Making climate refugees

Today, the focus is on recovering from the latest hurricane.

Dorian has hit and has left a wake of devastation. People are seeing some of the worst impacts, but not being shown the other side of the natural disaster; the man-made disaster has been as devastating, or perhaps even more so.

Sea level rise and global warming are making our home unlivable, yet the official response to these is pushing us farther out to sea without any mooring.

The Bahamas is a small island developing state that sits low and close to deceptively beautiful blue and green water.

Locally, we don’t really talk about climate change. Most of the young people do not take it seriously, though Dorian has markedly changed this.

Many folks believe it is a political ploy to smear their party, always hanging on to the destructive aspect of party politics. What is being revealed in the wake of Dorian is illuminating and nationally distressing as well as regionally divisive.

In 2017, hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated many Caribbean islands, from Dominica all the way up through Barbuda to Puerto Rico and Ragged Island.

The aftermath revealed a great deal about governments’ responses to climate change and how they are complicit in making climate refugees of their people.

The evidence is mounting that governments are choosing to disregard citizens’ common rights through various strategies and handing their lands over to international, multinational and green corporations that claim to be able to turn a profit on once nationally owned spaces converted to resort communities that belie the meaning of sustainable development and tourism.

We need to reread the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In 2017 when Irma smashed into Ragged Island, people were brought to Nassau. Government then turned around and declared it would use this as an opportunity to create the first green island in the country.

The outcry from some quarters was fast and sharp. Why waste money on a small island like this?

This could and has been said of many spaces. Today, nothing has happened. Ragged Islanders have all but been forgotten.

Ragged Islanders have fought tooth and nail to recover their island, their way of life, and their identity rooted in home spaces that are being taken away from them.

In the interim, government has declared Ragged Island uninhabitable; this means that they are not responsible for any of the plans they had given tremendous lip service to in the wake of the hurricane.

Dorian has come and in the scramble that has followed the lessons learned from Ragged Island have been overlooked.

There is now talk of building back the same way, but not allowing some spaces to rebuild. This is good on the one hand and bad on the other.

We do not want to build back the same way, and certainly some places should not be rebuilt where and how they were.

We have forgotten though human dignity is involved in this entire process. Officials dictate to instead of consulting with people.

As we move forward and good samaritans rush in and talk about putting up tent cities, we have obviously also forgotten the lessons learned from the post 2010 earthquake in Haiti that left many high profile international agencies abashed.

The failure of the tent cities and the fact that they further exacerbated a refugee crisis seems to have been overwritten like most of history; the man-made disaster in the wake of the natural disaster, showed how little attention is paid to social justice and human dignity.

Now we see how little attention is being paid to climate, environmental and spatial as well as social justice.

These are tossed out as people are herded into shelters with barely enough room to change one’s mind, then they are told they will not be allowed to go back home; then they are told that they will be sent to tent cities where there will be no regard for their human dignity, and they will be totally disconnected from their ability to fend for themselves, to make a living and to create some form of normalcy again.

The thinking that encourages such disregard for humanity seems based on a capitalistic ethos that says sell, animalize and create short-term wealth that will devastate the country in the medium term through crime, violence, discontent and mental ill health.

Governments’ thinking in the wake of natural disasters seems to be sell off and reap profit while destroying all ways of life.

The need to decolonize much of Caribbean thinking and governance seems obvious to many. Yet, to decision makers it is unnecessary. Barbuda and Ragged Island are clearly examples of worst practices.

Those most vulnerable before the storm have become doubly or trebly vulnerable since the storm and most of it results from man-made disasters of poor policy and a lack of clarity of what social, environmental, climate and spatial justice are about, coupled with neoliberal capitalism.

As Ragged Island was declared uninhabitable and Barbuda similarly razed of its people the time is being taken to steal from those who have invested their lives in building their place in the world. This kind of economic terrorism results in community devastation and deepening social chaos and violence.

The presumed ‘good’ intentions of some are worsening the climate refugee situation. The man-made policy change and land grab are using the natural disaster to justify creating an entire nation of climate refugees.

Climate refugees are those who have been unmoored by natural disasters and must seek refuge in a space not their home.

When their home is removed from them through act of law as in the Chagos Islands when Britain displaced Chagossians from Diego Garcia (Curtis 2003), or an act of nature like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (Cooper 2007; Klein 2007, 2008, 2017) that provided the space for social and spatial (IN)justice (Soja 2010, 2015).

David Harvey notes:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies, and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights. (Social Justice and the City, Harvey, 1973)

The built environment cannot exist without space: the two must work together in order for a people and culture to survive.

We need to consider what is really afoot when laws are made that act unconstitutionally but are not challenged because there’s no one to mount the charge.

Oil refineries, resorts, gated communities, bases can use the space of unsettlement to expand their ownership and the neoliberal policies can privatize the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few through blatant corruption that is claimed to be limited to the post colony but is powered from the center of commerce and control. (Comaroff and Comaroff 2007).

We need a new design to decolonize communal spaces from colonial-postcolonial injustice.

Greta Thunberg at the UN Climate Summit last week illustrates some of the disaster being undertaken through inactivity and bad policy, notwithstanding what the SDGs claim.

• Ian Bethell-Bennett is a professor at the University of The Bahamas.

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