When Donald De Castro was a boy in the 1940s, mangroves lined the shore and cays in front of his family’s small waterfront home in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).

“We used to do a lot of fishing in mangroves,” the 86-year-old recalled. “They had snappers and they had different kinds of fish; we caught good fish.”

Today, most of those mangroves don’t exist. They have been replaced by land reclaimed to expand the capital of Road Town, which now boasts a cruise ship village, marinas lined with hundreds of yachts, and office buildings housing the territory’s bustling financial services industry.

The modern scene illustrates a dramatic economic shift since World War II that has brought unprecedented prosperity to the British overseas territory, a string of small islands that are home to around 30,000 people.

The missing mangroves, however, illustrate the ecological consequences of those changes.

Since De Castro’s youth, scientists have learned the importance of mangrove systems in providing wildlife habitat, preventing erosion, and protecting people from storm surge and swells. But as other countries around the world have enacted wetland protections — an endeavor that is seen as increasingly important for island nations as climate change threats intensify — successive BVI governments have not followed the trend.

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Faced with pressure from local and foreign developers alike,governments have passed no legislation or policy dedicated to protecting mangroves and other wetlands. Partly as a result of this inaction, the destruction has continued — even after a 2006 study found that nearly half the mangroves on Tortola, the territory’s most populous island, had been destroyed since the 1950s.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma highlighted the longstanding problem by devastating most of the remaining mangroves and leaving several previously depleted systems unable to grow back on their own.

Since then, a sort of first-aid project has been launched for the trees: Non-profit organizations are working with the government on a nursery program that replants seedlings in areas where they didn’t regenerate naturally after the storm. But the work relies heavily on outside grants that could dry up soon, and long-term local funding for such projects is limited — especially since the current government of Premier Andrew Fahie disbanded the territory’s fledgling Climate Change Trust Fund board shortly after coming to power in 2019.

BVI government officials say mangrove protections will come soon as part of broader planned environmental reforms. But such promises are not new, and pressure from local landowners and foreign developers means that such laws could be difficult to push through the legislature at a time when the BVI is still struggling to build back from Irma amid new economic woes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, deforestation continues, leaving the remaining mangroves increasingly vulnerable to the intensifying effects of climate change.

As the territory recovered from Hurricane Irma in late 2018, a businessman from abroad cut a wide swath of mangroves in Paraquita Bay, Tortola, in order to salvage a yacht. Government officials were upset, but they said at the time that there was little they could do to penalize him because the territory lacks a law that protects mangroves and other wetlands.

Photo by Freeman Rogers | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“I’m watching the degradation of the environment,” said Dr. Cassander Titley-O’Neal, director of the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands, adding that destroying mangroves also damages coral, sea grass and other underwater ecosystems in ways that often go unnoticed. “What you’re seeing on land is only but a snippet of it. What is happening below, that’s a whole other story.”

Economic transformation of the territory

Over the course of De Castro’s lifetime, the BVI has transformed from a string of quiet fishing and farming villages into an international financial services center and tourist destination that hosted as many as 1.1 million visitors annually before the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Irma.

Along the way, its population has increased 400%, from around 7,500 mostly British Virgin Islanders in the 1950s to more than 30,000, about half of whom are foreigners from around the world.

In the process, fortunes have been made. But the rapid growth has also brought environmental pressures that often are most visible along the territory’s coastlines.

By De Castro’s 25th birthday, the BVI’s mangroves were still largely untouched. But change was in the wind.

The first domino was the Cuban Revolution, which in 1959 ended Cuba’s booming US tourism industry and sent Americans looking for new playgrounds in the region.

Five years later, United States entrepreneur Laurance Rockefeller founded the Little Dix Resort on Virgin Gorda, the BVI’s second most populous island.

The construction of that resort — an unassuming string of villas mostly constructed behind a beachfront vegetation line — is still considered a turning point heralding the start of tourism in the territory.

Shortly thereafter, a United Kingdom developer named Kenneth Bates launched a bigger project that he hoped would span more than two-thirds of the sparsely populated island of Anegada as well as a large section of Tortola. The Tortola part of the plan required replacing the mangroves of De Castro’s youth with a landfill for a 60-plus-acre development that would be largely off-limits to locals.

