After the storm

As extreme, catastrophic climate events become the new norm, Dominica — a Caribbean nation devastated by Hurricane Maria three months ago — has become a testing ground for resilience.  

By: /
December 19, 2017
A flooded settlement near Canefield, Dominica, one month after Hurricane Maria. Stefan Labbé / OpenCanada.org

On the night of September 18, winds upwards of 300 kilometres per hour roared through the island of Dominica doing things no Dominican dreamed a hurricane could do: blasting rainforests into decapitated spindles, hurling shipping containers into buildings, scouring churches to their foundations and pulverizing entire communities. The resulting floods washed away homes and cars, and swallowed people whole.  

Few expected such devastation. That morning, Hurricane Maria was 160 kilometres southeast of Dominica when it tacked like a hockey stick and bore down on the southern tip of the island. By late afternoon, the hurricane had developed the dreaded “pinhole eye,” a phenomenon linked to rapid intensification. As the winds spun more quickly, Maria supercharged from a Category 3 into a Category 5 hurricane in an unprecedented 12 hours.

“We had no idea it was coming,” Glen Dafoe, a father from the northeastern settlement of Concord Valley, tells me. I meet Dafoe a few weeks after the storm as my reporting took me further into the countryside.

Some of the towns I visit escaped complete destruction, but in Concord, the valley looks like it has been flattened by a nuclear weapon. Locals tell me the winds spiked here as they got funneled between ridgelines. Almost every house was destroyed, but instead of blowing buildings over, the winds chewed up pieces of roof, walls and furniture, spitting them across the valley. The local church lies in a pile of rubble and the once lush rainforest looks as if it has been razed by a combination of explosive wind and roaring fire.

Walking through the debris, my eye is drawn to the one house I see still standing, what looks like a concrete bunker. Three families now live in the gutted building. During the storm, the winds ripped the doors and windows off their hinges, turning the living room and kitchen into a wind tunnel. As appliances and furniture were sucked from the house, the three families retreated into a bedroom — the parents stuffed their nine children between two mattresses, and used a third to brace the door for five hours.

“They crying, crying…” Defoe tells me from under a flapping tarpaulin. “Now, whenever the small one hears rain or wind she covers herself. Anytime it’s raining hard, the grownups, we cower.” 

“I’ve been through four hurricanes already. But that one there, that was a hurricane with an earthquake, with tornadoes. It felt like the end of the world.” 

Halfway between Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago, Singapore-sized Dominica is capped by five mountains, 365 rivers and one boiling lake. It was the last Caribbean island to be colonized, and remains home to the region’s largest Indigenous settlement, a collection of eight hamlets — including Concord Valley — known as the Kalinago Territory.

Traditionally, most Dominicans were farmers. And while the island still feeds the entire Eastern Caribbean with fresh produce, more recently, Dominica’s vast network of rainforests and walking trails have made it a magnet for ecotourism.

But that was all before Hurricane Maria.

In one night, the storm wiped out crops, decimated protected forests and caused an estimated US$1.3 billion in damage — double the island’s gross domestic product (GDP) — instantly slamming the middle-income nation into third-world conditions.

Dominica’s built environment was not spared. Ninety-five percent of the country’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, leaving none of the 74,000 residents untouched. As of early December, 31 people had been confirmed killed and another 34 remain missing, giving Dominica the unenviable title of highest death toll per capita this hurricane season.

Hurricanes have always been part of the seasonal rhythm of the tropics: in the last 50 years, they have killed over 780,000 people and caused nearly US$827 trillion in damage across the planet. It’s a staggering toll, and one that’s only expected to grow. As CO2 levels spike to their highest concentration in 800,000 years, rising ocean temperatures ratchet up the energy and moisture available to hurricanes. This year, new research concluded that global warming will not only make hurricanes grow stronger, but intensify faster — a deadly prospect for the millions caught in the paths of these mega-storms.

Due to their sheer destructive power, hurricanes like Maria threaten the development trajectory of entire island nations. Yet on top of a wave of “climate refugees,” reeling ecosystems, and tens of thousands of endangered livelihoods, Maria has also offered Dominicans a chance to rethink business as usual.

I arrive in Dominica on a UN humanitarian flight in early October, the small airplane touching down on an airstrip outside the capital. Down the coast, the story of the island and its slow road to recovery plays itself out through the hum of inbound relief ships and outbound ferries.

