Barbados has seen over 300 years of continuous development.Â Only thirty years after settlement, over 80% of the island’s forest cover was cleared for sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco.Â As a result, Barbados today supports relatively few plant and animal species compared to its original biodiversity and that of Caribbean “biodiversity hotspot” islands such as St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Dominica .
Overall, 25 hotspots comprise roughly 1.4% of the Earth’s land surface area, yet concentrate nearly 2/3 of all known terrestrial species, many of which are threatened or endangered.Â The Caribbean is a top-ranking hotspot thanks to its island ecosystems, which have enabled species to evolve in relative isolation from one another and from the mainland.Â These specialized plants and animals–which live in one locality only–are called “endemicsâ€ and are of great conservation priority.Â Â Of Barbados’s 700 plant species, only three are endemic, or unique to Barbados: the maypole (Agave barbadensis), a slender climber (Metastelma barbadense) and a gully shrub (Phyllanthus anderson).Â None are considered rare or endangered; yet 23 plants on the island demand protection at a national level.
The voices for indiscriminate development are loud.Â Â But can afford to continue “business as usual” with horizontal development throughout the island?
Many fear that continuing the old ways of development will cost us in ways that we cannot predict.
Species now disappear 100 to 10,000 times faster than they form, with island endemics being the first to vanish.Â Half of the world’s forests are now gone, with remaining rainforests and coral reefs eroding at 1% or more per year.Â If current trends continue, half of all known plant and animal species may be extinct by 2100.
So why should we preserve wetlands, and forests, and marine habitats, and try and reverse the trend of extinctions?
One answer is that these environments contain vast planetary storehouses of knowledge, and for the most part we humans are unaware of the power embodied in them.
Perhaps we should admit that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that there are secrets in the natural world that cry to be discovered, secrets that promise to save humanity:
Mangroves, for example, can convert salt water to fresh water, using only the sun for power.Â Â No toxic brine effluent discharges into the sea such as those from human desalination plants.
Migratory birds are a miracle of atmospheric flight.Â Fueled by plants and insects they fly over 4,000 miles from the Arctic to Barbados and South America using precise navigation – these birds have unbelievable power to weight ratios that we have not been able to replicate in our own aircraft.
There are likely countless other examples hidden in the natural archives of our nation and around the world – ones that will include new medical discoveries for cancer, new fuels, new robotics and much much more.
If we don’t protect our natural world and we allow them to disappear, we will lose the wisdom hidden within them.
Can we afford this?
By Stuart Heaslet
Stuart Heaslet is CEO of Heaslet Corporation, a logistics company based in Portland, Oregon.Â An ardent environmentalist, he built the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary on the South Coast of Barbados.