Shortly after work started, protests derailed the plan. But the government borrowed from the United Kingdom to buy out Bates and took over the landfilling process, laying the initial groundwork for the Road Town that exists today.

“If you wanted to know when the mangroves started to get lost, the trick would be to find out when the first backhoe came on the island,” BVI ecologist Clive Petrovic said, adding that he believes this happened around the time the aborted Bates development got under way.

“Not only did that begin the period when they could actually do reclamation [of land] and literally take away mangroves, but it also meant that the population and the economy were increasing, which meant that there was more waste, more sewage, more chemicals, more stuff being dumped,” he explained.

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In the next 60 years, foreign investors would help continue to fuel a tourism development boom. The Bates fiasco had discouraged mega-resorts, but smaller hotels and resorts were built across the territory.

A new form of tourism also developed in parallel on the water. In 1969, US Navy veteran Charlie Cary and his wife Ginny Cary used six sailboats to launch a charter company called The Moorings.

The model — which was facilitated by the BVI’s geography and easy sailing conditions — was a success, and the Carys’ business expanded quickly from its base in Road Harbour.

In the late 1970s, cruise ships arrived as well, bringing a mass-tourism industry that has since expanded rapidly.

The completion of a new cruise pier park shortly before Hurricane Irma helped draw a record number of visitors to the territory. In 2016, nearly 700,000 cruise ship passengers arrived along with more than 400,000 overnight visitors. 

The territory hopes to reach these levels again after COVID-19 travel restrictions lift in the coming months, in spite of a dismal showing of about 305,000 visitors in 2020 that may drop further when the 2021 numbers are published.

Financial services paradise

While BVI tourism blossomed in the 1980s, the second modern pillar of the economy emerged simultaneously. 

Early in the decade, a small group of attorneys from the UK, US and the Caribbean worked together to draft the 1984 International Business Companies Act, which laid the groundwork for the territory’s financial services industry.

But again, it took outside forces to accelerate the sector’s takeoff. In 1989, the US invaded Panama and subsequently arrested General Manuel Noriega, rocking investors’ confidence in what had been one of the major providers of offshore companies.

Shortly thereafter, BVI incorporations were flourishing. By 2007, more than 400,000 companies were incorporated there for tax purposes and other benefits, and industry fees were bringing in more than half of the government’s revenue.

‘Mosquito-infested things

The economic success in both new industries fueled rapid development. As a result, the territory’s mangroves were steadily replaced by reclaimed land, marinas, hotels, offices, homes, restaurants, roads and other infrastructure.

In the early days, few paid much attention, according to Petrovic.

“Humans have always looked at wetlands as nasty, mosquito-infested things that you want to get rid of, and that’s not only true here,” the ecologist said, adding that he noticed a similar attitude about the Florida Everglades when he lived in that state decades ago.

But such thinking was changing even as the BVI’s tourism economy was getting off the ground in the 1960s. 

Around the world, scientists were learning more about the importance of mangroves, which provide habitat and spawning ground for marine life and birds, as well as preventing erosion and protecting human populations from storm swells and other impacts from the ocean. 

In 1971, an international treaty called the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was signed in Iran, and partner countries increasingly began implementing policies and legislation designed to protect wetlands.

The shift in thinking was not lost on BVI environmentalists. A 1976 report by the non-profit Island Resources Foundation warned that the recent landfilling around Road Town had resulted in “the near complete removal of a once extensive mangrove area, and with it a sizable bird nesting and fish breeding nursery area. The declining fish yields experienced by local fishermen must at least be partly contributable to the removal of these mangroves.”

Despite such findings, the BVI did not enact comprehensive wetland protections, and destruction continued with few restrictions.

Thirty years later, in 2006, BVI biologist Dr. Lianna Jarecki assessed the damage. With a team of students, she examined aerial photographs from the 1950s and compared them to the present day.

They found that at least 47% of the mangrove coverage that existed on Tortola in the 1950s had been removed as a result of coastal development. Of 33 wetland sites on the island in the 1950s, 17 had been fully reclaimed, nine had been partially reclaimed, and the remaining seven had seen minor encroachment.

