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What Can We Learn from Unsustainable Development in Paradise?

By Lili Steffens | May 3, 2017

Who first coined the phrase, “It’s a small world”? I’ll wager that whoever it was, surely they would never have envisioned cramped and encroached upon much of our planet has become. Despite the multitude of warnings, business and society overall seem to ignore the inevitability unsustainability we face. Where real estate developments are concerned, there’s no more clear example than island environments. Here’s a brief take on sustainability and the problems we all face from the perspective of island environments – those microcosms of human development that reveal the acute situation.

Antananarivo - Mahamasima Stadium

Antananarivo - Mahamasima Stadium and Anosy lake, Madagascar - CC 3.0

The Disaster That is Madagascar

Once a veritable forest paradise, this island off the east coast of Africa is home to 21 million people and eight unique plant families, four unique bird families, and five unique primate families, including 50 species of lemur found nowhere else on the planet. Thanks in part to the fact Madagascar gained its independence from France in 1960, but still operates like a colony, only 17 percent of the island’s original vegetation remains. Cattle grazing, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, and overdevelopment on a massive scale have put one of the planet’s most precious ecosystems in peril. The extinction of the Alaotra Grebe, a black-and-yellow water bird, extinct because of fishermen's nets and non-native carnivorous fish, signals a kind of accelerated death for an island of unbelievable natural beauty and potential.

This National Geographic story about Madagascar’s still ongoing logging crisis describes the situation there, with the so-called “rosewood mafia” bent on cutting the last remaining trees for profit. The issue is a complex story that starts with “rosewood mafia” criminals who exploit Madagascar’s forests and people and often ends up in the homes of ordinary people all over the world who purchase expensive furniture and guitars made from precious wood ripped illegally from Madagascar’s last patches of forest. National Geographic’s  David Maxwell Braun lays out in crisp detail how Illegal logging of rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) and ebony (Diospyros spp.), are now the most severe threat to Madagascar’s dwindling northeastern rain forests. But logging and farming are not the only unsustainable activities on Madagascar. Road building, unsustainable population growth, and even tourism play almost as big a negative role. Given the almost complete abuse of this naturalist wonderland, Madagascar can really be considered a “lost case” where the people there ever seeing the island’s true potential realized is concerned. Madagascar is a kind of natural poster pin-up of how “not” to develop paradise.

Phi Phi Island

Maya ray, Phi Phi Island overrun with tourists - Lisa Pinehill CC 2.0

Phuket Island: A Seaside Planning Nightmare

30 years of unchecked hyper-development have transformed this Thailand island into a concrete jungle where once primeval forests stood. Phuket today resembles downtown Bangkok than a Robinson Caruso island paradise. Somehow the developers of the island excuse tree removal by replacing their trunks with telephone poles laced with various wiring. The Thai developmental model, chopping down trees and paving green areas has left an indelible mark. Only the sandy beaches and undulating surf are left to temp tourists. The Phuket of the future leaves the Thai children living there with a bleak outcome for the future – just another Bangkok suburban dream.

Phuket Island is Thailand’s largest island measuring 48km in length and 21km at its widest point. The island was once famous and prosperous for its rubber and its tin, and as a stop-off point for trade from China. Today tourism is the boom, but like some other island destinations, this boom may soon cause a bust. Many tourism marketers sell Phuket as a beach paradise, while tourist advocates warn off travelers because of the overdevelopment. This article on Last Word Tour talks about Southeast Asia destinations like Phuket being horror stories of overdevelopment and overcrowding. Thrillist and others also flag people off for the throngs of tourists and urban sprawl, telling us “Vietnam’s Phú Quốc is what Koh Phi Phi used to be”. And in this we find the ultimate sustainability warning of not letting your paradise end up in “used to be” status. Phuket was magic, magic developers ruined forever.


As you can see, there's not a lot of space for future development on Santorini

Tourism Erupts on Thera (Santorini)

Another iconic island destination, Santorini is perhaps even more sensitive to overdevelopment than other islands mentioned herein. One of the most photogenic and fascinating destinations in the world, the speck of an island is all that remains of an ancient environmental catastrophe. When the volcano that was the ancient island of Thera erupted somewhere in between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE, it was perhaps the largest volcanic event on Earth in recorded history. In an instant one integral part a civilization some say was Atlantis simply vanished. Minoan Thera must have been a crowning masterpiece given modern archeological discoveries there. But today iconic Aegean architecture lures visitors in the tens of thousands so that they might witness sunset out over the world-famous caldera.

