Politics of Nature: The Wait/Weight of Disaster in St. Vincent

This post is part of a series on Politics of Nature, edited by Emily Webster, in which contributors explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series showcases the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships.

Unable to officially close the chapter on this global health crisis, we all remain suspended in this “not-yet-new-normal” COVID-19 world. Yet, still, only some of us must endure the weightier reality of a global disaster that is compounded by multiple events of natural destruction and the unnatural conditions of inequality that exacerbate them. In the Caribbean, we must not only confront the immediate effects of the environment’s revolt, but we must also address it in tandem with the many layers (years) of colonialism that frame how disasters even occur in the region and, thus, how they might be mitigated. On April 9, 2021, when La Soufrière volcano erupted on the island of St. Vincent more than the unsettlement of a once-dormant lava dome and the violent emission of sulphuric ash plumes occurred. La Soufrière itself agitated the many visible yet routinely ignored disparities that exist in the island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Differences along the lines of class, color, political affiliation, education, and citizenship caused the volcanic eruption to disproportionately impact certain groups of people on the island more than others. Working-class farmers from the north where La Soufrière sits lost thousands of dollars’ worth of crops and livestock. Families lacking the right affiliations and proper access to information were sent to second-rate public shelters. My own relatives who had been evacuated from the Red Zone—the north of the island—eventually joined our household in the Green Zone—the south of the island—after waiting several hours for food and water at a government-sponsored shelter. Private home evacuees (my relatives included) went over a month without receiving adequate aid and relief, if any at all. In my own house, we contended with the legal conundrums of emergency evacuation. It had become dreadfully obvious to us that not even the members of our own household had equal access to effective avenues of relief and aid.

When my family and I began to prepare our emergency plan in response to La Soufriere’s eruption, the various statuses of citizenship within our household stumped us. As dual citizens, my mother and I had options: we could escape the disaster on a maritime evacuation vessel provided through the U.S. Department of State, or we could stay and wait the disaster out. Other members of our household did not have such liberties. My niece, for whom I and my senior mother are caretakers, is not an American citizen, nor are the evacuee relatives currently living in our home. Because there are currently no writ-large provisions in U.S. immigration law that allow for the rescue of American citizens and their non-offspring or non-parental relatives in cases of disaster, any emergency plan that required our evacuation from the island would not be easy to implement given our mixed citizenships. My immediate family and I are left with the impossible task of deciding how long is too long to stay during an active volcanic eruption. Under which set of circumstances is it most acceptable for one to leave their family behind?

The need to flee St. Vincent in the event of imminent danger has as much to do with the state of the disaster at hand as it does the state of the country and its ability to effectively mitigate an escalated event of destruction. The Caribbean is home to active volcanoes, and unlike the more predictable hurricanes, which occur in the region during a specific season, volcanic eruptions can happen with little to no warning. When wind and wave start to cycle throughout the atmosphere and trees bow in surrender to their force, we Caribbean people expect that it will be over within hours, or at most, a few days. A volcano’s activity, on the other hand, extends over time and, in turn, keeps its victims suspended with it.[1] How long it will last and how far it will reach is contingent upon so much geological circumstance that even our scientists must wait and see. We are all at the mercy of the volcano, which takes its time to decide when it has emitted enough. 

The stubbornness and irreverence so characteristic of the volcano resembles an equally obstinate system: colonialism. A kind of disaster of its own, colonialism has helped to ruin possibilities of a humane, just and equitable world. As a historical world process with contemporary ramifications, colonialism has infiltrated almost all aspects of our lives in the Caribbean (while its newest iterations continuously threaten our future) to the point that its hold on how we conduct even the most quotidian of affairs (schooling, banking, driving, etc.) appears inescapable. While St. Vincent’s remote geographic location, limited size, and small population put it at risk for feeling the long-lasting reverberations of any disaster, the remnants of a colonial past marred by violence, genocide, and slavery also influence the way it is able to manage its disasters. The underdeveloped systems of technology that currently exist in this Small Island Developing State (SID) are partly a result of the exploitative plantation systems of colonialism that date as far back as 1763 when Great Britain formally occupied the island.[2]

Despite St. Vincent’s history of formidable rebellion—the indigenous Caribs and Black Caribs known as Garifunas fought vigorously against French and British colonial forces in the eighteenth century—a normalized colonial ethos of paternalism and dependency continues to pervade the island and inhibit the way its leaders are able to curate political systems that meet the needs of all citizens alike. Among the last islands of the Caribbean to gain independence (months after the 1979 eruption of La Soufrière nevertheless), St. Vincent belongs to an array of former British colonies that still maintain allegiance to the British Crown. The island’s inability to completely disentangle from the threads of British empire have framed the many waves of civil unrest, political discord and economic fragility to overcome the country, which have, in turn, troubled its capacity to adequately collect, manage, and analyze disaster-related data as well as to effectively acquire and distribute resources to those most in need during times of crisis. Consistently reliant upon foreign aid and constantly subjected to perpetual cycles of crisis, St. Vincent continues to be exceptionally vulnerable to natural disaster.

However, now that most of the expats and tourists have been rescued, the disaster on our island seems to no longer be an emergency to those on the outside. Despite our island’s virtual non-existence in the international news cycle, those of us still living with La Soufrière continue to experience its wait/weight. Following the official commencement of hurricane season, we residents of St. Vincent (and neighboring islands) now find ourselves vulnerable to convergent disaster. How will we manage a volcano during hurricane season while in a pandemic? How do we prepare for a compounded emergency with the inadequate systems of emergency response currently in place? What will evacuation look like for those of us with varying relationships to the international community?

As for my family and I, we continue to coordinate relief for ourselves and those within our community whose lives have been disrupted by this ongoing tragedy. As a multi-status household, implementing an emergency plan that ensures the safety of all members of our home in the event that the volcano more severely impacts the southern half of the country (beyond blanketing it with toxic volcanic ash) continues to be virtually impossible. Even so, our emergency travel bags are packed just in case. They sit in the corner of our living room waiting to be put to use. Waiting for the volcano to remind us that it is still alive and well. Waiting for the time when this disaster will make us all evacuees.  

Editor’s note: If you’d like to donate to disaster relief efforts in St. Vincent, feel free to contact Jessica at jssamuel@bu.edu or visit here for a list of places.  

[1] B. Peter Kokelaar, “Setting, Chronology, and Consequences of the eruption of SoufrièreHills Volcano, Monsterrat (1995-1999),” in The Eruption of Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat, 1995 to 1999, ed. Timothy H. Druitt and B. Peter Kokelaar (London: The Geological Society, 2002), 1-10.

[2] Joseph Spinelli, “Land Use and Population in St. Vincent, 1763-1960: A Contribution to the Study of the Patterns of Economic and Demographic Change in a Small West Indian Island” (PhD diss., University of Florida, 1973); Lawrence S. Grossman, “British Aid and Winward Bananas: The Case of St. Vincent & the Grenadines,” Social and Economic Studies 43, no. 1 (1994): 151-179.

*Cover image: Photo by Kamillo Blake, KB Pixels.

[*Cover image description: View of a green hill with palm trees and houses scattered; in the background, the outline of a mountain range with a towering mushroom-shaped cloud of ash and smoke billowing out.]

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