In spite of the marketing of the Caribbean and Bahamas as pristine and full of natural beauty, these islands and their surrounding marine environments have long been affected with human interventions such as the massive introduction of alien species, stripping of plant cover, soil erosion, and reef destruction. Sheller (2003) raised the question: “How is it that these things remain invisible in the global tourist economy where the Caribbean is packaged and sold as ‘pristine’ beaches and verdant rainforest?” Our program has been an attempt to address that invisibility for Providenciales and to set in motion a new approach for the future. In 2008, Karen Cangialosi and Scott Strong created the TCI (Turks and Caicos Islands) Reef Education Program.
The Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) are home to some of the most bio-diverse and pristine coral reefs in the world. It is impossible to drive down a road, or walk anywhere on these small islands such as Providenciales or Grand Turk without seeing the ocean, usually on both sides of the road. Most of the local Turks Islanders have spent their entire lives in view of the ocean and their homes are either right on a beach or within a few steps of the water. Many other residents who have migrated from Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and other surrounding islands in the Bahamas/Caribbean have also spent their entire lives in the proximity of the tropical marine environment. In spite of this, astoundingly most of the TCI residents never learn to swim, snorkel or engage positively with the marine life surrounding them! This severe situation has led to many interrelated issues. For one, it leads to a lack of appreciation and understanding of the complexity of the reef environment which harbors an amazing array of wildlife including whales, dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, rays, and an enormous variety of beautiful fish and invertebrates. It also allows the tourism industry and development of the islands to be dominated by leaders (both inside and outside of TCI) who have exploited the Caribbean and Bahamas for economic profit with no regard to conservation of the reefs which are in a state of shocking decline. As such, local residents primarily end up in low wage service and construction jobs and are disconnected both from the natural world and from the economic prosperity of their homeland. Young people who grow up in this context seem to learn that the only way to move forward in their lives is to be a part of the exploitation of the marine environment as this is the model that has been presented to them.
Since 2008, we have worked on a small scale education project with students at a local high school on Providenciales in TCI, in an effort to begin to change this- to help empower young people to become the stewards of the marine world that surrounds their home. We work to emphasize that sustainable practices can ensure not just the health of TCI’s reefs, but lead to healthier and more equitable living for its people. We feel that one very strong aspect of our ongoing project is that it acknowledges this critical relationship between the empowerment of local people and environmental impacts. The primary purpose of our ongoing project is to instill the awe and curiosity that comes with experiencing nature from first-hand observation.
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Sheller, M. 2003. Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies. Routledge, London and New York.