Living Online with Humans and Birds: NAOC 2020

August 12th, 2020

In this COVID-19 life (yes, we’re “living with COVID,” aren’t we?) I, for one, am mostly living online. Whether it’s writing blog posts, posting on social media, or attending Zoom meetings, I spend a lot of time in front of a screen. It is actually quite tiring, sometimes. But I am staying home. This is where I must be.

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Today, however, was something quite special. I made a short presentation at the North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC 2020), which is – you’ve guessed it – all about birds. The Conference was scheduled to be held in Puerto Rico (an island I have always wanted to visit) – the first time it had ventured away from the mainland U.S. However, due to COVID-19, it has gone virtual and continue this week. I felt rather sad for our Puerto Rican friends, who had obviously been looking forward to hosting this big meeting.

We Caribbean people had a section to ourselves, however. We had some good-sized audiences on Zoom, and made a lot of new friends online. Called “Island Treasures,” the BirdsCaribbean symposium highlighted the work of BirdsCaribbean and its vibrant network of partners.

Now, BirdsCaribbean is not just for “bird nerds” or nerds of any kind, actually. In fact, we pride ourselves on reaching out through our partners (on virtually every island in the Caribbean) to the region’s citizens – including youth and teachers, through the Cornell Lab’s educational programme BirdSleuth. We have raised thousands of dollars in hurricane relief over the past few years – after Maria, Irma and last year’s devastation in the Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian. The funds helped conservationists, many of whom had lost equipment and shelter, get back on their feet so that they could help the birds and restore habitats.

Yes, as a member of the Media Working Group, I could probably talk for hours about the amazing projects BirdsCaribbean has helped to fulfill, the causes it has thrown its support behind, and what I could describe as the synergy among scientists, academics, conservationists working on the ground, and ordinary Caribbean people of all ages.

A Snowy Plover in South Caicos Cemetery Salinas, Turks and Caicos (Photo by Craig Watson)

A Snowy Plover in South Caicos Cemetery Salinas, Turks and Caicos (Photo by Craig Watson)

Today, after presentations on topics as varied as the restoration of a beautiful lagoon on Union Island, in the Grenadines; the Caribbean Birding Trail, which aims to integrate with eco- and community-based tourism; and ridding small offshore islands in Antigua of invasive creatures, we had a general talk about threats to Caribbean birds and their habitats (where they live). These include, but are not limited to: land-based pollution (let’s not forget oil spills); climate change (and its effects – storms, drought, floods); hunting and trapping of birds (as in one wetland area in Dominican Republic that I learned about); wildlife trafficking; deforestation (including the destruction of mangroves); and development (in particular, tourism).

On the last item, it appeared that all of us in the discussion had concerns about the “mass market model” of tourism still being touted by governments (including Jamaica’s) around the Caribbean. This model is threatening coastal areas in particular that are stopping off points for migratory birds and home to many other forms of wildlife. While many of us expressed the hope that a “new model” of tourism might be embraced, post-COVID – smaller numbers, greater value for local communities, greater involvement of local professionals in planning were among the ideas put forward – I am personally not optimistic.

 

You have got to get political leaders excited about the environment: in this photo Hon. Camilo Gonsalves(Minister of Finance, Economic Planning, Sustainable Development and Information Technology) and Hon. Saboto Ceasar (Minister of Agriculture, Industry, Forestry, Fisheries, and Rural Transformation) in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on the suspension bridge at Ashton Lagoon at the May 31st Restoration Unveiling event. (Photo by Sustainable Grenadines, Inc.).

You have got to get political leaders excited about the environment: in this photo Hon. Camilo Gonsalves(Minister of Finance, Economic Planning, Sustainable Development and Information Technology) and Hon. Saboto Ceasar (Minister of Agriculture, Industry, Forestry, Fisheries, and Rural Transformation) in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on the suspension bridge at Ashton Lagoon at the May 31st Restoration Unveiling event. (Photo by Sustainable Grenadines, Inc.).

I heard of a Chinese housing project planned for a marine protected area in Antigua, and developments in Dominica and Grenada that are worrisome – impinging on a National Park, importing non-native plants by the ton, and so on. I mentioned the planned development of a 2,000-room hotel in an area of untouched mangrove and swamp forest in western Jamaica. There is also the seemingly endless stream of infrastructure projects that, in electioneering mode, our Prime Minister has up his sleeve, and which he says will make our lives better and our people happier.

An inspiring Caribbean woman: Orisha Joseph, Sustainable Grenadines Executive Director, welcomes everyone to the Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project Unveiling event on May 31st, 2019. The project took literally decades to come to fruition. Hence, the broad smile! (Photo by Sustainable Grenadines, Inc.)

An inspiring Caribbean woman: Orisha Joseph, Sustainable Grenadines Executive Director, welcomes everyone to the Ashton Lagoon Restoration Project Unveiling event on May 31st, 2019. The project took literally decades to come to fruition. Hence, the broad smile! (Photo by Sustainable Grenadines, Inc.)

What is the solution? A more engaged and aware populace – communities that understand and appreciate the value of forests and wetlands and – yes, birds. Then the hope is that Caribbean citizens will learn to defend and protect their environment, which helps them to live.

None of us are going to thrive in an ever-widening expanse of concrete. Nor, come to that, are our tourists. Many visitors, post-COVID, may be more discerning than we might expect. It may take a little time, but developing a new tourism model would benefit both the environment and those who live and depend on it.

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