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Home Commentary Op-Ed: How Physical Space, Historical Ties, and Geopolitics Influence Development in the...

Op-Ed: How Physical Space, Historical Ties, and Geopolitics Influence Development in the USVI

Lloyd Gardner
Lloyd Gardner (Source file photo)

The University of the Virgin Islands once had the following tagline: “Historically American. Uniquely Caribbean. Globally Interactive.”  It is a tagline that suits the U.S. Virgin Islands.  It reminds us that our physical space, historical and current ties, and geopolitical arrangements provide both constraints and opportunities that can influence the development of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Acknowledgement of those influences is the main reason why the Foundation for Development Planning, Inc (FDPI) initiated its public briefings with our local community.  The briefings are opportunities to share information with the community regarding relevant regional and global initiatives, including opportunities for participation by the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The FDPI’s public briefing in 2012 focused on the outcome of the third United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.  The public briefing in 2013 focused on the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States.  The 2013 briefing reminded participants of the linkages between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean, as well as the opportunities for participation in the international program for small island developing states (SIDS).

So, what is the link between the tagline and a development agenda for the U.S. Virgin Islands?

An important link is the existence of formal relationships between the U.S. Virgin Islands and its Caribbean neighbours.  The relationships take several forms – membership in regional and sub-regional organizations, memorandum of understanding, participation (as part of the U.S.) in a regional multi-lateral agreement, and participation by U.S. Virgin Islands public instrumentalities in regional arrangements.

Membership by the U.S. Virgin Islands in regional and sub-regional inter-governmental organizations is enabled by membership in the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).  The U.S. Virgin Islands is an Associate Member of ECLAC, admitted on April 6, 1984, with the Territory’s application for membership facilitated by the U.S. Government.  By virtue of its membership in ECLAC, the U.S. Virgin Islands became eligible for membership in the subsidiary bodies of ECLAC.  The Territory was admitted to ECLAC’s Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee in June 1984 as an Associate Member (the resolution to admit the Territory was sponsored by Saint Lucia and seconded by Haiti).  The Territory became a member of the Caribbean Council for Science and Technology (CCST) in June 1991 by ratifying the statutes of the CCST.  The CCST was established by the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC) to promote cooperation in science and technology to advance social and economic development in CDCC member countries.  The U.S. Virgin Islands used to participate actively in ECLAC, the CDCC, and the CCST, though less so in the last decade.

The U.S. Virgin Islands commemorates cultural and familial ties with Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands in the form of annual friendship celebrations.  The U.S. Virgin Islands has also periodically signed memoranda of understanding with both territories.  A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, signed in 2010, lists eleven areas of cooperation.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which the various MOUs were translated into functional cooperative arrangements.

The U.S. Virgin Islands and its senior managers have participated in regional organizations, such as the Caribbean Tourism Organization and the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police.  As a member of the Association of Universities and Research Institutions of the Caribbean, the University of the Virgin Islands has collaborated in development of materials to support graduate courses in natural resources management, training of natural resources managers in the countries of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, facilitated multi-disciplinary training for university faculty in the Caribbean, and conducted an annual training course in aquaponics for international students.  The university also has articulation agreements with several two-year colleges in the Caribbean.

One of the ways in which the U.S. Virgin Islands participates in Caribbean inter-governmental arrangements is functioning as a part of the U.S. efforts in said arrangements.  Of these, the Cartagena Convention is potentially the most significant of such arrangements.  The UN Environment-Caribbean Environment Programme (UNEP-CEP) functions as the secretariat for the convention.  The UNEP-CEP is one of seven regional seas programs hosted by the UN Environment, and was established to support protection of the coastal and marine environment in the Wider Caribbean Region.  The Cartagena Convention is a binding treaty adopted by Caribbean governments to provide the legal framework for the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP).  One of the little-known ways in which the CEP has benefited the U.S. Virgin Islands is through the CEP’s introduction of the Blue Flag program into the Caribbean.  The program, an eco-label for beaches and marinas, has been used as a standard of quality for the tourism product in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Another link between the tagline and a development agenda for the U.S. Virgin Islands is the collaboration of local state and non-state institutions with international organizations or participation in global initiatives.