In the weeks following my arrival, I would find more than a portrait of disaster. The Caribbean’s “nature island” was transforming into a testing ground for climate resilience and, at an even more basic level, pure survival. 

Exodus — the new normal?

I find Bobby Dorset in the waiting room at the Ministry of Justice, Immigration and National Security.

“We have rights!” he tells the secretary, frustrated his family’s passports and birth certificates aren't ready. “They don't need a taxi man on the island now.” 

I had come to interview a government official.

“There’s a cost for living in paradise,” she told me later when I mentioned Dorset and those trying to leave the island.

Dorset is in his early 40s, with short, cropped hair, a tapered goatee and the athletic build you would expect to find in a retired track and field star. The day after I meet him in the capital, I find myself in his empty taxi van, bumping towards his house along one of the poorest and hardest hit stretches of coastline on the island.  

“I’m not a builder, I’m not a farmer, I’m not a contractor,” he says from behind the wheel. “I’m in the service industry. And when I look at the hotels, how much damage they suffered; the natural sites…I saw wooden buildings deteriorate as if they were plastic.”

Today, tourism has grown to absorb at least a third of Dominica’s labour force, slowly eroding the role of the traditional farmer and inspiring one government official to call it “our new baby.” Maria hit a month before the island’s Creole Festival and the start of the tourist season. Cruise lines predictably cancelled their planned visits to Dominica, sinking this year’s tourist season.

When people’s groceries started to run out, looting swept through the capital, Roseau. What was left of the city’s supermarkets and warehouses was completely ransacked; residents were desperate for food and water. “People can’t make it to the distribution points,” one middle-aged father told me as he camped out in a public bathroom on the city’s waterfront. “If we didn’t loot, we’d be starving.” Almost as fast as it started, the looting got out of control as many turned their sights on other shops in town, stealing everything from televisions to cars, liquidating businesses and extinguishing many employees’ chances of getting their jobs back. Only with a strict curfew and the help of contingents of regional military forces from neighbouring islands such as Jamaica did the local police return security to the city.

Dorset brings the van to a stop in front of a peeling turquoise bungalow not far from the airport. There’s no electricity, and as we enter the kitchen my eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness.

Before Dorset moved in with his wife and three children, the house had sat abandoned. Now, along with having been picked apart by the winds from the outside, it is rotting from within. Termites have infested the walls leaving brown trails crisscrossing the white plaster. Waterlogged mattresses, molding furniture and stuffed animals are piled into a back room, the smell adding to the thick air already swarming with mosquitos. His youngest, nine months old, has developed a rash, which the family has struggled to keep under control. Like service industry workers in the city, the Dorsets nearly ran out of food in the first week. When the odd relief truck made it to his corner of the island, Dorset found a desperation within himself he never knew was there.

“I stole this, I stole this, I stole this,” Dorset tells me through tears as he slaps half-empty bags of rice and cream of wheat on top of the fridge, away from the rats. “It was to give out, but it would never be enough to share. I can’t take any chances that my children go hungry.”

After those first desperate weeks, Dorset turned to buying the few plantains and yams local farmers had left, and shuttling them down the coast to sell. “I go to places where food won’t reach. That’s my hustle. Otherwise there’s nothing for me.”

Still, it’s not enough. Between the living conditions and food shortages, Dorset has reached his breaking point. He has pooled what little money he has left to join the thousands of other Dominicans evacuating the island. His destination: the nearby and equally vulnerable island of Saint Lucia.

“Whether I’m cutting grass, cleaning drains, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’m not running from hurricanes. I’m running towards a livelihood.”

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Without tourists to buy his art, paralyzed artist Gregnon Julian now paints for himself. Newtown, October 18, 2017. Stefan Labbé / OpenCanada.org

Estimates are still rough, but some have said up to 20,000, a quarter of the population, has left Dominica on ferries, small planes and private boats. While some will inevitably return to the island in the future, others will join the ranks of what many have dubbed the world’s “climate refugees.” One recent study predicted that under worse-case scenario conditions, rising seas alone would displace up to two billion people by 2100.

