The Caribbean: why a 'trickle down' plan won't work

Like other third-world nations, the states of the Caribbean share a similar problem: development. Poverty, shortages of food production, inadequate supplies of fresh water, overpopulation, severe unemployment and underemployment, and uneven resources make for sizeable roadblocks on the part of Caribbean governments as they face the question of how to improve the quality of life for their people.

President Reagan recently announced his initiative for development in the Caribbean Basin which combines tax incentives and duty-free status for most Caribbean exports with huge amounts of military aid to El Salvador.

What Mr. Reagan failed to understand is that his ''trickle down'' approach to development will not help the various Caribbean governments overcome the severe problems of a tropical environment, despite its beautiful beaches, pleasant climate, and breathtaking landscapes. The constant pressure on short resources presents a growing threat to an extremely delicate ecological balance. Scientific experts throughout the Caribbean region agree that the environment is endangered by underdevelopment as well as from ill-planned, careless development.

It is estimated that over 70 percent of the region's products are exported. Multinational companies are the agents of trade, many putting money into short-term projects with high economic gains. The Caribbean plantation economy which Reagan's plan will only further entrench has not radically changed since the days of sugar. Today new raw materials are exported, as are semiprocessed goods, to the industrialized consumers of the North--Europe, Canada, and the United States.

In all too typical fashion, the best agricultural land in these ex-colonies is given over to the production of ''cash crops'' (sugar cane, bananas, coffee, and citrus), while imported food at exorbitant prices places a heavy toll on the balance of trade. A can of imported peas in a supermarket can cost as much as $3 .75. This export-oriented agricultural system creates another problem: soil erosion and degradation. It is not surprising to find that, as a result of overexploitation and slash-and-burn cultivation, the forest areas of the Caribbean have shrunk by almost one-half in just over a decade.

Soil erosion is affecting large areas of many islands, leading to the loss of rich fertile land. The depletion of the vegetation cover and the deforestation of watershed areas are changing the flow of rivers, diminishing the supply of water, increasing sedimentation, and thereby causing flash-flooding.

Tropical forests are vital to the countries of the Caribbean area. Timber exports bring in precious foreign currency. But because firewood is the main fuel for cooking and heating for lower income people in most of the rural areas, the problem of deforestation is exacerbated. Since other fuels are expensive and less available, most Caribbean countries have to import these at considerable cost. If the Reagan administration wants to provide real, long-term, sustainable development, it should foster alternative sources of energy which are sorely needed in most of the third world.

Any attempt to unravel the dilemma of development in the Caribbean must begin with a survey of the current status of the various ecosystems of the area, the very ecological processes upon which they depend, and the various socioeconomic factors which influence development, as well as the different national and international political systems in which policy affecting ''development'' decisions are made. Policymakers need to know about the created endowments of their natural setting, the rich character of their environment, in order to assess the seriousness of various problems and the means for attending to them.

What is desperately needed and what the Reagan initiative has completely missed is a redefined conception of development. ''Ecodevelopment'' would seek to minimize the impacts on ecological systems or natural processes that help support and maintain life, while maximizing the benefit from resource utilization to local populations. These benefits would not be construed exclusively in narrow economic terms, but would include material, social, cultural, and spiritual development, in a more holistic way.

The crux of this view of development over Reagan's traditional approach is that all resources, even more so in small, third-world countries like those of the Caribbean, are finite, and therefore must be wisely managed in a careful stewardly fashion if a true and more comprehensive development of human populations is to be engendered.

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