The review found minimal destruction on Anegada, a largely undeveloped coral island with an unusually flat topography that was home to about 84% of the territory’s total mangrove coverage in the 1950s. 

But on the other islands — all of which, like Tortola, are mountainous because of their volcanic origins — some 35% of mangrove wetlands had been at least partially filled.

Stalled reforms

By the time of Dr. Jarecki’s study, various BVI government agencies were recommending wetland protections. Few were ever implemented.

management plan and national policy drafted in 2005 would have designated salt ponds and other wetlands as environmental protection areas. 

But the document was never finalized or adopted, and the current Natural Resources minister, Vincent Wheatley, a first-time legislator who took office in 2019, said he had never seen it.

A broader measure got under way in the early 2000s when the newly launched Law Reform Commission met with a committee of stakeholders and drafted a comprehensive environmental management bill that would modernize several outdated laws and bring them together under one legal umbrella overseen by a board.

Since then, various iterations of the bill have been promised by successive governments, but none has ever brought it before the House of Assembly, the territory’s legislature.

Petrovic, who served on the stakeholder committee in the early 2000s, recalled fellow members expressing doubt that the bill would ever become law.

“I do remember some of the people that were there, who were more knowledgeable about government processes than [me], saying at various points, ‘Well, you know, we could do all this: Government’s not going to pass laws that take away authority of individual ministers to do things,’” Petrovic said.

Elected leaders have also sidelined other efforts that could protect mangroves.

Currently, less than one percent of mangrove, salt pond and beach ecosystems on Tortola and nearby islands are protected, according to a 2015 review by the non-profit Island Resources Foundation. New protected areas proposed in a 10-year plan the government adopted in 2008 would add to that tally considerably, extending protections to at least 30% of the territory’s nearshore ecosystems and habitats. But few of the areas proposed in 2008 have been declared 14 years later.

And although the territory’s 2004 Physical Planning Act requires an environmental impact assessment for developments carried out in a wetland or coastal zone, the rule is routinely circumvented by small-scale land reclamation that takes place under the radar of under-resourced enforcers.

To address such issues, Dr. Titley-O’Neal said the BVI urgently needs “stronger environmental legislation for the protection of mangroves and stronger political will.”

“Why it hasn’t happened, I can’t speak for the government,” she added.

Hurricane Irma

The cost of the government’s longstanding inaction was highlighted when Hurricane Irma struck the BVI in 2017. The eye of the storm passed directly over the territory as one of the most powerful Category 5 storms in history, taking five lives and devastating infrastructure, homes and other buildings.

Such a powerful storm would have caused major damage in the best of circumstances, but scientists said the missing mangroves could have helped absorb the force of the storm surge and swells that battered the coastlines.

“For sure it would have protected places like Road Town, which has lost a lot of mangroves,” Dr. Jarecki added. “These wetlands act like sponges, right? When it rains that hard, the water flows into them, and they can hold a lot of water. But once they’re replaced by concrete, there’s no sponge anymore. … So I think a lot of the flooding we see in Road Town and other places as well — East End, for another place — is a result of having a loss of huge stands of mangroves.”

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Nor did Irma spare mangroves that had survived the previous 60 years of deforestation. 

Some 90% of the remaining mature red mangroves — the most common coastal species in the BVI — were killed in the storm, according to a preliminary study by the non-profit Jost Van Dykes (JVD) Preservation Society and University of New Hampshire biologist Dr. Gregg Moore.

Land reclamation has destroyed many of the mangrove systems that once lined the shores of Sea Cows Bay on Tortola. As a result, the remaining mangroves have struggled to grow back after Hurricane Irma.

Photo by Freeman Rogers | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Dr. Moore has worked on post-hurricane mangrove restoration projects across the Caribbean, but he said the BVI’s situation was the worst he has seen.

“In all those [other] cases, there were ample recruits — baby seedlings, if you will — that we could transplant, or we could harvest from trees, to kickstart a restoration initiative,” Dr. Moore said, adding, “The BVI situation was alarming because that recruitment potential is all but vanished. And that continues to be a concern.”

