Green Islands for All? Avoiding Climate Gentrification in the Caribbean


In “Green Islands for All? Avoiding Climate Gentrification in the Caribbean,” published by the Society of Ethnobiology, reports on the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on many Caribbean islands, “where vulnerable communities now find themselves on the front lines of a climate crisis.” Jennifer D. Adams (associate professor at the University of Calgary; affiliated with the Barbuda Research Complex, working on science learning and sustainable resilience); Crystal Fortwangler (former professor of sustainability and environmental anthropology); and Hadiya Gibney Sewer (Ph.D. candidate at Brown University, adjunct at the University of the Virgin Islands, and co-founder of the St. John Heritage Collective) write that “As we saw post-Katrina in New Orleans, we are witnessing mass displacements of people, including the evacuation of an entire island.” See full article at Society of Ethnobiology:

[. . .] Each affected island is a disasterscape, a term Anu Kapur (2010) uses to describe the collective condition of disaster, places with “a gaping wound that pleads for quick repair and relief.” As communities struggle to regain a sense of stability, governing bodies and interested parties make plans for the future. In the Caribbean, these post-disaster proposals include urgent calls to rebuild the Caribbean in a “green” framework. Resiliency is one primary goal, which aims to improve the capacity of islands to recover better from future hurricanes. For example, the Governor of the US Virgin Islands, Kenneth E. Mapp, has established the USVI Hurricane and Resiliency Advisory Group “to make critical infrastructure, homes, and businesses more resilient to future storms and other natural disasters” (Oct. 16, 2017). Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica also made an urgent call for resiliency in a poignant speech before the U.N. General Assembly: “Let these extraordinary events unleash the innovation and creativity of global citizens to spark a new paradigm of green economic development that stabilizes and reverses the consequences of human-induced global warming” (Sept. 23, 2017).

Across the Caribbean, there are many ready to ignite these sparks. Richard Branson, who owns Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, began talking about re-developing the BVI with renewable energy less than a week after Maria. The Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, recently entered into conversations with Tesla to discuss rebuilding with solar power. Virgin Islands Senator Janette Millin Young has just announced that her staff is working with Tesla’s SolarCity to create a plan for the U.S. Virgin Islands. The day after Maria hit the US Virgin Islands, a realtor with investments and/or interests in the islands suggested to a public Facebook group that it is “never too soon to start thinking about rebuilding our tourism, cruise ship, vacation rental & second home markets. . . . [a]s we rebuild we reposition the USVI as a “solar showcase” for companies searching for the perfect place to demonstrate what their products can do.”

Renewable energy is, of course, a critical and necessary component to address the climate crisis. But will green energy provide just and equitable solutions for Caribbean people? Whose voices are at the table making decisions about energy use and distribution? Will everyone have an opportunity to benefit from what Richard Branson calls the “Marshall Plan for a greener, resilient Caribbean”?

Kapur explains that “diasterscapes” become commodities that can be sold, politicized, and corrupted. Re-building green may strengthen the islands to better withstand future storms and help reduce environmental impact. But it is also the case that after climate change disasters, low-income and/or communities of color often cannot afford to rebuild. Prime lands are sold to wealthier occupants who develop properties for their leisure and profit, often at the expense of the surrounding communities. Here the concern is “climate gentrification.” As Darwin Bondgraham (2007) points out in his analysis of New Orleans after Katrina, natural disasters often exacerbate pre-existing power dynamics and gentrification processes. We wonder who will be able to return and what will become the “new normal” of the Caribbean as the islands embark on the long, challenging and expensive recovery process? We also need to consider whether “resiliency [is] being coded as a way to do the land grab,” a point raised by David Capelli, founder and CEO of Florida smart city consultancy TECH Miami.

Former VI Delegate to Congress, Donna Christensen, highlighted her concerns about this in a recent social media post about who is leaving, arriving, or returning post-hurricanes. It is not the first time Virgin Islanders have asked this type of question. In 1938, as people from the continental United States began moving more frequently to and purchasing property in the islands, a political cartoon appeared in a local paper, asking why natives were leaving home, friends, and family as continental adventurers flew by overhead en route to the islands. Christensen apologizes for paranoia, but she is, of course, justified. In just one example, stateside Virgin Islanders working as real estate agents are already receiving calls asking whether or not any cheap land is available. The callers, who are planning to capitalize on the disaster, probably know that many of the displaced will not have the capital to rebuild. [. . .]

[Image above: Hurricane Irma turns the Caribbean brown.  Credit:  NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey, September 11, 2017.]

For full article, see

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