Today Santorini faces another explosive event, unprecedented tourism, and resultant development. This article at Greek Reporter tells of the island’s mayor, Nikos Zorzos’ concern over excessive construction on the island. Previously Zorzos told reporters of the need to put a halt to the over-exploitation of the island due to tourism, warning that building limits had already been surpassed at the expense of agricultural land. My point here is, that with an area of approximately 73 km2 (28 sq mi) and a population just over 15,000, Santorini is particularly vulnerable when compared with other ecosystems. Another factor that plays a major role is the almost “vertical” living environment there. The island is essentially the remnant of the massive volcanic explosion, with cliffs rising 300 meters straight up out of the lagoon formed by the explosion.

So, anything that is negatively impactful on pristine environments is dramatically amplified on a place like Santorini. The two main industries on the island being agriculture and tourism, clearly, sustainability here is of utmost importance. Like Phuket, overdevelopment could destroy both industries if safeguards are not set in place soon.

A garbage choked beach on Bali

A garbage choked beach on Bali - Jon Rawlinson CC 2.0

Bali Low

Who can ever forget Tony Award Winner Juanita Hall in her reprised her Role as Bloody Mary in the 1958 Film version of South Pacific? This film and its soundtrack mesmerized a generation and made Bali an icon for the ages. But today the imagery of yoga on the beach, and bronze sun-tanned goddess has given way to reveal an Eden overburdened by tourists. The blissful beaches millions bathed in joyfully, there now littered with garbage one imagines in Detroit. Surfers, we are told, have to navigate garbage as skillfully as the breaks in order to catch waves.

Bali Ha'i may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you'll hear it call you:
"Come away...Come away."

And Bali did call, only there was no one on the island to preserve the dream for future generations. If there ever were a paradise lost, certainly the land speculation real estate bubble on Bali the last two decades has almost totally destroyed what islanders consider the sacred relationship with the land. Balinese believe this overdevelopment now threatens the future of their culture. These days experienced tour guides advise people to visit Malaysia and Langkawi or the Redang archipelago to find the experience Bali once was.

Pine Island Sound

Pine Island Sound, Florida - James St. John CC 2.0

Pine Island and Never Say Never Again

Not too long ago I read an article about Pine Island being the last Florida paradise not overdeveloped into being unrecognizable. Today there’s a battle taking place in between Pine Island officials, developers, landowners, and preservationists as to how Florida’s biggest Gulf of Mexico island will grow. Situated to the West of Cape Coral, the island sits along the Intercostal Waterway, and is connected to the mainland only by Pine Island Road and the bridge over the waterway. Interestingly, Pine Island does not have any big stretches of beach owing to the fact the whole island is made of coral. Surrounded by mangrove swamps, the habitat is maybe the least likely spot for property development. Nevertheless, private property owners are being spurred by developers to “increase” their land values the old-fashioned way – by building up infrastructures typical of the rest of Florida.

The three aquatic preserves of the island, and the beloved fishing and boating culture there are now threatened large-scale property development. Judging from this news report, Pine Island’s residents and activists appear to be losing the battle to preserve the island. Commissioners voted this month to reduce the size of building lot sizes from 10 to 2.7 acres, with some options to drop it to one-acre lots. As part of a legal settlement in a case with big landowners, the county commissioners may have just doomed this Florida wonderland to the same fate as others. Residents and visitors to Pine Island are attracted by the rural character of the place, a character that seems certain to disappear now. An interesting footnote here is that people from all over Florida and even Georgia and Alabama travel to this island for tropical fruits such as lychee and mangos grown and sold on Pine Island. As someone who’s heard so much about the Florida that “used to be”, this seems a sad epitaph in the making.

Our Common Future

The islands mentioned in this story are but the tip of a massive environmental iceberg looming on our not too far horizon. Microcosms, if you will, places like Santorini and Phuket show us a window into the broader world of tomorrow. Madagascar ruined irreversibly, and Pine Island on the cusp of unstoppable transformation, should set of warning sirens for us all. But sadly, they have not as yet. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) defined sustainable development as:

"Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The organization goes further in defining “need” as well as expressing the limitations that are present. Established in 1990, IISD is an independent, non-profit organization offering solutions for the most challenging of sustainability problems. But help is needed beyond NGOs and even governmental organizations if “our common future” is to be a fruitful and positive one. By observing the examples these islands represent, we can develop individual ideas that will lead to more progressive efforts for sustainability everywhere.

A PR and marketing professional with extensive SEO expertise, a former contributor to Search Engine Journal, Liliana Steffens covers online marketing tips, mobile, social media, and SEO for RealtyBizNews.
  • One comment on “What Can We Learn from Unsustainable Development in Paradise?”

    1. Phu Quoc is paradise but the older expats on the island that have skeletons in their closets need to leave.

      Phu Quoc people will not foroget

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