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Our Island Home, a Sailor's Perspective

Editor's note: Our Earth is an Island, residing in the uninhabitable "sea" that is space. Like islanders of old, we do not or cannot yet leave our island. We do not know what lies beyond our home or if we could even survive the journey. Protecting our island is a matter of survival. Today we feature a piece from John Raffensperger, MD and Sailor on what islands can teach us about our only Earth island.  


John Raffensperger, MD


We were four days out of Gibraltar, sailing to the Caribbean, when I glanced up from the compass to see in the distance, Porto Santo an island in the Madeira archipelago. A few hours later, our ketch, “Lady Luck” rounded the last point of land into a bay where two of Prince Henry the Navigator’s captains found refuge from a storm in 1418.


The island was starkly barren. There were no trees, no green leaves, not even a blade of grass. Deep ravines gouged in rock and gravel hills plunged into the sea. I wondered what terrible catastrophe had caused this destruction.


Portugal established a colony on Porto Santo a year later. One ship carried a female rabbit whose offspring thrived and devoured the native vegetation. The first settlers, with terracing and irrigation of the fertile volcanic soil grew grapes, cereal crops and vegetables. These crops, along with fish allowed the early settlers to be self sufficient for food. The Portuguese established a sugar cane industry, which made a few men wealthy but furthered environmental destruction. Christopher Columbus lived on the island for a while and married the Governor’s daughter. His former home is now a tourist attraction. Intense agriculture and rabbits decimated the natural vegetation and caused loss of topsoil. This destruction caused by overpopulation, deforestation, intense agriculture and imported animals took place in less than five hundred years, scarcely the blink of an eye in the history of the world. The islanders are now dependent on imported food and tourists.


Two days of fast sailing brought us to the Canary Islands, known to the ancient Arabs and Phoenicians as the “Fortunate Isles”, where happy spirits dwelt in peaceful gardens. Commencing in 1402, the Spanish cut down trees, terraced hills, irrigated and cultivated the hilly islands. During the 15th century, the islanders grew enough food to provision the ships of Spanish exploration, but now exploitation has reduced several of the islands to deserts. The main city, Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, a crowded commercial center with jammed streets, sprawls into the surrounding countryside. Bulldozers carve away hills overlooking the sea for tourist developments. There has been outward migration for centuries, but the island is drastically overpopulated with a thirty percent rate of unemployment. The Canaries are no longer “fortunate”.


When Columbus anchored off the island of Hispianola 1492 the natives grew fruit, cotton and vegetables on rich soil. The land was covered with trees and native plants. The Spanish decimated the native population and commenced environmental degradation with gold mining and the introduction of cattle. In 1697, France took possession of Haiti and imported African slaves to produce sugar. Haiti became a wealthy French colony but by 1804, at the time of the slave rebellion, the island was almost entirely deforested and the erosion of topsoil was well underway.


During the 20th century, basic medical care reduced infant mortality but without birth control and massive outward migration, the population soared. Today, the Haitian half of the island is barren. Villagers plant corn on steep hillsides but tropical rains carry away the seedlings and topsoil. Except for a narrow coastal plain the land is barren and rocky. Sediment and sewage has destroyed ocean reefs, depleting the population of fish. Foreign aid temporarily supports Haiti but has failed to halt the environmental degradation, overpopulation and social unrest.


On another voyage, I visited Easter Island, a tiny speck in the southern Pacific, thousands of miles from the nearest land. The first Polynesians who sailed to Easter Island, escaping overpopulation, found fertile soil, fish and huge rookeries of nesting birds that supplied food. These people had the energy to carve, move and erect huge stone monuments facing the sea. As resources diminished, there were no longer trees for the construction of canoes, birds sought new nesting places and the eroded land no longer supplied enough food. My guide pointed out gardens where the ancients had attempted to grow food on rocks and gravel. Warfare, hunger and disease decimated the population. Today, Easter Island is barren, rocky and bereft of fertile soil. The great mysterious stone monuments still stand, reminders of a once robust people who descendants now depend on tourism to survive.


In south Florida, greedy developers, the tourist industry, over population and invasive species have fouled our waters and have almost destroyed our native flora and fauna. Just as on Porto Santo, the sugar cane industry has despoiled entire river systems as well as the Everglades, one of the world’s most beautiful areas.


During the 1970’s far sighted environmentalists, purchased land for wildlife preserves that was to be developed for housing to preserve Sanibel, a barrier island off the southwest coast of Florida from massive commercial development. Until very recently, the residents and visitors to Sanibel lived in harmony with beaches and wildlife but the tourism industry together with local politicians have promoted the island to the point where the beaches are overcrowded, the numbers of birds have diminished and the island suffers from massive traffic jams. The quality of human life as well as wildlife habitat is diminishing. Sanibel has reached the limits of its carrying capacity.


We must learn from these other islands and take care for there are no new islands to conquer.