The importance of mangroves and other wetlands has been well known for more than half a century.
The delicate ecosystems offer habitat for birds and marine life; they naturally prevent erosion; and they protect people from storm surge, flooding, sea-level rise, and other potentially deadly effects of climate change.
Unfortunately, they are being steadily destroyed in the Virgin Islands by legal and illegal development alike.
Though everyone should know better, elected leaders must shoulder much of the blame. As other governments across the world have enacted comprehensive laws dedicated to protecting wetlands over the past 60 years, VI leaders have not followed suit.
This inaction was not for want of sound recommendations from experts. In 2005, for instance, a management plan and national policy were drafted that would have designated the territory’s salt ponds and other wetlands as environmental protection areas. But it was never adopted.
Other steps that would have helped wetlands have also been neglected.
In the 2000s, the Law Reform Commission drafted a wide-ranging bill designed to bring disparate environmental laws together under one umbrella overseen by a board. To date, the bill has not come before the legislature, even though successive governments have been promising it for more than a decade.
Meanwhile, the 10-year Protected Areas System Plan adopted in 2008 — which would protect some 30 percent of the territory’s nearshore environment — has seen precious little progress, and the 2012 Climate Change Adaptation Policy has been largely ignored.
Additionally, the board of the Climate Change Trust Fund, which could have pushed forward mangrove protection and restoration initiatives, was disbanded by the current government in 2019 after barely two years in action.
Now, the situation is nothing short of a crisis. Since the 1960s, mangroves and other wetlands have been destroyed at an alarming rate as the territory developed rapidly without careful planning.
A study carried out in 2006 found that nearly half the mangrove coverage on Tortola had been destroyed since the 1950s. Other islands fared better, but still lost much.
The destruction has continued since then, and in 2017 Hurricane Irma highlighted the consequences: Many of the mangrove systems devastated by the storm have struggled to regenerate because they already had been badly decimated during the previous decades.
Now, mangrove nurseries on Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada are trying to help. But they are funded mostly by post-Irma grants that likely won’t last long.
And without the Climate Change Trust Fund in action, long-term funding seems unlikely to be forthcoming from elsewhere.
Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley has rightly stressed the importance of mangroves since he took office in 2019, promising often that protections will come soon.
Additionally, the Speech from the Throne last month pledged an Environmental Management and Climate Resilience Act — apparently the latest iteration of the bill drafted by the Law Reform Commission in the 2000s — as well as a Marine Estate Administration and Coastal Zone Management Bill.
Such promises are welcome. However, we’ve heard them many times before, and without action they won’t save mangroves and other wetlands.
To be clear, protecting these ecosystems doesn’t mean halting development. But it does mean taking a step back and enacting measures designed to ensure that all development going forward is sustainable and eco-friendly.
Developers, for instance, could be required to build on stilts; to otherwise minimise their footprint; to incorporate existing mangrove systems into their designs; the use the trees as breakwaters on the outside of any waterside concrete; or to plant new mangroves for any they remove, to list just a few ideas.
To enact such requirements in a fair manner, the territory will need a long-term development plan backed by scientific research; a well-conceived legislative framework that explicitly protects mangroves and other wetlands; and government enforcers who have the resources and support to do their job properly.
Without such forward-thinking systems in place, the destruction will continue, leaving the VI more and more exposed to the growing threats of climate change.
Of course, none of these points are new. The late Bertrand Lettsome, the long-time chief conservationist who died last year, was for decades among the loudest of many voices speaking out about the importance of wetlands in the territory.
Protecting them would be a wonderful way to honour his memory.