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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

A viable solution to beach sand mining? / Montserrat.

Posted By: Gillian Cambers
Date: Wednesday, 15 September 1999, at 6:28 p.m.

Key words: building costs, construction industry, natural disasters, public awareness.

DESCRIPTION: Montserrat is a small (40 sq. miles) volcanic island in the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. In 1990 it had a population of about 10,000. Agriculture and tourism are the main industries. Beach sand mining had been a traditional practice for decades. A construction boom, associated with tourism, starting in the 1960's, combined with a local change over to stone (cement) houses, led to a huge demand for sand and aggregate and resulted in serious beach erosion. Legislation to control sand mining, introduced in 1970, was inadequately implemented. Hurricane David in 1979 compounded the problem, the hurricane caused serious beach erosion, as did the country's efforts to rebuild its infrastructure - which necessitated taking more sand from the eroded beaches. Proposals to control the mining and utilize offshore sand sources were prepared but never implemented. Ten years later another hurricane (Hugo in 1989) resulted in a repeat of the erosion/infrastructure-rebuilding scenario. Finally, after two devastating hurricanes, measures were taken to control sand mining and try to conserve what was left of the beaches. Between 1990 and 1993, a strategy evolved which had several components: (1) a new crusher was purchased for the quarry, so there was an alternative sand source for sale (this alternative sand was suitable for all construction uses except the final finishing/waterproofing for which the rounded beach sand is locally preferred); (2) local contractors and builders were involved in testing the quarry sand and learning about its use; (3) professional organizations e.g. architects, engineers were involved in the testing process; (4) all the beaches were closed to mining except for one little used beach where a permit system was introduced and sand was stockpiled and available for purchase for waterproofing purposes only; (5) Government led by example and used quarry sand in all its projects; (6) there was an extensive public education process. In addition a new government was elected in 1992 who were willing to take a chance on the 'sand mining' issue. This combination of measures and political will resulted in control of beach sand mining, a beach monitoring programme showed the beaches increased in volume over the period 1990-1994. Beach sand mining was finally under control.

In July 1995, the volcano on Montserrat erupted and there followed 3 years of serious volcanic activity, 60% of the population fled to other countries, the remaining 40% were relocated to the northern third of the island, the 'safe zone.' The capital city, the port, the airport and the quarry were all in the unsafe zone and inaccessible. Sand mining started again on the few available beaches. In 1998 the volcanic activity subsided, although it has not completely stopped. Residents are returning slowly, although half of the island is still unsafe for human habitation. A rebuilding effort is underway. Aid funded projects use imported sand, but old habits die hard and people are turning once again to the beaches despite the existence of large, new, volcanic deposits of sand along some of the old river valleys and mountain slopes.

STATUS: This wise practice was being implemented until a natural disaster interrupted the activity.

LONG TERM BENEFIT: The practice had begun to result in some long term benefit. The beaches had increased in volume, although it is difficult to prove cause and effect here, because some of the beach accretion may also have been a result of post-hurricane recovery. Other long term benefits related to improved construction methods - beach sand, particularly when not properly washed, is not a good construction material because of corrosion and other problems. One beach was sacrificed to sand mining, but this was a very exposed, little visited beach.

CAPACITY BUILDING AND INSTITUTIONAL STRENGTHENING: Design and implementation of this wise practice resulted in several government agencies working together and integrating their efforts. They also had to work closely with private sector interest groups and the man on the street wanting to build his house.

SUSTAINABILITY: Had it not been for the volcanic crisis, the wise practice may have been sustainable in the long term. It was an effort undertaken by the country as a whole and while several outside agencies (UK Government, UNESCO COSALC, OECS-NRMU) assisted at various times, the project was initiated, implemented and owned by the country/government. It was supported by the political directorate and by the people. However, it should be recognized that it had taken a long time to get to this stage - about 15 years and 2 major hurricanes. The wise practice implementation was interrupted by the volcanic crisis, this showed that 3-4 years of implementing the wise practice was not sufficient to permanently change people's attitudes. Perhaps generations are needed before we can claim to have changed attitudes. This also illustrates the fact, as indeed has been shown by other example wise practices, that wise practices have to be dynamic in nature and able to continually evolve.

