By Sierra Greene
From May 15, 2018
What is this strange starch white vegetable that keeps showing up on our dinner plates? I was under the impression that its starchy deliciousness was no different than any other potato or yam, but the journey it took to reach our table, as you’ll soon find out, may not be worth it.
Today, we teamed up with The Integration Watershed Coastal Area Management in Small Island Communities (IWECO) to learn about the unsustainable farming practices that are relied on by local farmers and what solutions are being introduced to counteract them. The island has a long history of cash crops, starting with bananas and cocoa, then switching to dasheen (also known as taro) in the early 2000s. This crop is economically ideal for farmers because it is a low input, high reward crop. It only takes about 7 months to grow, and the entire plant can be utilized (the root for similar uses as potatoes and the large leaves for soup). On an environmental level, however, this tuber falls short of excellency. Due to its shallow root system, dasheen does not have the ability to hold soil in place during heavy rains. Its large, elephant ear leaves also require a lot of sunlight, requiring farmers to clear native trees surrounding dasheen fields.
Our journey led us to Fond St. Jacques, a nearby town where roughly 70% of the 3000-person population consists of farmers. Here, a local forest ranger led us on a guided tour of the forests and farmlands. The “farmer’s fields” were patches of dasheen and fruit trees along the roadsides and steep slopes, much different than any fields seen in the USA.
In 2010, tragedy struck St. Lucia in the form of hurricane Tomas. Like many of us when the newsman warns of hurricanes, local St. Lucians did not heed warning or properly evacuate. Due to the combined effect of the loss of root stabilizing trees, the introduction of shallow plants like dasheen, the steep topography of St. Lucia, and the fact that there was a drought prior to Tomas, the heavy rains caused disastrous landslides throughout the island. These landslides were not only devastating to the islanders who lost their homes, but also had a huge effect on the surrounding coral reefs. The sediment that lands in the water makes it murky and coats the corals, not allowing their symbiotic zooxanthellae enough sunlight to keep the corals healthy.
While viewing the site where Hurricane Tomas had caused a massive landslide 8 years ago, a local man by the name of Smith relayed to us his story of enduring the hurricane. At 4am the night Hurricane Tomas struck, Smith remembers having to climb out of the window of his house while the river rose up through his room. He and his family members escaped to a nearby house where they had to hold on throughout the night so they didn’t get washed away. When he went out to evaluate the next morning, Smith found that nearly every house on the main street of Fond St. Jacques, including his own, had been washed out by mudslides, killing 7 in its path. After having to go through that traumatic experience, Smith now believes that “nature has its way of dealing with mankind” and that preserving the natural way is of the upmost importance.
One of the things that astounded me most when looking at the landslide site was that the land now looked the same as it had before the hurricane. The same, unsustainable dasheen farming practices were littering the steep slope.
This is what IWECO is trying to fix. The initiative that they are currently introducing allows farmers to integrate other plants, such as citrus, mango, and cocoa trees, in with the dasheen to help stabilize the soil and partially restore the land to its natural state. Although this seems ideal for all, as it would give farmers an extra cash crop to grow and reduce the risk of mudslides, it is slow at gaining acceptance because these hardwoods often take years to yield a profit, rather than half a year like dasheen. Often times, farmers will cut down native trees that the rangers have planted in order to farm dasheen. It is a long process, but those trying to implement changes are hopeful of the future.
The authors of this blog are students enrolled in Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation, field courses run in the Caribbean by the University of South Florida. In 2019 and 2021, the course went to the Carmabi research station in Curaçao and dived around the island over a 10-day period, for training and to carry out research projects. In 2018, the group went to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, and took part in various projects in partnership with the Soufriere Marine Management Association. In this blog, students will document their activities and how they relate to course material.