In Focus: the Caribbean

Maintaining biological diversity in the Caribbean – on land and at sea

The natural riches of the Caribbean are unique. The United Nations calls the countries in this region a "biodiversity superpower". However, that biodiversity is in danger because all too often not enough attention is being paid to preserving it. Furthermore, the islands of the Caribbean, situated just on the edge of the storm-swept Atlantic Ocean, are particularly affected by the impacts of climate change.

An ambitious project that the German government is supporting is seeking to protect the continued existence of this diverse ecosystem.

A region under threat

Extreme weather events are literally eating away the coastlines of the many, often small, islands. Storms and floods destroy not only roads and houses but also agricultural land. Furthermore, since 1980, one third of the coral reefs which are located off the coasts of these islands, forming an important natural barrier against incoming waves and storm surges, have disappeared.

Income from the water

One of the traditional main lines of business on the islands, namely fishing, is affected by the destruction of the reefs. They are one of the world's most biodiverse habitats. However, overfishing and untreated wastewater are threatening this unique underwater world, which is an important source of livelihood for many of the people who live there, and which attracts tourists from all over the world. An intact natural environment is one of the most important attractions that the Caribbean has to offer and provides many people with work and the means to survive.

Acting holistically

In the Caribbean the land and the ocean are one unit. The project Caribbean Aqua-Terrestrial Solutions (CATS) therefore has the aim of protecting the natural environment as a whole. The ridge-to-reef concept – from the rainforests in the mountains to the coral reefs in the sea – takes into account the impact of sustainable agriculture and sustainable forest use, including water supply and wastewater management, on the ecosystems on land and in the ocean.

Protecting biodiversity together

Supported by the German government, the governments of eight Caribbean countries are working with representatives from local businesses and civil society on this programme. Joint action to protect biological diversity is urgently needed, but is not easy to achieve. This is because the Caribbean countries are spread across almost three million square kilometres, which is eight times the area covered by Germany. There are about 40 million people living here on more than 7,000 islands, with very different traditions, administrative structures and economic interests.

Sea and land belong together

Traditionally, the most important economic activity in the Caribbean was agriculture, which is now in second place after the tourism industry and is therefore still of key importance for the people in the region. Agroforestry plays a key role for biological diversity as well. The plants and trees that are grown protect against soil erosion, but agroforestry is responsible for harmful fertilisers flowing via streams and rivers into offshore coastal zones and marine protected areas. That is why the German government is also supporting the area in switching over to sustainable agricultural practices, including water-saving irrigation methods and measures for enhanced water quality.

Marine reserves

As part of the programme, marine protected areas are also being set up in collaboration with local inhabitants and the authorities. In the island state of Saint Lucia a community-based pilot project to protect leatherback turtles that lay their eggs along the Atlantic coast began in 2014. In addition to biodiversity protection the project gives the local people new prospects: whereas before they may have lived by poaching, now they are trained gamekeepers dedicated to protecting the turtles.

These efforts have been crowned with success: poaching has decreased significantly, the protected areas attract environmental tourists and new sources of income have opened up for the local people in hotels, catering, transport and agriculture, because the visitors also create demand for such services.

Understanding and appreciating diversity

In order for the programme to continue to be successful, the younger generation is also being included: schools are integrating the topic of sustainability into their teaching plans. In "summer camps" pupils learn all about the marine protected areas. One way that this is done is through swimming and snorkelling lessons at the coral reef. These activities are fun – and they teach children about the treasures of nature on their own doorstep.