To help fill the gap, the JVD Preservation Society worked with Dr. Moore and a regional non-profit called BirdsCaribbean to launch a mangrove nursery on Jost Van Dyke in 2019.

The following year, the society collaborated with the government and other partners to build another at the local H. Lavity Stoutt Community College on Tortola using around $125,000 in grant funding from the local non-profit Unite BVI.

Another $450,000 in grants from the United Kingdom’s Darwin Initiative is helping to fund a separate nursery on Anegada and other planting efforts in conjunction with the territory’s National Parks Trust.

The programs have worked with community volunteers to replant at least 1,600 seedlings in hard-hit areas around the territory, and 6,000 more are currently growing in the nurseries, according to Ms. Zaluski.

Mangrove nursery technician Shaquille Lewis collects mangrove seedlings at a nursery established last year at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College on Tortola. The facility’s workers grow propagules from healthy mangrove systems and work with volunteers to transplant them in other areas where the trees have been unable to regenerate since they were destroyed in Hurricane Irma.

Photo by Freeman Rogers | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Like Ms. Zaluski, Dr. Moore said he believes the nursery program could go a long way in saving depleted mangrove ecosystems.

“In the BVI right now, for me, it’s been probably one of the crowning examples of multiple levels of support from property owners to school-aged kids, right up to NGOs and the government,” he said of the replanting program. “And I think that they are going to stick to that. And I certainly hope that’s the case.”

But even as they plant new seedlings, destruction has continued in several areas because of land reclamation and other development.

“That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important that we get some kind of legislation protecting mangroves,” Ms. Zaluski said of the ongoing destruction. “Because obviously right now there’s nothing protecting them. And so that certainly is still going on.”

Funding

Continued funding for the replanting projects, which rely heavily on grants obtained in the wake of Irma, is not assured.

“One of my concerns is when this grant funding runs out, what is going to happen after?” Dr. Titley-O’Neal said, adding that the National Parks Trust knows firsthand the difficulties of funding such projects after operating a previous replanting initiative that it launched in 1999. 

Without a steady funding source, she said, programs like mangrove plantings would have to continue relying heavily on grants.

“It’s a vicious cycle for organizations like the trust and for what the college is trying to do, because funders’ goals and their opportunities change,” she said.

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The pandemic has also forced the trust to reduce its staff members’ working hours because of a lack of revenue from the tourism sector.

“The funding part is critical,” she added. “And that’s why I said political will. It’s one thing to say it, but if you’re not supporting it, the talking is not going to get the job done.”

Climate change fund

The previous government administration — which was voted out of office in 2019 — had been working to establish a steady funding mechanism for projects like the mangrove nurseries. Under its leadership, the BVI in 2015 became the first country or territory in the Caribbean to pass a legal framework for a climate change trust fund.

The fund — which was to be supplemented with a percentage of a new $10-per-head tourist levy — was designed to raise donor funding that would be controlled by an independent board.

That board was appointed in 2017 and got to work shortly thereafter, and the government began collecting the $10 levy from tourists the same year. But the eco-levy earnings never made it to the fund, andleaders have said the money has continued to accumulate pending a legislative amendment needed to enable the transfer.

Meanwhile, the unpaid board members donated their own money as they got to work on a manual governing their operations.

But even that progress has now been set back. Shortly after the current government was elected in February 2019, it unceremoniously disbanded the board.

When this decision was investigated last year during an ongoing inquiry into potential corruption in the territory, Premier Andrew Fahie said it was part of his government’s larger plan to replace the members of all statutory boards.

But the inquiry commissionwhich is due to complete its report by April, suggested that the move was unlawful: The law establishing the fund allows elected ministers to remove board members for specific reasons — such as conflict of interest or misconduct — but doesn’t give broad leeway to remove them unilaterally, the commission pointed out.

Fahie said that his government plans to appoint new members soon. But to date, it has not done so.

Vincent Wheatley, the Natural Resources Minister, said in a September interview that he too expected the board to be reappointed soon, but he directed further questions on the topic to the Premier, who assumed control of the body shortly after the 2019 election.