TRANSFERABILITY: The essence of this wise practice - to control/stop beach sand mining and put in places alternative sources of building aggregate - is transferable to other countries. The actual methods Montserrat used may or may not be applicable to other countries. But certainly some other countries in the Caribbean region could learn from Montserrat's example e.g. showing by example, involvement of special interest groups and the man on the street, etc. For instance one of the main reasons why there has been so little success in controlling beach sand mining in the region is due to the perception that control measures will result in a significant increase in building costs. Obviously this perception has considerable political ramifications. However, the Montserrat case showed that for a modest house costing about US$40,000 requiring 38 cubic yards of sand, the cost differential for quarry sand over free beach sand was 1.2%.

CONSENSUS BUILDING AND PARTICIPATORY PROCESS: The wise practice evolved over a 2- 3 year period, and there was time to build consensus and make sure everyone was involved. For instance the first time that quarry sand was put on sale, there was a public outcry about the price, which was subsequently reduced. Sand became a major discussion topic in Montserrat as a result of the education campaign. During one visit to Montserrat in 1994, a taxi driver started telling me about the beaches and the changes in the mining activities without knowing about my interest.

EFFECTIVE AND EFFICIENT COMMUNICATION PROCESS: The process was effective. However, it is somewhat easier to have an effective dialogue in a small island of 10,000 people than in a larger community.

CULTURALLY RESPECTFUL: Beach sand mining is a traditional practice in Montserrat and many other Caribbean islands. People have always taken sand from the beaches, but usually in small quantities. It is only in the last 2 decades has there been a major move to cement houses and hence the need for large quantities of sand. One of the main reasons why it is difficult to convince people about the environmental damage caused by sand mining relates to the fact thatthis is a traditional practice. They view the sea as being a limitless supplier of sand and fail to realise that a few bucket loads taken on a weekly basis in the past cannot be equated to the removal of truckloads of sand day after day.

GENDER AND SENSITIVITY ISSUES: These are not particularly relevant in this case, although in some islands, women traditionally collect sand from the beaches and pile it by the roadside for collection. So in these cases alternative sources of income need to be identified when beach sand mining is controlled/stopped.

DOCUMENTATION: This wise practice has been fully documented:

Sand mining: a position paper from Montserrat. A. Gunne-Jones, W. Christopher. 1997. In Managing beach resources in the smaller Caribbean islands. Ed. G. Cambers. Workshop papers. Coastal region and small island papers 1, UPR/SGCP-UNESCO, 269 pp.

Montserrat: controlling beach sand mining. A. Gunne Jones. 1998. In Coastal Seas. The Conservation Challenge. J.R. Clark. Blackwell Science. 134 pp.

EVALUATION: The wise practice was effective for a short time, whether it can be revived and redesigned now that the volcanic crisis is abating remains to be seen.

GENERAL DISCUSSION: This example wise practice calls to mind the question of how long does it take for a wise practice to become fully sustainable, so that it can continue and evolve without any outside help. In the case of Montserrat, the unwise practice - uncontrolled large scale sand mining - had been taking place for at least 2 decades. While the wise practice - controlled mining and use of alternatives - had been in effect for about 3 years. While 3 years was not sufficient to change attitudes, the unfortunate reality is that most aid projects have a 3-5 year time period. The time scale for wise practice implementation is inevitably a long one.

Another interesting factor relates to why Montserrat is the only country in the small eastern Caribbean islands to have taken effective measures to control sand mining. Others have tried but with little success. Possibly this relates to the fact that Montserrat was hit by 2 major hurricanes within a decade and the political timing was right with a new relatively young government coming to power.

It is thought that one of the major reasons why Montserrat?s approach to sand mining worked - at least for 3 years - was due to the fact that EVERYONE was involved in the process, from the man on the street to the taxi driver, from the small scale builder and owner/operator trucker to the large construction companies, and ultimately to the government. So it was more than a public-private partnership, it was a collective activity involving all sectors of society.

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