Agriculture on St. Martin

Agriculture in St. Martin is a complicated issue for me. As a naturalist, it can be saddening and worrisome to see landscapes disturbed by agriculture. On the other hand, there are benefits, like fresh local food and important cultural traditions, best exemplified by events like the Arrowroot Jollification.

From the colonial era until relatively recently, agriculture was more widespread on the island and seems to have diminished significantly with the rise of tourism as the primary industry. As you can see from old photos, many areas that are scrub and forest were cleared in the past. Any walk into the hills will also confirm this, with old stone walls hidden in what is now dense vegetation. Even with larger areas under cultivation and a much smaller population, my understanding is that food has always been imported to the island because it is relatively dry and unsuitable for many crops.

Today, with much larger areas developed for homes and tourism, and the lack of available water in many places, the areas suitable for cultivation remain relatively small. They also seem to coincide with areas that are the best for tropical forests. In the photos below from the area behind Agrement and Concordia, one can see cultivated areas that are encroaching on secondary forest, where trees are cleared and burned to create charcoal. Beyond the preservation of wild habitat, deforestation also has the potential to cause big problems for people as well, as can be seen clearly in places like Haiti.

To me this raises a number of questions: How can we implement sustainable agriculture on St. Martin? What is the appropriate balance between crops and forests? How can we tell when/where the benefits of agriculture outweigh the benefits of an undisturbed landscape? If we do determine the balance, how can that be turned into enforceable policy? Obviously, I don’t know the answers, but I think the questions are worthy of attention.

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