The Territory maintains cultural and economic ties with Denmark.  The University of the Virgin Islands has cooperation agreements with universities in Copenhagen and Ghana, and played a lead role in forming the University Consortium of Small Island States in 2005.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, as an Associate Member of ECLAC, is also classified as a small island developing state, and is thus able to participate in the United Nations program for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) somewhat independently of the U.S. Government.

The participation of the U.S. Virgin Islands in global initiatives has also been facilitated by the U.S. Government.  One such initiative was the Energy Development in Island Nations (EDIN) partnership.  The U.S. Virgin Islands was selected as a site for an EDIN pilot project based on the need of the Territory to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and reduce its high electricity rate.  Virgin Islanders can decide for themselves the extent to which the project succeeded in facilitating transformation of the local energy sector.

An obvious link between the tagline and a development agenda for the U.S. Virgin Islands is the role of the U.S. in the development processes in the territory.

Many Virgin Islanders think the relationship and impact of the supporting programs can be enhanced.  If I may add to the information and perspectives on the development impact of the U.S. Virgin Islands-U.S. relationship using climate change as an issue of local, national, regional, and global significance.

The U.S. Government conducts a national climate assessment every four years, and included a focus on the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico during the fourth national climate assessment.  Climate change programming in the U.S. Virgin Islands is given technical support by the Caribbean Climate Hub (CCH).  Although the CCH focuses on tropical forestry and agriculture, it played a key supporting role to the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands with the climate change initiative for the territory.

In 2015, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate in climate change programming in the two territories.  The U.S. Department of the Interior subsequently provided funding to the St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corporation (for community outreach on the health impacts of climate change) and to the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands (for climate change adaptation planning).  The Caribbean Climate Hub continued its training and information support activities for the agriculture sector, while also supporting the efforts of other organizations in the territory.

Caribbean regional organizations have also supported climate change activities in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto for many years.  The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre has participated in conferences and workshops in both territories.  The University of the West Indies-Climate Studies Group was the main sub-contractor for vulnerability assessment under the climate change adaptation planning project (2016-2019) funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

A search on the website of the Virgin Islands (VI) Source will reveal that the VI Source has been consistently publishing articles on climate change since 2007, including articles that note input by federal and other national institutions.  In addition, the Foundation for Development Planning, Inc has been engaged in climate change outreach in the U.S. Virgin Islands since 2011.

Even after the encouragement and support of the U.S. Government, there is no climate change program in the U.S. Virgin Islands, nor is there any discernible public policy on climate risk assessment and management for any program in the territory.  This, despite the fact that climate change is generally agreed to be one of the greatest threats to humanity, climate change is a known driver of disaster risk, the U.S. Virgin Islands is vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change, and expertise and financial resources are accessible.

The strongest link between the tagline and a development agenda for the U.S. Virgin Islands is family relationships.

Most Virgin Islanders know of the familial links with countries in the Eastern Caribbean.  Less known, or acknowledged, are familial links with countries such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, which resulted from the historical movement of Virgin Islanders to those countries in pursuit of economic opportunities.  Where those linkages are acknowledged, the focus, more often than not, is on the potential movement of assets from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the neighboring countries.  However, those linkages provide development opportunities in areas such as converting more of the local informal economy to the formal economy, investment in and deployment of shared research and development infrastructure, trade, achievement of economies of scale for local businesses, access to equity financing, and intellectual property development.

In effect, the U.S. Virgin Islands has access to multiple mechanisms for participation in various national, regional, and international arrangements and initiatives.  It is up to the U.S. Virgin Islands to utilize those mechanisms to achieve its development goals.  It would be prudent, as part of the current efforts to prepare economic and tourism strategies, to assess the opportunities offered by the many linkages that the U.S. Virgin Islands has with the rest of the Caribbean.

Editor’s note: Lloyd Gardner is an environmental planning consultant, the principal of Environmental Support Services LLC and president of the non-profit Foundation for Development Planning Inc. He has been involved in environmental management in the Caribbean since 1982 and has functioned as a consultant in several projects and public policy initiatives in the U.S. Virgin Islands since relocating to the territory more than two decades ago.

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