Pinning down the number of future “climate refugees” is, at best, imprecise. Finding the right language, on the other hand, has become controversial — not least because the term “refugee” has been traditionally applied to a person persecuted (or with a well-founded fear of being persecuted) and forced to flee their country because of their race, religion, nationality, political point of view or membership in a religious or political group.

“That idea — that there is such a thing as an easily identifiable climate change migrant — I don’t think is going to pass muster,” says former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants François Crépeau. One of the big challenges, according to Crépeau, is that unlike a “traditional” refugee, the spectrum of climate-induced calamities is so broad that creating a legal category for “climate refugees” waters down the prospect of finding a common solution.

What is going to happen to a fisherman in Kiribati, in the central Pacific Ocean, is not the same as a lumberjack in the Mekong Basin, a farmer in the Gulf of Bengal or a baker in New York, Crépeau pointed out, arguing that these very different scenarios call for a need to identify people most at risk of climate-change-triggered migration. “We have to develop ad-hoc solutions for them.”

In late October, New Zealand’s recently elected government announced it is considering the creation of an experimental visa category that would grant up to 100 humanitarian visas a year for people displaced by climate change. And while it’s a tiny gesture — in the Kiribati capital alone, tens of thousands are at risk of displacement in the coming decades — the conversation is just beginning.

One of the central problems is that policy makers forget they are dealing with people. Freedom of movement for migrants has been treated like freedom of movement for goods, capital and services.

“Up until now, we have treated migrants like boxes,” says Crépeau. “We have never thought of migrants as individuals making decisions for themselves…thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of individual decisions. Whatever we may predict may or may not happen.” 

Such a wave of migration will probably start as a trickle, if it hasn’t already — prompted by a breached dyke, contaminated ground water or a neighbour’s flooded field. But as rising seas push the slow march of people inland, powerful tropical cyclones and floods will etch the striking moments of displacement into our collective psyches, and island nations like Dominica will be the first to bear the brunt. The Bobby Dorsets of the world’s tropical archipelagos will need support, but so will those who stay.

“People like us are on the frontiers of the climate war, so to speak,” says Jo-anne Commodore, permanent secretary in the Dominican department of Justice, Immigration and National Security. “How do we get the assistance we need to build back?”

“What we might see in the Caribbean region is very great political resolve... It could be a laboratory of sorts.”

It’s one of the many questions countries around the world are grappling with as they look for ways to both adapt to climate change and prevent it from getting worse. In November, 196 countries met at the UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany to figure out how they would meet their emissions targets under the 2015 Paris climate pact. So far, it’s not looking good. All industrialized countries are off track from preventing the 2 degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels — the point at which scientists say the world will face severe consequences.

This year, Fiji’s leadership combined with a devastating hurricane season has put vulnerable islands at centre stage. “When the front line is decimated, the whole army is lost,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking at the annual conference.

While progress on the implementation of the Paris agreement has been slow, delegates pushed through several groundbreaking international declarations in Bonn, including an ethical framework to support those disproportionately affected by global warming, and, for the first time, countries formally recognized Indigenous people’s vital role in fighting climate change. It’s all part of a bigger push to institutionalize a shared moral and ethical responsibility towards the planet. That’s the carrot.

The stick, according to Crépeau, will be migration.

“What we might see in the Caribbean region is very great political resolve,” says Crépeau. “That might help mobilize not only the UN but a number of governments, like the Canadian government and the American government to help, especially if there’s a fear that migration to the US and Canada might increase.”

“It could be a laboratory of sorts.”

Paradise lost

The residents of Roseau have taken to wearing surgical masks on the sidewalk. On a sunny day, the silt and debris left over from the floods goes airborne, prompting health advisories. Today is worse. The air is heavy, thick with Saharan dust blown in on the same winds as Maria.

Seen from space, high over the Atlantic, 689,290 semi-trucks-worth of camel-coloured sediment spew out of the semi-arid Sahel region every year, fertilizing the Caribbean and Amazon basins. In the gutted forests of Dominica, the dust scatters the sun’s blue rays, casting a burnt orange hue over the skeletons of the trees.

“It might be poison for some countries,” forestry engineer Bradley Guye tells me as we climb into his government pickup. “But for us, it means life.”

