Upon leaving Grenada after a visit during the U.S. invasion and occupation in October 1983, then-Secretary of State George Schultz looked out of his official jet at the lush greenery below and proclaimed, “What a lovely piece of real estate!”

Almost 22 years later this “lovely piece of real estate” is again commanding international attention — this time not because of an invasion by the world’s strongest military power, but because the tiny island nation was left almost barren by one of the most powerful storms ever to cross the Atlantic, Hurricane Ivan.

Hurricane Ivan devastates Grenada

The eye of the category 5 storm passed directly over Grenada on its path to the U.S., Sept. 7, 2004, battering the 133-square-mile island for 12 horrifying hours. The storm left two-thirds of Grenada’s 90,000 people homeless, caused the deaths of 39, and left a recovery price tag of $1 billion, more than twice the country’s annual budget.

Recovery is projected to be very long because the agricultural sector, including bananas and Grenada’s main cash crop, nutmeg, was laid to waste. Nutmeg trees will take between five and 10 years to reach maturity again.

In 1983, the U.S. hastily sought to build a regional coalition to facilitate the invasion and occupation of Grenada after an internal crisis resulted in the death of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and several others in top leadership. There was no such U.S. initiative to build the necessary international coalition to aid Grenada’s devastated population following Ivan.

The contrast between the U.S. attitude that spurred the invasion and its reaction to the hurricane did not escape keen observers in and outside of Grenada. Unlike the overwhelming might and speed with which the U.S. responded to Grenada’s internal crisis in 1983, the response to Ivan was slow and piecemeal. At first, the U.S. only promised a few thousand dollars in emergency relief. Later, upon Secretary of State Colin Powell’s brief stopover, it pledged $100 million total for Grenada, Jamaica, and Haiti — the three countries most affected by Ivan. It remains to be seen whether the pledge will fully materialize.

Climate change poses growing threat

A distinct feature of international relations has been that industrially developed countries disregard the interests of small nations like Grenada. Because there has been little attention on the part of several U.S. administrations, especially the Bush administration, to scientific evidence associating climate change with global warming, small countries and low-lying coastal areas around the globe are going to remain on the front lines of increasingly volatile climate fluctuations, resulting in more deadly natural disasters.

George W. Bush pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 because his administration claims there is no proof that global warming is causing a change in weather patterns. The Kyoto Protocol requires the world’s major polluters to combat global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through 2012. After years of wrangling, a weak and watered-down protocol took effect Feb. 16 without participation of the world’s worst polluter — the U.S.

While there is some debate among scientists on the extent of the impact of global warming, the strongest sentiments suggest that the phenomenon affects us directly with increasingly deadly results. Scientists and environmentalists argue that doing something about global warming will at least stabilize conditions. Doing nothing will doubtlessly maintain the status quo of environmental injustice.

According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1998 was the hottest year ever, 2002 the second hottest, and the past two decades the hottest since global records were first documented in 1860. “[H]eat waves, ice storms, and floods are but a hint of what future generations may endure if we don’t act now,” warned President Clinton in his State of the Union address in January 1999.

Island nations vulnerable

These issues are most urgent for a category of nations known as Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Scientists predict that warmer climates will trigger more violent storms and cause increased coastal erosion, threatening the very existence of low-lying islands such as Tuvalu in the Pacific and many islands and coastal areas around the world, including the Caribbean.

The next hurricane season is less than half a year away, and islands like Grenada do not know what that season will bring. Worse, many are unprepared. Six months after Ivan, Grenada’s economy remains in shambles, its economic base destroyed, its infrastructure in ruins. According to local doctors, many children still exhibit varying manifestations of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

SIDS like Grenada represent a group of countries vulnerable to both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. They are approximately 40 islands sprinkled around the world, with two big concentrations in the Caribbean and the Pacific. These are the most vulnerable of developing countries — in political, environmental and economic terms. This vulnerability is even more acute because such natural disasters are on the rise, according to a World Meteorological Organization report issued in Buenos Aires, Argentina, earlier this year.

Even aside from the disastrous South Asian tsunami, 2004 is on record as the most catastrophic year globally, with record numbers of deadly Pacific typhoons, 10 destructive storms in Asia and Japan alone, and back-to-back storms in the Philippines that killed hundreds.

The 2004 hurricane season caused more than $43 billion in damage in the U.S., in Caribbean nations such as Grenada, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, and on Hispaniola island, home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In Haiti, as many as 2,000 people perished in mudslides and flooding last September as a result of Hurricane Jeanne.

Organizing for change

Many SIDS (a significant block in the Americas) are beginning to organize to defend their interests. There is international recognition that the adverse effects of climate change are seriously impacting their well-being and, for some, their very survival.

In the recent UN-sponsored meeting of SIDS in Port Louis, Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, the main demand from the 2,000 participants was for the international community to give “necessary support to all efforts made by Small Island Developing States in their drive towards sustainable development.” The participants called for “greater support in coping with climate change, sea-level rise, and natural and environmental disasters.”

In recognition of the tragedies of the December earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated so many islands and coastal areas of the Indian Ocean, as well as last year’s hurricane season in the Caribbean and the Pacific, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a global early warning system to be set up as soon as possible. The Asian tsunami tragedy has brought closer attention to two active underwater volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean that could cause a similar catastrophe in the Caribbean basin, Central America, and U.S. coastal areas. Coral reefs, mangroves and other natural coastal defenses stressed by pollution and global warming make these areas even more vulnerable.

Unfair trade

Environmental injustice and issues of climate change and sea-level rise are but one aspect of the problems affecting small developing countries. Unfair trade has rendered poor countries at a disadvantage in their ability to prepare for and recover from natural disasters. Grenada and Indonesia — two countries severely affected by the 2004 Caribbean hurricane season and the tsunami disaster, respectively — account for almost 100 percent of the global nutmeg trade. The price of nutmeg has remained low over the past decades, and nutmeg farmers are some of the world’s lowest-paid agricultural workers. Grenada is presently considering whether the nutmeg industry is viable.

Due to their limited population and land resources, SIDS should be on the front line of fair trade and global economic justice struggles. But because of leadership that has yet to fully come to terms with the priority of such national and global questions, many Caribbean SIDS end up being manipulated into trading their votes in international bodies for less relevant issues such as the China/Taiwan question or supporting Japan on international whaling. For example, Japan has been providing economic assistance to seven small island nations (including Grenada) in exchange for pro-whaling votes within groups such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Solidarity needed

There is little international solidarity on issues of direct relevance to Caribbean SIDS, such as the World Trade Organization ruling that ended preferential treatment for Caribbean bananas in the European market. U.S. corporate banana interests (particularly the strong U.S. Chiquita lobby) forced the European Union to end this preference and pitted Caribbean growers against their counterparts in Central America, where U.S. transnational corporations have market control. The banana industry feeds most families in the Caribbean islands of Dominica, St. Vincent and St. Lucia.

Among the world’s developing nations, SIDS have special disadvantages. Like others, they are being hampered by capitalist globalization but they are also constrained by their limited size and population. Many SIDS find their quests for self-determination in trade or environmental protection thwarted as their interests come into conflict with those of developed countries.

Confronting imperialism

Grenada’s experience of a war with the mighty U.S. exemplifies these limits. After its enormously popular March 13, 1979, revolution, Grenada embarked on a path of self-declared socialist orientation, which ushered in unprecedented economic growth and a qualitative improvement in the living conditions of the average citizen. The revolution instituted many programs that directly benefited the working poor, such as a national literacy program, free education, universal free medical care, maternity leave with pay and laws respecting women’s rights in the workplace. New participatory democratic forms were instituted that allowed for open national debate on the economy and on the national budget. During this period Grenada had its first-ever conference on science and technology, which looked at, among other things, preparation for natural disaster and environmental protection.

This renewal of national spirit propelled Grenada as a self-made model, and the country was a magnet for and an example to Caribbean SIDS. After years of threatening to invade Grenada in order to end purported “communist influence” in the Caribbean, the U.S. exploited an internal power struggle in the Grenadian government and invaded the island in October 1983, resulting in the reversal of the revolution, the death of scores of Grenadians and 24 Cuban internationalist workers who were building the country’s first international airport. Grenadian patriots who perished defending their country are yet to be recognized, but the U.S. erected a monument at the airport for the 19 Americans killed in an operation appropriately dubbed Urgent Fury.

Sustainable growth an urgent challenge

Today, as Grenada continues to slowly rebuild in the wake of Ivan, many people are realizing that sustainable development for SIDS like Grenada is an extremely urgent undertaking. It requires both national and international mobilization of resources to protect the islands’ fragile environments, in order to achieve sustainable development and even to enable the population to survive.

However, these efforts cannot be accomplished without international conventions and regulations to address and redress global environmental, political and economic injustices, and also respect the self-determination of the developing countries, particularly the extremely vulnerable SIDS.

Martin Frazier (mfrazier@pww.org) is a PWW correspondent with a focus on African American/Caribbean/African affairs.