was colonized was the salt in our Great Salt Pond,” says Bosch says.

In the 1920s, St. Maarten had eighteen ponds. Because of commercial development, only four remain today: Welgelegen Pond, Fresh Pond, Red Pond and the Great Salt Pond. The latter has been filled in significantly over the past decades, which has decreased its size by half. Bosch: “We have been trying to stop the filling of our ponds and lagoons for years.” The Great Salt Pond was officially designated as a monument in 2009, yet a year later, it was further filled in to construct a ‘ring road’, which has not been completed till this day.

According to a government-commissioned report titled Report Great Salt Pond Water Storage Capacity (2009), carried out by Lievense Consulting Engineers, the construction of the ring road would reduce the Great Salt Pond’s water storage capacity to 110,4 hectares [1 hectare = 2.47 acres]. This is just 1,4 hectares above its recommended minimum storage capacity of 109 hectares. Falco Vliegen: “No wonder the Philipsburg area is experiencing more and more flooding nowadays.” “One of the biggest threats to our wetlands is that our population does not recognize their value”, said Rueben Thompson, a well-known environmental advocate on the island.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, other islands in the Caribbean have already taken successful steps to protect their wetlands,” Gilders concluded. St. Maarten can learn a lot from their experience.

For the original news article, go to http://caribischnetwerk.ntr.nl/2017/07/31/draslanden-sint-maarten-in-gevaar (Dutch) and http://caribbeannetwork.ntr.nl/2017/07/31/the-danger-of-st-maartens-disappearing-wetlands (English).

More information:

EPIC website: http://epicislands.org, EPIC Facebook page: epicislands.

Nature Foundation investigates worrying situation of the Great Salt Pond, http://today.sx/environment/great-salt-pond-suffers-human-impact.

The two photographs show the Great Salt Pond in 1920, sourced from the book Beyond the Tourist Trap (2005), and in 2017, by Kippy Gilders.

 

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