Challenges of “Progress”


Watching a TV program about Madagascar last night, I realized how difficult it must be to run a country – even one as small and poor as the former French colony.

So many interests are in conflict.

In Madagascar, for example, substantial riches are buried beneath the earth and hidden in the dense woods, but to exploit them you must endanger the island’s unique creatures and primeval forests prized by scientists and conservationists.

Meanwhile, the human inhabitants (photo) scratch out a primitive existence, victims of their own misguided traditions and beliefs – and centuries of exploitation. Barely able to find enough food for survival, the people are even afflicted by such forgotten diseases as the Black Death.

The easy answer to Madagascar’s problems might be development – mining for example. But the side effects could be disastrous for the unique ecology.

A less damaging answer might be a robust tourism industry, with special emphasis on the environment. But the tourists who visit the island now have apparently brought few benefits and some unwelcome changes.

As I watched the program, I thought about Jamaica.

Growing up in “the country,” I enjoyed an idyllic childhood. But there were drawbacks.

When we lived in Malvern, for example, the nearest hospital was some 20 miles away. down the serpentine road that wound around the side of the Santa Cruz Mountain to Black River. The nearest dentist was on top of a neighboring mountain – in Mandeville – not that far as the crow flies but 30 miles by road.

We had no electricity or piped-in water. We lit oil lamps at night and pumped water from a concrete “tank” (in America, it would be called a cistern, I suppose) to a converted oil drum on the roof of our house. Gravity provided water for our bathroom.

Water had to be boiled before we could drink it safely, and we had no ice. We relied on”cooling jars,” made of clay, instead.

Yet we were better off than most of the people around us. Many  of them drew their water from their tanks with a bucket on a rope and had to make do with outdoor latrines.

I imagine the island is different today. Just about everyone must have electricity and running water by now.  But at what price, I wonder.

The environment has been ravaged by bauxite mining, and aluminum rooftops glare blindingly in the sunshine.  Tourism (with all the good and bad it implies) is a major – if not the major – industry.

Progress has brought benefits, of course. Without it, the exploding population could not have been accommodated. But it is hard on Mother Nature.

Now, more damaging projects are being contemplated – opening the Cockpit Country to bauxite mining, for example.

And Jamaica’s leaders have to face the question: When does development do more harm – irreversible harm – than good?

More on Madagascar

The plague in Madagascar

The threat to Jamaica

More on Cockpit Country

Madagascar’s history