No place was that life more visible than the slopes of Morne Diablotins mountain. It’s the most pristine wooded oasis of the Lesser Antilles, a refuge supporting giant land crabs and tree lizards; wild boar, opossum and agoutie; 24 kinds of butterfly and 11 kinds of bat; and an incredible diversity of birdlife — not to mention the most ambitious eco-tourism industry in the Caribbean. Now, post-Maria, the future of the rainforest is uncertain.

“It’s heartbreaking, man!” says Guye’s colleague, forestry officer Stephen Durand, next to me in the backseat. “All I see is decapitation. Maybe 95 percent of the coconut trees are blown down. All mashed up!”

In the front seat, Claus Eckelmann, a German forestry expert, casually nibbles on rice palau, tossing the odd bone out the window and sipping on a large Arizona iced tea. Guye whips through traffic — which, like everything else on the island, feels more chaotic than usual. He slams on the breaks every 20 seconds. “God! You see dat there in the road man?” he shouts as he dodges another car.

The plan is to drive the island’s mountain roads, looking for clues that might hint at the forest’s survival. It’s early and we have already taken on a passenger: a jaco parrot sits next to me in one of those travelling kennels you see cats peering out of in airports. “I will take her home and rehabilitate her,” Durand tells me as we pull into a series of switchbacks heading away from the coast. “The parrots are confused. We find them on the ground bawling and screaming.” The wildlife, like the people of this island, are in emergency mode, disorientated and in desperate search of normalcy.

Outside of crisis, the rainforests are big tourist draws, pumping needed money into the economy of the island.

“If Category 5 is the new normal, what happens when the next Maria hits?” I ask Guye, referring to the rainforests.

“We’d go to the point where we’d only have pioneers. They’re not the full-bearing trees, but the secondary forests,” he says, cranking the wheel and tapping the horn as we careen around a blind corner. “We’d have a break down in the fauna, river ecosystems would be lost because there would be less nutrients in the system.”

By uprooting and defoliating a huge percentage of the island’s trees, Maria dealt a serious blow to the forest’s ability to dampen the effects of future hurricanes. Plants like orchids and vines work in symbiosis with trees, forming the base of a thriving ecosystem for parrots, birds, lizards and tree frogs. These species make the rainforest a rich place to visit, but they are also part of a complex system that feeds water downstream, through hydroelectric generators to the island’s cities, towns and agricultural lands. 

“There are over 360 rivers on this island which won’t have shade anymore…it’s going to be a big issue,” UN emergency coordinator Daniele Barelli told me before we left the capital. “There’s going to be drought, dry spells and it’s also going to have implications on the production of any agricultural products.”

Globally, the stewardship of land has the potential to sap vast amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere, seriously curbing the effects of fossil fuels on global warming. A team of scientists recently did the math: preserving forests and wetlands has the capacity to absorb 11.3 billion tonnes of emissions per year — representing 37 percent of the emission reductions necessary to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2030.

The pickup lurches to a stop in front of the research station’s plundered solar panel unit. Eckelmann pulls out his pink Sony point-and-shoot for the trees, Durand a large pair of binoculars for the parrots. A duo of jaco parrots fly in formation overhead, but it’s the sisserou — the parrot that adorns the Dominican flag — that Durand hasn’t seen since the hurricane. Both parrots are found nowhere else on Earth. But while the jaco sticks together in groups to survive, the sisserou is solitary, and vulnerable.

“I think that species has received a devastating blow,” says Durand, deflated, as he peers through his binoculars into the shredded canopy.

A single gunshot rings out from the citrus grove.

“Poacher,” whispers Durand as he bolts down the road in pursuit. 

The Indigenous edge

Three weeks after the hurricane, the UN Secretary-General flew into Dominica’s Kalinago Territory, landing in an elementary school field aboard a white UN helicopter. Alongside Guterres was Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, in a public relations event that would be beamed around the world.

“Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total,” said Skerrit to a crowd of local media and public relations officers. “We have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future.”

It’s a new vision of the Dominican dream. For years, the national ethos had been one of making your mark on the world, achieving enough success to one day come back and stay. That dream is especially acute in the Kalinago Territory, a collection of eight hamlets strung out along 20 kilometres of rocky Atlantic coast. And while the current administration has done more to help the Indigenous residents than previous governments, many Kalinago remain unconvinced.

