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Judith Towle and Bruce Potter (left) with many of the BVI consultants who contributed to the profile

Island Resources Foundation – Tortola in the Limelight

From history to the environment, Judith Towle and colleagues at the Island Resources Foundation profile an island with many facets.

Edward and Judith Towle

In 1972, IRF’s founder, Edward Towle, wrote in the Foundation’s organizing prospectus: “Within a small island, no problem or area of study can stand by itself, no piece of life remains isolated; every living and non-living thing forms an integral part of a structured whole. Similarly, an island chain is a delicate and fragile network representing a set of highly interdependent

relationships – island to island, system to sub-system and island to sea.”

An early advocate for the incorporation of environmental principles in island development, the Island Resource Foundation (IRF) has been involved in comprehensive studies of the British Virgin Islands since 1976, when it prepared the first environmental guidelines for historical data has found the main areas of Africa where the original non-indiginous population came from including origins of Caribbean words, phrases and dialect.

The environment is a centerpiece of this far-reaching study. The various structures of government are described, and how today the BVI is virtually a self determining entity. How environmental policy and legislation has helped to prevent rampant destruction of fragile ecosystems is also mentioned. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), non-profits and government agencies have helped immeasurably in this regard. The National Parks Trust, the Conservation and Fisheries Department and the Department of Agriculture are agencies that are all tasked with conservation.

The ever increasing development of Tortola is an area of study important to the environment in terms of sustainability so the island’s precious resources are not lost. It’s a fine balancing act to move the territory forward economically without destroying the very facet that makes the BVI so attractive and appealing to visitors. Its serenity, pristine beauty and marine ecosystem must be preserved at all costs.

The BVI lies almost front and center in “hurricane alley” and the effects of a storm such as a severe hurricane are explored in depth. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was a close call and before that it was 1924 when a direct hit devastated the island of Tortola; the BVI has indeed been fortunate. Seismic activity is also prevalent in the region and potential volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and associated tsunamis are examined in the report. Often a tropical storm will bring torrential rains and the risks of coastal flooding and soil erosion, with the associated run-off, can have severe detrimental impacts on fragile reef systems.

The flora and fauna of the BVI have been exhaustively studied and recorded and important observations have been made with regard to invasive species in both plant and animal worlds. Ornithologists will be delighted to find that the BVI and particularly Tortola hosts a wide range of species. The Grey Kingbird for instance is noted for perching atop utility wires and the tops of trees and sallying forth to snag flying insects from the air. A Tyrant Flycatcher, the Kingbird is one of three members of this group residing here including the Puerto Rican Flycatcher and the Caribbean Elaenia.  Tortola has two distinct habitats for birds; the rain forest area of Sage Mountain and drier areas closer to the coast. Outlying islands are important nesting and breeding areas for seabirds. There are well over a hundred species of birds that have been recorded in Tortola.

Mammals too have been studied with interesting observations. A surprising claim made in the report is that “the only native mammals still present in the BVI are bats.” There are no large mammals in the BVI except those that have been introduced. Deer have been observed in the West End area and the conclusion is that they have migrated from the USVI since they are known to be swimmers. Goats are common on the island and were introduced decades ago as a source of meat as were some species of sheep. Donkeys, horses, pigs, dogs and cats were all introduced and less welcome species like rats and mice came ashore from ships.  There have been quite a few extinctions and these are highlighted. The agouti, a small rodent, prized for its meat in islands like Dominica, used to be resident in Tortola.

The West Indian Manatee once occupied part of the coastal marine habitats of Tortola. Place names such as Sea Cow’s Bay are testimony to the fact that the manatee was once present, finding home and refuge in many of the mangrove bays and channels and feeding on the many sea grass beds that once existed throughout the BVI. The monk seal is also quoted and its history and subsequent demise is evidence of how nature can be ravaged by colonization. The Dog Islands and particularly Seal Dogs are reminders of a once prevalent species. Other fauna described are reptiles; this includes lizards of course, including one of the world’s smallest reptiles, the Virgin Islands Least Gecko. Invertebrates and amphibians like the delightful chirping Virgin Islands “Bopeep” frog and the invasive and less desirable Cuban tree frog are given due coverage as well.

Plant life and its conservation are essential in a hilly island like Tortola. Cutting down of bushes and trees can not only have adverse effects on our climate but can also be responsible for erosion during heavy tropical rains. Root systems need to be in place as landslide prevention.  Coastal development has been responsible for approximately 50% of the destruction of coastal mangroves in the last five decades. Road construction, associated drainage and housing developments also add to the degradation of plant and tree life. Fortunately the Sage Mountain National Park is a refuge for many rare Tortola species.

The very nature of an archipelago means that the surrounding waters, its reef systems and sealife are extremely important and their preservation is paramount. The BVI relies heavily on marine based tourism and is commonly called the “yachting capital of the world.” Clean water, pristine reef systems and beautiful beaches are essential.

No environmental study is complete without addressing the issue of pollution and waste management. The IRF report delves into this in depth and looks at the problems and possible solutions. A dedicated non-profit “Green VI” is justifiably highlighted. It deals with the possibility of recycling plastics and glass at its Glass Studio, initially based at Cane Garden Bay in Tortola. It has now moved to Virgin Gorda but it is hoped that a facility will soon re-open in Tortola.  It has welcomed thousands of visitors, including students from all BVI schools, to watch “trash to treasure” in action. Local apprentices are being trained in the art of glassblowing, turning discarded bottles into attractive souvenirs.

Waste water and sewage is another issue that requires attention and the problems are increasing as the territory develops. Now, in 2016, the island can expect up to ten thousand cruise ship visitors a day in season and their needs will have to be met.

The launching of the IRF Tortola Profile in November was attended by the Honorable Kedrick Pickering, the Minister of Natural Resources, and the consultants and researchers who have contributed to the report among others. In a short presentation at the launch, Judith Towle said, “I was particularly struck with how much has changed in the expanse of seven years.  I would agree with former Governor Boyd McCleary when he noted that there has been a noticeable shift during his years in the BVI as concerns about the sustainability of the environment have become more ‘mainstream.’  What is different, and what we have observed as we moved from profile to profile is a more durable awareness in the BVI of the environmental risks associated with development actions and the need to diminish environmental degradation when pursuing development goals.  If this can be sustained and enhanced over time – along with modernized environmental policy, updated environmental laws, and enforcement of environmental mandates – then we have reason to be more hopeful about an environmentally sustainable future for the British Virgin Islands.”

 The Island Resources Profile of Tortola is an in depth study that makes enjoyable and interesting reading; it is informative and enlightening.  It not only describes existing conditions and how we got to where we are, but also makes suggestions for the future. The profile supports its research with graphs, tables and diagrams so the reader can see at a glance how certain phenomena have impacted the region over the years.

It is with much respect and great sadness to learn that Island Resources Foundation will be sunsetting as an institution this year. The BVI has benefited hugely from the island profiles, and all those who have the BVI in their hearts hope that successive generations will keep up the invaluable work.


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