Challenges to Cultural Resilience in Island States

The opening ceremony of the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States. Apia, Samoa, August 31, 2014. (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

Recently, Hurricane Irma passed through the Caribbean and caused near total destruction on several islands. Barbuda was so damaged that there was a mass evacuation of residents to Antigua, with Prime Minister Gaston Browne referring to the island as “barely habitable.” Reports from other islands affected by Irma were equally distressing.

In the midst of the despair there is, however, a notable resolve to recover. The populations of the world’s island nations have routinely dealt with similar catastrophes, and have found ways to rebuild. The economic and environmental vulnerabilities of “small island developing states,” or SIDS, have been in the international spotlight at least since the United Nations convened a global conference in Barbados in 1994.

While the immediate focus post-Irma will understandably remain on the direct relief and recovery for the people impacted by the storms, islands can also rebound through forms of cultural expression. These can help to alleviate despondency, and provide the strength to move beyond destruction. Through these cultural expressions, future generations of islanders can also learn from past experiences. Yet such expression can just as easily be among the victims of catastrophes such as hurricanes if not fully appreciated and nurtured.

There have now been three international SIDS conferences, with further iterations in Mauritius in 2005 and Samoa in 2014. The Mauritius event saw discussion of the factors that can negatively impact the culture and heritage of these communities. The outcome document from Samoa, meanwhile, noted that the culture of island nations has positively influenced sustainable development. Progress on these outcomes has, however, often been hampered by a lack of sufficient follow-up research and analysis.

Cultural resilience of small island nation is impacted in at least four ways. These often have strong interactions with the more commonly noted vulnerabilities facing SIDS.

Indeed, the first major obstacle is environmental, primarily the threat of climate change and its associated risks, including sea level rises and increasing incidences of intense storms such as Irma. Some island communities have pursued drastic measures to address these threats, including relocation to protect against environmental instability. In 2014, for example, Kiribati purchased land in Fiji in order to relocate its threatened citizens.

In situations where whole communities relocate together, it may not be entirely detrimental to cultural preservation. There is, nonetheless, a great risk that practices unique to small nations will increasingly face marginalization as a result of these trends.

Second is the issue of external cultural penetration of island culture, which tends to be portrayed as primitive and inferior to others in media such as film and literature. Such messaging is detrimental to the cultural confidence of islanders, particularly impressionable children and young people. During the Mauritius SIDS meeting, delegations argued that island states needed to “influence the content of broadcast media so that positive images of small island developing state cultures are portrayed.” They also noted that “the transmission of cultural traditions to youth helps build a resilient society.” These sentiments remain relevant today.

The third challenge is mass tourism. While the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals view tourism as a mechanism for preserving local culture, when this culture is used as a means of entertaining visitors, rather than demonstrating a unique social connection and identity, preservation is jeopardized.

Tourism can also further dilute culture by creating a dependency dynamic in island societies, distorting their once rich links to past customs, tradition, and heritage. Island culture is just as, if not more, susceptible to the trend, reported in The Guardian this year, that “Many of the 1,052 destinations across the world that have been stamped with United Nations world heritage status struggle to strike the balance between the economic benefits of catering to visitors and preserving the culture that drew the recognition.”

Finally, urbanization processes can also exert a negative effect on SIDS. Urban settlements in small island states have typically not been designed to foster social interaction and have instead focused on facilitating economic activity. With more than 50% of the populations of SIDS now living in such urban settlements, their nature thus becomes a threat to the prevalence of traditional cultural expressions.

In recent years, the concept of sustainable urban development has sought to promote more social and cultural environments within these settlements. This includes “The New Urban Agenda” of the 2016 UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, which explicitly includes culture “as a priority component of urban plans and strategies.” This is an encouraging development if properly implemented.

Resilience Measures

While challenges to cultural resilience are many, strategies have been, and can continue to be, implemented to ensure that island culture is preserved in the face of extreme weather and other shocks.

The recent Caribbean Festival of Arts in Barbados represents one such effort. It aims to “depict the life of the people of the Region, their heroes, morale, myth, traditions, beliefs, creativeness, and ways of expression; show the similarities and differences of the people of the Caribbean generally; create a climate in which art can flourish so that artists would be encouraged to return to their homeland; and awaken a regional identity in Literature.”

Similarly, the Pacific Arts Festival, held across that region every four years, promotes the diverse cultures of its islands and aids in their preservation. It is also common for island nations around the world to hold their own individual celebrations of culture and heritage.

The role of the diaspora communities of island states has similarly contributed to the process of resilience through celebrations and activities related to music, dance, literature, cuisine, fashion, and carnival in their adopted homelands. Examples of this include New York City’s Caribbean Labor Day parade and Rhode Island’s annual Cape Verdean annual festival in the United States, as well as the Pacific Unity Festival in Sydney, Australia.

There are, furthermore, pragmatic connections to be made to other, seemingly competing values. In December 2015, for example, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing that culture contributes to a “strong and viable economic sector.” While global in focus, this has strong implications for the SIDS debate.

Looking at culture through an economic lens need not diminish its intrinsic importance to island states and their populations. It can even add to this, by encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit in preserving heritage through small business development and creative industry engagement. The Creative Mauritius Vision 2025 is a good example of a strategy that targets the economic dimensions of the arts and culture sector, while preserving the values that first built it.

Solutions such as these will be critical as island nations continue to face considerable sustainable development challenges. This includes Caribbean nations recovering from this year’s devastating hurricane season. The UN General Assembly’s upcoming consideration of a UNESCO report submitted by Secretary-General António Guterres on the relationship between culture and sustainable development will provide a timely opportunity for the international community to consider the case of small island states, where cultural expression and heritage is a vital avenue of resilience against the inevitable shocks to come.

Carlisle Richardson is former Ambassador of St. Kitts and Nevis to the United Nations, and a former Economic Affairs Officer of the UN, where he was one of the organizers of the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS). He is currently special adviser to ICLEI Oceania on SIDS.