Before contact with the Europeans, the Kalinago travelled vast distances in long canoes, trading and raiding across the Caribbean. They farmed, fished and paid tribute to the maboyas or “evil spirits” that brought the hurricanes. The Europeans called them the “Caribs” — we owe “Caribbean” to that — and falsely attributed the bones the Kalinago kept of their ancestors to cannibalism. They were a warrior people who fought back — often successfully — against multiple European invasions. But like so many Indigenous peoples across the Americas, they were eventually pushed onto the reserve now known as the Kalinago Territory. Today, it is one of the poorest and most excluded areas of the island.

“Once you’re Kalinago, you're not supposed to make a move. You’re supposed to keep your mouth shut up and thank God your life,” says community organizer Loren Challenger. “What has happened is that the government did something that was smart but dumb on their part: they educated all of us.”

Many young Kalinagos have given up a future in subsistence farming to pursue a better-paid career in mainstream society — from part-time agricultural labourers working across Canada’s Niagara wine belt to IT professionals on neighbouring islands to doctors in the capital.

Challenger started earlier than most, going to high school in North Carolina and working his way up the corporate ladder in the airline industry. But a few years ago, he gave it all up to come back to Kalinago Territory and settle down. So when the government offered to subsidize the construction of hurricane-proof homes, Challenger bought one.

“The fastest way to get back is to pick up the pieces and try to build back a shelter over your head... but it is not guaranteed for the next hurricane season.”

The foundation of the vaulted bungalow still clings to a ridge overlooking the hamlet of Bataka, but the roof, walls and nearly all the family’s possessions are scattered across neighbouring Concord Valley.

“These waterproof barrels, shipping barrels, [were] sent all the way down the valley. My wife had all her undies all over the treetops. A guy saw one of my shoes in the river,” he tells me as we look out over the scarred village. “We lost so much.”

Before the storm, guidelines used Category 3 hurricanes as a benchmark. Even then, few government inspectors had the resources to properly enforce building codes. In one 2007 building program, the Caribbean Development Bank funded a government project that trained contractors to retrofit existing houses in the Kalinago Territory. According to Kalinago Chief Charles Williams, all the houses that were retrofitted fell down flat.

Now, with so much damaged or destroyed, those not in tents have put up shanties to stay dry. “The fastest way to get back is to pick up the pieces and try to build back a shelter over your head,” says Williams. “It gives you a symbol of relief, freedom and independence, but it is not guaranteed for the next hurricane season.”

Like many Indigenous peoples around the world, the Kalinago hold land communally. The system ensures ownership stays in the hands of the Kalinago, but without a land title to use as collateral at the bank, nobody can insure their homes.

“We’ve tried everything,” says Challenger. “It comes down to the land can never be passed down to any other organization. I even tried to get my brother, who’s in banking in Tennessee, to see if we can create a Kalinago bank. We’re trying to work on that now.”

For the last several years, international organizations like UNESCO have been trying to foster connections between outside experts and Indigenous communities. It’s an approach that’s meant to braid institutional support and hard science with Indigenous knowledge systems developed over millennia.

“It’s a new way of thinking for national governments,” says Nigel Crawhall, chief of the UNESCO Small Islands and Indigenous Knowledge section. “Governments are increasingly asked to be a facilitator of local efficiency.” Yet even with the growing support of the international and scientific community, convincing governments to move away from national targets like GDP and job growth can be extremely difficult.

While the scientific community continues to bolster its understanding of the planet’s shifting climate, hundreds of years of war and cultural assimilation have cut off much of the Kalinago’s accumulated wisdom, passed down from one generation to the next. Still, Maria threw what local knowledge survives into stark relief.

The winds were strong, but it was the flooding and landslides that killed in many communities across the island. In Kalinago Territory, not a single person was died. Their houses, built on steep but stable terrain, kept communities from getting washed away.

“It’s something that was passed on to us,” says Kamaly Dorsette, a recent returnee. “We don’t know we know it, but it’s there.”

In the days after the hurricane, while most Dominicans desperately awaited water purification systems, the Kalinago turned to the land: their trails became roadmaps of scattered knowledge, teaching them how to cross a river, climb a ridge and find a freshwater spring.

Meanwhile, Dorsette and Challenger — part of the younger, tech-savvy generation well versed with the logistics of doing business — reached out to their connections overseas to bring in shipments of food for the community.

