Whether man-made or natural, the effects of disasters can take centuries to restore. The northern Caribbean has been swept by one disaster after another in recent months, and the effects are still being tallied. One silent victim is the tropical forest.
According to Rainforest Alliance, forests also provide fuel for cooking and warmth, medicinal plants, food, wildlife habitat, clean water, spiritual and cultural touchstones, and for many, the means to earn a living. For the Caribbean islands impacted by recent weather systems, all of the above have been impacted in some way.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international body that develops and maintains the most globally respected standard for managing forests and certifies forestry businesses that meet the standard’s rigorous environmental, social, and economic criteria.
The FSC was formed about 500 years late. The forests in the Caribbean were decimated by England, Spain, France and Portugal, in the race for colonies in the 1600s. Shaved bald to establish single crop plantations on the rich, dense soils, the former paradise islands looked like totally different countries.
The wide-scale deforestation meant the unbridled and unregulated destruction of the biodiversity of the islands, with historical records showing the number of animal and plant species that are now extinct. The Barbados Museum is a perfect example of birds, rodents and other wild animals that we see in person thanks only to Taxidermy.
Dominica was the only island left in the Caribbean that was not clean shaven by conquerors to be made into plantations to benefit Europe during the travels of Christopher Columbus and his compatriots. Until September 2017, Dominica claimed to have 365 rivers, one for each day of the year. It was the most densely forested country in the island chain. Mountainous and rugged, the forested island looked like a thick, green carpet, dotted with houses from before the conquerors landed in the 1600s – 1700s.
Dominica was the last island to be colonised. Quite unlike Barbados to the south-east, which was flat like a coin and was shaved clean of all natural vegetation and transformed into one great plantation for whipping profits, Dominica had to be left quite intact due to its terrain.
Dominica was not just home to a forest, but it was the Caribbean’s only rain forest. According to data, average yearly rainfall along the windward east coast frequently exceeds 5,000 mm (196.9 in), and exposed mountain sides receive up to 9,000 mm (354.3 in), among the highest accumulations in the Caribbean and the world. Hurricane David brought widespread destruction to Dominica in 1979 but, thankfully, the forest survived.
However, even Dominica was no match for the 220+ mile wind gusts that Hurricane Maria brought. The violent forces of nature took less than 24 hours to undo all that had taken hundreds and hundreds of years to create. Areas of forest were washed into the streets and some streets became a river. What is left are piles of unusable refuse.
How did so much damage occur so quickly?
According to the FSC, storms can cause extensive damage in the rainforest through tree falls. When a canopy or emergent tree falls, dozens of other neighbouring trees, attached by lianas, are brought down with it.
First, floodwater currents, loaded with debris and silt, can erode the soils around shrubs and trees, exposing roots. In strong currents, debris may even strip bark from trees, uproot plants or strip shrubbery. In a country like Dominica, houses, farms, livestock and tourism operations would have all been destroyed by the force of the debris. In addition to the initial physical impact, because many of a tree’s fine, oxygen-absorbing roots grow in the upper six inches of soil, these roots can die off as the soil becomes waterlogged. Without a robust root system, trees don’t absorb enough water and become weakened.
Surveying the forest following a storm can reveal numerous tree falls, light gaps, and fallen matter including epiphytes and branches. However, a healthy forest can recover from moderate storm damage in a matter of months or years. The “light gaps” are quickly colonised and soon filled by canopy trees, while the fallen matter is decomposed and reabsorbed into the system.
The FSC also confirms that larger tropical storms, such as hurricanes (cyclones or typhoons), can cause substantial damage to rainforests and recovery may take decades to centuries. For example, in 1880 unusually strong winds damaged large areas of Kelantan forest in the northwestern part of peninsular Malaysia. Recovery from Hurricane Hugo (1989) for the Luquillo Montane forest in Puerto Rico is expected to take at least 250 years.
Unless direct and strategic intervention is made to restore Dominica’s forests, it could be just as long for the once lush canopy to regrow and thrive.
Next: Part 2 – Learn how to clean up and regrow a sustainable forest.
Forests – https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/sustainable-forestry-101
Data – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Dominica