The Green Legacy of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Whatever happens in Paris this year, I have a dream, a Caribbean Dream, in which an eco-friendly consciousness arises and sets its sight on the perfect balance between being and doing
11/30/2015 09:07 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

Before Man and Nature by George Perkins Marsh, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and the environmental consciousness of the 1970s in America, there was the King's Hill Enclosure Ordinance. This piece of legislation, which was passed in 1791 on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent, was based on the novel concept that deforestation might cause a decline in rainfall. As extraordinary as this was, it is even more remarkable that it still remains a well-kept secret today, so much so no record can be found in the environmental-legislation textbooks, and even nationals of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines remain largely unaware.

Even before the King's Hill Forest Act, in 1765, 20 acres of land on the island of Saint Vincent were cleared for the cultivation of plants found on the island, which were thought to be useful medically and profitable commercially. Nurseries of plants from Asia and other faraway lands were also established for the benefit of the British colonisers and their colonies. This is the patch of green on which the first Botanical Garden in the Western Hemisphere was created. During the ensuing years, the Saint Vincent Botanic Garden became the horticultural center of the Western Hemisphere, and some historians argue that in the 1790s the island was at the center of the world.

Saint Vincent is a small, rugged island rising quickly some 4,000 feet above the sea to its volcanically active peak, La Soufrière. This small area of land, the largest in the multi-island state of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and located toward the southern end of the Caribbean island chain, occupies a pivotal place in the origins of environmentalism. Within these historic facts there is a confluence of ideas pertinent to our times. According to the environmental historian, Richard H. Grove, "the King's Hill Act is relevant not only to its later influence on colonial environmental legislation but also to the environmental crisis today and to the special contribution which islands have played in the conceptualization of environmental problems both locally and globally."

In 1791, local capitalists and plantation owners responded to a severe drought -- the worst they had yet known -- with the King's Hill Ordinance Act, which, according to Grove had two "innovative features": a conservationist solution to the climatic consequences of environmental degradation, and the environmental legislation tailored specifically to the island of Saint Vincent. [Similar pieces of legislation were created in the British colonies of Tobago (also in the Caribbean), St. Helena and Mauritius during this period.]

An Account of the St. Vincent Botanic Garden by the Anglican priest, Reverend Lansdown Guilding, published in 1825, describes the importance of this garden to the British Empire and the care and dedication given it by Anderson, a medical doctor and superintendent of the garden. Anderson's faith, his respect for Nature and the mission to conserve and preserve it for man's benefit, his diligence in execution and his mindfulness, all of which made him acutely aware of his environment, are traits well worth emulating. Moreover, the text describes his frustration with the short-sightedness and the menacing, profit-driven motives of the plantation owners: "...they are constantly destroying instead of preserving," he says, and "They import... at an exorbitant rate." It appears the more things change the more they remain the same.

Dr. Earle Kirby, the late esteemed veterinarian, archaeologist and agriculturalist of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, tells us, "Primitive people made a conscious effort to retain the status quo of their environment." So too, even as the noose of this modern dispensation -- in which consumerism reigns supreme and growing ecological footprints are a sign of progress -- tightens, we in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines can still hope for an alternative way. We have inherited sound and sensible models to follow and foundations on which to build. Again, according to Dr. Kirby, "It seems that we were particularly fortunate that some of our British were not the 'get rich quick types' but serious agriculturalists out to make money from sustainable planting practices." The King's Hill Enclosure Ordinance of 1791 clearly illustrates that way of thinking since it sought to preserve the Hill for "the benefit of the neighborhood." So serious were they in their efforts so to do, that the fine for clearing, planting or cultivating any crop on this plot of land in 1791 was £150.00. £150, as a share of the gross domestic product, is valued at £565,291 today. Using the average earnings index, £150 is valued at £156,415 and if we use the per capita index it is valued at £220,786 today.

History is about retelling stories, making new links and emphasizing different aspects of our past to bring meaning to present conditions. Amidst the struggles, enslavement, exploitation, wars and genocide, environmental institutions were founded. These institutions not only commercialized, on a large scale, common practices of the indigenous peoples but also sought to legislate some of those practices so that their longevity might be ensured.

What could and should all this mean today?

There are lessons of adaptation and mitigation within this green legacy that illustrate creative cooperation with our environment and which can inform current debates on the global stage. And, I see opportunity for the creation of a lifestyle more in sync with the glorious peculiarities of our natural environment.

Whatever happens in Paris this year, I have a dream, a Caribbean Dream, in which an eco-friendly consciousness arises and sets its sight on the perfect balance between being and doing.

We must endeavor to see anew.

I. Rhonda King is currently the Permanent Representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to the United Nations.

This post is part of a "Voices from Small Island Developing States" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on the SIDS countries, which are located in the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, and is part of HuffPost's What's Working editorial initiative. To view the entire series, visit here.