Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dominica: A Caribbean Island in Search of Opportunities

By Thomson Fontaine

For years, fishermen in Dominica have complained about the unlawful fishing in the country’s territorial waters by fishermen from the neighboring countries of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Dominica is an island in search of opportunities.

A few months ago, Chief Fisheries Officer Julian Magloire pointedly asked that the French authorities instruct their fishermen to respect Dominica’s territorial waters.

According to Magloire, Dominica was in the process of developing its own fishing industry and could no longer tolerate the French fishermen fishing with impunity in its waters.

Magloire was quoted as saying that “for too long we have had to endure an almost uninterrupted incursion by French fishermen into our territorial boundaries and we believe that it is time to bring this to an end.” The French have yet to respond to the Dominican authorities.

The island of Dominica lies Nestled between the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Eastern Caribbean. Dubbed the “Nature Isle” of the Caribbean, it is often confused with the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, which lies further North.

The 790 km2 island is steeped in unparalleled natural beauty, a rich Creole culture, and boasts of having the friendliest people in the World. It has a population of 71, 000 people, a stable government, and an extremely low crime rate. With a life expectancy of 82 years for females and 78 for males, Dominica is also noted for having the most centurinarians per thousand of the population in the world.

Dominica is home to the last remaining Carib Indians from which the Caribbean region got its name. Numbering about 3 000, the Carib Indians have long resided on a reservation on the Eastern Coast of the island where they continue to contribute significantly to Dominica’s rich cultural heritage. Most of the island’s population is however comprised of descendants of freed African slaves.

The fight by the French and British for control

Christopher Columbus discovered Dominica on November 3, 1493. It was however the last of the Caribbean countries to be colonized due in large part to the resistance of the Carib Indians. Spanish ships frequently landed on Dominica during the 16th century, to fetch fresh produce and supplies, but fierce resistance by the Caribs discouraged Spain's efforts at settlement.

In 1635, France claimed Dominica. Shortly thereafter, French missionaries became the first European inhabitants of the island. Carib incursions continued, though, and in 1660, the French and British agreed that Dominica should be abandoned.

Dominica was officially neutral for the next century, but the attraction of its resources remained. Largely due to its position between Martinique and Guadeloupe, France eventually became predominant, and a French settlement was established and grew. However, constant battles between France and England over the island continued during the entire second half of the eighteenth century.

Eventually, in 1805 France sold Dominica to England for 12,000 British pounds effectively ending French participation on the island. The British soon began importing slaves from Africa to work on the sugar plantations. This met with only limited success however due in large part to the ruggedness of the island and the relatively small amount of flat land.

With the abolition of slavery in 1838, the British maintained direct control of the island through the appointment of governors until the island was granted Associated Statehood in 1968 and complete political independence in 1978.

As the locals took political control, the island quickly looked to its Caribbean neighbors for trade and other support. In the late 1970s, large numbers of Dominicans migrated to the neighboring French Islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe continuing a migration trend started in the 1960s when thousands departed for the United Kingdom.

Seeking economic opportunities

Dominica lost two prime ministers within the space of two years, both having died in office. In January 2004, Roosevelt Skerrit at the age of 31 became the youngest prime minister in the world. One year later, he led his Dominica Labour Party to an easy reelection.

In June 2005, the government of Dominica signed on to the Petro Caribe Agreement initiated by the government of Venezuela. Under this agreement, Dominica along with several other Caribbean countries would receive oil imports at reduced prices and largely favorable terms.

Initially, the Venezuelan government sweetened the deal by allowing the countries to pay for forty percent of the oil they purchase in the first 90 days and then have up to 25 years to pay the remaining sixty percent.

However, more recently, Chavez have appeared intent on reneging on that promise and having the countries pay for at least 80 percent of their purchase up front.

Skerrit also moved quickly to set up diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China and in 2007 joined president Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA); an alliance comprising Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Chávez proposed ALBA as a response to the United States sponsored hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Skerrit has since indicated that he joined ALBA as a means of creating more economic opportunities for his people. Government has also received a significant amount of assistance from the European Union particularly with regard to the development of its tourism and agricultural sectors.

During the 1980s and for most of the 1990s, Dominica’s economy was largely dependent on banana exports to the United Kingdom under a preferential arrangement. This typically accounted for more than ninety percent of export revenues and contributed significantly to the country’s GDP.

Since 2001, banana exports have been on the decline following the removal of trade preferences by the United Kingdom. In response, the country stepped up the export of fresh agriculture produce to neighboring Caribbean countries, refocused on tourism development, and experimented with some limited manufacturing. In addition, it is seeking to take advantage of its vast fishing resources.

The average growth rate of 2.5 percent experienced by the country over the last five years have not been enough to significantly tackle the high rate of unemployment, particularly among the youth. This has resulted in large numbers of young people seeking migration opportunities. Consequently, the islands population has been on the decline.

Important strides are being made in the tourism sector as the country seeks to position itself as a major eco-tourism destination. Blessed with an abundance of forests, hiking trails, lakes, rivers, mountains and exceptional dive sites, the country is quickly positioning itself to capitalize on the increasing interest among tourists in such destinations.

Given the country’s most recent history, it will need all the help it can get as it seeks to rise to the level of economic performance of its neighbors and as it strives to take its rightful place among the world’s developing nations.

Going forward, the country faces many challenges including the frequent onslaught of hurricanes, the rising cost of imports including the damaging impact of rising food and fuel prices, and a global economy seemingly in a period of decline. The later with serious implications for its tourism sector as it seeks to rise above the turbulent economic times.

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