Others banded into work crews to clear the territory’s roads. “We told them to tie the power lines,” one Kalinago community leader tells me. “In many [other] communities, weeks after, you couldn’t drive through.”

With communications and transportation cut across the island, isolation from the central government brought home the realization that the Kalinago can fend for themselves.

“Nobody knew we were on the map and we didn’t know they existed — yet we survived,” says Challenger. 

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Next to the prime minister's residence, Saint George Anglican Church lies in ruins. Roseau, October 13, 2017. Stefan Labbé / OpenCanada.org

At night, the steep hamlet of Bataka sits in near darkness, the glow of the police station casting a faint light across the valley. Dorsette and I are walking the winding roads towards the only emergency Wi-Fi hotspot on the east coast. When we get to the station we will find a jumble of farmers, government workers and teenagers, but along the road it’s mostly quiet. A family plays dominos, a dog barks and a warm breeze drifts in off the Atlantic.

“They say we used to have magic,” Dorsette says, looking ahead. “That we could tame the sea snake that followed us from Asia.”

It’s his favourite old story, he tells me, but he doesn’t remember it well.

He used to run a dance school on roller-skates and dabble as a mixologist for a celebrity chef. That was in London, where 20 years ago his parents sent him when they were struggling to get by. He was eight then, and ended up in English foster care before going on to get a degree in international business. A month before the hurricane, Dorsette finally returned to take care of his parents and open a guesthouse catering to hikers along the Wai’tukubuli Trail.

“If the younger generation, especially the ones that are educated, don’t come back to help build their country, who’s going to do it?” he says. “I can’t wait until I retire and come back down and expect something to be different.”

Like everyone else on this island, Dorsette’s dreams have been put on hold. Now he is focused on distributing relief supplies and slowly finding his place in the world he left behind.

We step through the dark. He tries to remember the old story, saying the snake protected the Kalinago and gave them their land. But when the strangers came, war followed and the snake fell asleep.

“We’ve lost our magic,” he says as the drone of the police station’s generator grows louder. “We’ve lost the ability to heal ourselves.”

Rebuilding 'Zion'

It’s late morning when the rain tapers off. Dorsette’s father, Earl, loads his pack with a container of leftover rice and large rodent bones, grabs his cutlass and picks his way up the road flanked with downed powerlines.

“On the road to ‘Zion,’” laughs Earl, using the family’s nickname for the farm. “And this?” he gestures to the leftovers. “For Snowball and Princess,” he says, referring to the family dogs.

Earl is in his late 50s, with a sinewy frame, long dreads and a delightful smoker’s chuckle. His pointed beard frames a complexion suggesting a life spent outdoors. Earl usually speaks slowly and deliberately, but when he talks about the hurricane or hunting, his voice rises and falls in the rich lilt of the local Creole.

“If the younger generation, especially the ones that are educated, don’t come back to help build their country, who’s going to do it?”

Today, the younger Dorsette has come along to pick up what he can from his father. “Before the storm, I used to come down here to learn, because I don’t know much about farming,” Kamaly tells me as Earl shows him how to split downed coconuts for the pigs. “I’m trying to learn to maintain the crops for when he decides he’s too old to do it.”

Dominicans have always depended on farmlandBefore Hurricane Maria, the average farmer would eat much of what he grew and then sell the rest to local markets or exporters. Through the export of bananas, citrus fruits and a variety of tubers, the island gained a reputation as the “food bowl” of the Eastern Caribbean.

Where once thick vines of passionfruit curled down the shaded slopes of Earl’s farm, coils of wire lie twisted under uprooted fig, mango and nutmeg trees. The seven to 10 bags of passionfruit he would pull out of the farm every week was one of the family’s main sources of income. Their cash crops ruined, small-scale farmers like Earl have fallen back on dasheen, a local variety of taro root and one of the most climate-change-resilient crops in the world.

“Forever a hurricane can blow. It just break off all the leaves and then the dasheen spring back up and you have all your dasheen underground,” says Earl as he points down to a soggy ravine at the bottom end of his farm.

Globally, a vast mosaic of small-scale farmers, fishers and forest-dependent communities produce more than half of the planet’s agricultural output. They represent 75 percent of the world’s poor and hungry and are some of the most vulnerable to climate change.

But while most small-scale farmers depend solely on rain-fed agriculture, Indigenous farmers like the Dorsettes have found opportunity along the blurry line between farm and forest. 

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Kalinago farmer Earl Dorsette collects downed coconuts to feed his pigs. Concord Valley, October 16, 2017. Stefan Labbé / OpenCanada.org

Nestled in a natural amphitheater, ‘Zion’ is the perfect perch to contemplate the destruction of Concord Valley. The winds that ate the woods reveal the once subtle contours running across the landscape. There’s nowhere to hide, not neighbour from neighbour, nor the local fauna from the family dogs.

“Mr. deadly you are, boy!” Earl deadpans to Snowball, scratching him behind the ear one last time.

The edges of the farm have turned into a hunting ground. As I follow the Dorsettes with my camera, Earl says the first thing to remember is to stay put. The dogs work as a team, one bolting into a thicket six shades of green; the other watching over the scene, waiting for the large rodent to suddenly emerge.

Picture a cat-sized guinea pig that bounds like a rabbit and fires off a desperate whistle when it’s running for its life. The Ecuadorians call it guatusa; in Belize, it’s the royal rat. Here in Dominica, it’s agouti, at once an agricultural pest and prized bush meat. The wild fruits, seeds and greens, once so plentiful in the forest, lie rotting on the ground. That has pushed agouti to plunder the island’s ravaged farms, creating what conservationists say is a transient abundance too small to feed the whole of Bataka, let alone the island’s urban population. Still, farmers like Dorsette have increasingly relied on the small mammal as a source of protein.

We tip-toe across the broad trunk of an uprooted bread fruit tree and past ravaged cacao. High up in the valley, we reach a small landing carved out of the hillside. I take in all that’s left of a small farmer’s shack — a pile of twisted roofing, a busted watch and rotting clothing. 

Something rustles behind me. I spin around as a flurry of bristling fur and black beady eyes darts out of the bushes and plunges down a muddy embankment to my left.

“Get the ’gouti!” shouts Earl, a few steps away. Kamaly bounds after it, wildly swinging a wooden staff over his head. As he levels a blow his feet slip out from under him and he plows into the mud. The agouti escapes.

This tiny drama is repeated, time and again — Princess and Snowball corralling the rodent in a circular pursuit until one of the Dorsettes can get close enough for the fatal blow, or a dog catches hold of a foot.

Today, it’s Princess’s turn. She’s so quick, I don’t even know she has caught one until I nearly step on the agouti’s hind legs. Earl tightens his grip on the cutlass, raising it into the air as a grin washes over his face.


Islands loom larger than life, living contradictions at once conjuring paradise and isolation, the ultimate biological laboratory. And while they can form a special place in our psyche, they are also easily forgotten.

In the days following Hurricane Maria back in late September, international news outlets painted Dominica as a poster child of disaster — the widespread destruction, hunger crisis and looting sprees making it an ideal candidate for a quick hit news item on the frontier of climate change. Perhaps it was too small, too out-of-sight to warrant sustained attention. As one humanitarian worker put it to me, “It’s a big disaster, but a small emergency.”

Because of their finite resources and limited land, the way islands respond to hurricanes offers a microcosm of diverging world views, where tensions between rebuilding or migrating, climate resilience versus avoidance, and new and old economic solutions are confronted in an urgent, direct way.

In the months since Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean, the visceral impact of the two catastrophic hurricanes has galvanized a new urgency amongst politicians and policy makers, although it is unclear how long the attention will last.

At November’s UN climate conference, island nations banded together to demand the world reduce its emissions before it’s too late. A few weeks later, Caribbean leaders took that call a step further, announcing the launch of a new public-private coalition that would create the world’s first “climate-smart zone.” By immediately implementing a US$8 billion climate investment plan, the Caribbean Climate-Smart Coalition looks to revolutionize the region’s energy system by rapidly scaling renewable energy and bolstering infrastructure with nature-based approaches.

Such measures may help speed up changes to the way the world consumes energy, but leadership on climate action was not necessarily a position islanders chose — it is one that landed, one terrifying night in September, on their doorstep. 

As one Dominican official put it to me in Creole, “Sa mwen douvant sa’w derriere.”

“My turn has simply come first.”