Fahie did not respond to requests for comment.

Coming soon?

Despite the lack of reforms, Wheatley has been vocal about the importance of mangroves since coming into office in February 2019.

In an interview, he explained that the COVID-19 pandemic had delayed planned action in this regard, and he echoed past promises that mangroves will be protected.

“They will be declared soon environmentally sensitive species,” Wheatley said. “So once that is done, you can’t just go and destroy them anymore. We would then come with penalties for the destruction.”

He also said the long-promised environmental management bill is on the way, along with another law designed to protect sensitive species.

The first-time legislator stopped short of promising a timeline for either measure, but he said he has been frustrated about the lack of existing legal tools for protecting mangroves.

Recently, he took to Facebook to complain about mangrove-cutting along a shoreline on Tortola. Residents promptly criticized him for complaining without taking further action. But in a September interview, he explained that his hands were tied because of a lack of legal protections for the trees.

“So I’ve got to complain and ask persons not to do it,” he said. “I have no legal footing to penalize you for doing it or anything. That’s why I was complaining.”

He attributed the historical deforestation largely to ignorance. 

“People just didn’t understand that destroying those mangroves was not a good thing to do,” he said.

Others, he said, have been motivated by financial gain. 

“We can’t allow that going forward,” he said. “So the two bills I mentioned to you should address all those issues and more going forward.”

Wheatley added that the government is also planning to declare at least five more protected areas in keeping with the 10-year plan adopted in 2008.

He said he didn’t know why previous governments didn’t take such steps, and his predecessor — former Natural Resources and Labour Minister Dr. Kedrick Pickering — declined to comment.

Effects of destruction

The destruction of mangroves has also been blamed for endangering the territory’s tourism industry, threatening one of the economic engines that led to their removal in the first place.

A 2015 environmental profile by the non-profit Island Resources Foundation mapped such effects on Tortola’s most popular beach, Cane Garden Bay.

“The loss of adjacent wetlands has resulted in heavy sedimentation in the bay, which has further deteriorated the coral reef fronting the beach,” the report stated. 

“As the reef continues to lose its structure and ability to act as a protective barrier from incoming waves, the chain of events that started with the infilling of wetlands years ago will most likely eventually degrade and even destroy the beach — the very reason why people visit Cane Garden Bay today.” 

Like Zaluski and Dr. O’Neal, Dr. Jarecki strongly advocated for more protections.

“I think mangroves that exist should be protected from development,” she said. “I mean protected from no bulldozers encroaching on them.”

But that doesn’t have to mean halting development altogether, she explained.

“You can build stuff on stilts,” she said, adding, “You can build things like docks on the outside of the mangroves and not put a bulkhead in. So you don’t have to put like a road or a walkway right up to the edge of the water. Leave the fringe.”

Dr. Jarecki added that she and Zaluski have also discussed “hybrid infrastructure,” where mangroves would be planted on the outside of existing concrete. 

“So taking a place where there’s a bulkhead and seeing if we can grow a fringe of mangroves in front of it, so that it adds an extra layer of protection from hurricanes and also from flooding and creates habitat that was once there and isn’t anymore,” she explained.

Education is also key, the experts said, adding that the community now widely understands the importance of wetland ecosystems.

“The language of mangrove conservation has really changed recently because of the impact of climate change,” Dr. Jarecki said. “The language is much more about the value of mangroves as infrastructure. … So I think that’s actually a big step forward, but what we really need are studies that show the impact of having mangroves in terms of protecting from climate change and flooding and what the monetary value of that is.”

But without stronger legal protections for mangroves and other wetlands, the scientists said, the future could be bleak as climate change brings new threats to an already struggling territory. Dr. Titley-O’Neal explained that losing mangroves is the tip of a much larger iceberg.

“If you don’t have mangroves, you don’t have seagrass beds, because what eventually happens is the sediment smothers and kills off the seagrass beds,” she said, adding that seagrass supports conch and other marine life. “So it’s like a domino effect.”


The investigations were possible in part with the support of Para la Naturaleza, Open Societies Foundation and Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL). The investigations were possible in part with the support of Para la Naturaleza, Open Societies Foundation and Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL).