On the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, the Dry River separates two regions that have divergent histories.

Kalimantan, Borneo © Marc Veraat / Flickr Creative Commons

  • When the La Soufrière volcano awoke for the first time in decades to shell the entire island of St. Vincent with weeks-long, destructive eruptions, Indigenous communities like the Garifuna communities were hit the hardest.
  • Water was the prime necessity: the town catchment had been destroyed, overrun with displaced rocks, ash, fallen trees, and debris.
  • Little help has been sent to the community most drastically impacted by the eruptions. The destruction that remains months after the first eruption is evidence, residents say, of government failure. 

By Christian Thorsberg, Circle of Blue — August 10, 2021

On the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, in the modest village of Rabacca, a natural border known as the Dry River stretches beneath a palm tree canopy. It is dry because it is still, filled not with rapid water but the pyroclastic flows of lava, rock, and ash that have tumbled from the island’s active volcano, La Soufrière, and lithified. It cuts across the land utterly waterless, uncharacteristic of most landforms dubbed rivers. In many ways the Dry River is more a fossil than it is a waterway, and in many places the black ground has become so parched that the earth’s crust gapes in wide, distended cracks. 

The Dry River separates two regions that have divergent histories. St. Vincent’s larger cities–the more technologically developed southern communities of Georgetown, Kingston, and Biabou–are quite different from those on the opposite side of the dry meander. Sometimes referred to as “Over the River” territory, or “OTR” for short, the island’s northern parts also go by the name written on a sign that juts from the sprawling landform’s parched banks: “Carib Country.”  

“‘Carib’ being one of the colonial monikers for the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean,” explains Kimberly Palmer, a native of the Caribbean islands who has long studied the interconnected language, history, and geography that has shaped Caribbean Indigenous life, particularly in St. Vincent. 

Their story on this island–though foremost one of beauty, cultural pride, and resilience–is heavily shaped by colonialism and environmental racism. When the British arrived in the 18th century with the goal of transforming St. Vincent into plantations, the colonizers weaponized language, creating hierarchies of Black, Red, and Yellow Caribs, while also murdering and enslaving local people. 

Crucially, the British also learned the island’s geography, becoming keenly aware of the looming volcano on the northern end. As they took land and destroyed villages, they forced those few Indigenous people who were allowed to stay, and live, into small British-made enclaves beside the volcano’s dangerous, rumbling edges. 

And there the Indigenous communities have remained, this legacy of environmental racism persisting for hundreds of years, even after the British left. They now largely identify, and refer to themselves as, Garifuna. The name embraces St. Vincent as the people’s original home and celebrates a shared heritage that has withstood horrors. “They’re in that dangerous, dangerous place because of colonial politics, but of course they’ve developed relationships with that land, and practiced their culture there,” Palmer said.

The Garifuna have cultivated farming communities in small, northern coastal towns–Sandy Bay, Fancy, Overland, Owia–and connected with a growing population of Indigenous communities across the Caribbean and Central America. Still, these are the country’s poorest areas, ones that have only recently enjoyed the arrival of electricity. And it is indeed a tragedy that the tribes, who once lived freely across the entire island, have instead been forced to heal and nurture with an active volcano as their neighbor, a precarious reminder of their historic displacement. 

And so this spring, when La Soufrière awoke for the first time in decades to shell the entire island with weeks-long, destructive eruptions, the Garifuna communities were hit the hardest. Everyone north of the Dry River was urged by the government to evacuate, though political distrust and an intimate connection with their homes made such a move difficult. Many remained as long as they could. “Their livelihoods were destroyed,” Palmer said. “Their culture of collective work and kinship networks are deeply tied to their ability to work the land. [Their homes] were much more damaged than in other zones, and in many cases directly destroyed.”

Weeks after the main eruptions ended, Reigns Hoyte, a Sandy Bay resident, walked through his town. Everything had been stained grey, and the feet of ash that continued to waft, seemingly endlessly from the sky, blended with beach sand. The main road was hardly distinguishable from any other corridor of ash, save for the few imprinted tire tracks left by evacuating residents. The village’s bridge had been swept away, and its concrete foundations, which stood now on dry ground, had become shelter for resting animals. 

Only an orange and pink dance hall, one dilapidated boat house, and a select few homes still stood, all built fortuitously on higher ground. In a lower valley, a home with a blue-painted living room lay crushed, one of dozens of buildings that had been destroyed; its roof was absent, and the main foundation, cracked fully through, exposed what was once a family’s kitchen bar. And the town’s river, one that did formerly gush with water, had become no more than a hardened avenue of ash. 

Water was the prime necessity: the town catchment had been destroyed, overrun with displaced rocks, ash, fallen trees, and debris. Sandy Bay’s main water pipe stuck out, uprooted from the ground, functional only as a bridge for daring dogs who wished to romp amidst the rubble. Cliffside streams, thin trickles at best, had become the lone source of freshwater in Sandy Bay, and so residents lined up with blue rain barrels in hand. 

What international aid has arrived in St. Vincent, has been taken in by southern ports. Distribution to Sandy Bay, Hoyte says, is lacking. The water situation is dire. Their farmland and cassava harvests are ash-ridden and ruined. The volcano, mere miles away, still stews. Little help has been sent to the community most drastically impacted by the eruptions. The destruction that remains months after the first eruption is evidence, residents say, of government failure. 

It is difficult during these times not to recall the mistreatment that placed the Garifuna in such a precarious situation in the first place. “They haven’t been treated well historically or contemporarily by society,” Palmer said. “There’s still a lot of prejudice against these ‘people from over the dry river.’”

Thousands of miles away, a speedboat departs from the city of Samarinda, Indonesia. It travels north along the Mahakam River, and two days later arrives in the central highlands of Borneo’s ancient rainforests. The man who the police hand over has no recollection of his three months in jail; the trauma has blanked his memory. According to the official report he was forced to sign, his stay in custody lasted only a day. 

The Dayak-Bahau man had been arrested for protesting the mass deforestation of his ancestral lands, Borneo’s tropical rainforests, which account for six percent of the world’s biodiversity. His release had been granted thanks to Indigenous activism and pressure, one of many battles the community finds itself increasingly invested in. More than 30 percent of Borneo’s rainforests have been destroyed in the past half-century. 

Though rainforests are protected, in theory, by Indonesian law, corrupt backchannels facilitate corporate projects and mass deforestation, says Angus MacInnes, a filmmaker who spent years living with the Dayak communities in Borneo. The government also fails to recognize Indigenous groups as having a stake in the region. “There’s a complete lack of political will because they know that recognizing people is the first step to recognizing that those people have rights to their ancestral lands,” he says.

The Dayak comprise over 200 subethnic groups in Borneo, and have spent over half a millenia developing spiritual, scientific, and ecological relationships with the island’s great diversity. They can discern the time of day from the ebb and flow of insects’ many whirrs or from the calls of hornbills and many other birds. Their approach to agriculture spans generations, with an emphasis on allowing tilled land to revitalize; they keep not only their grandchildren in mind, but think of their great, great, great, great grandchildren while cultivating sustainable communities within the rainforest. 

“We lose when we treat the Dayak as one homogenous group,” MacInnes said. “Each community has their own specific belief system and way of working the land. I don’t want to fetishize, because there’s a tendency in popular culture to do that. But those who should be managing the forests, are those who have been living within it.”

As palm oil and plywood companies continue to profit by felling Borneo’s trees without Dayak consent, it is equally inevitable that monocrop plantations will permanently take their place. Often, MacInnes says, the dangerous jobs here are filled by Indigenous workers. 

“If you spend your whole life in that environment, you are in tune with it in a way that we are so numb to,” MacInnes says. “And it’s a bit arrogant to think that we know it all in the West.”

In the riverine and coastal communities that dot Alaska and Western Canada, calendars have little sway. The seasons instead are determined by weather, migration patterns, and food harvests–the observable phenomena of the Inupiaq tribes’ natural world. 

Spring marks the breakup of sea ice and thawing of snow, along with seal, Bowhead whale, and caribou migration; red and king salmon run in the summer, and the first collections of strawberries and cloudberries are shared; in the fall these harvests slowly dwindle, the tundra’s large mammals move yet again, and the rivers begin to freeze; winter is a time of self-preservation and safekeeping, all while preparing for the cycles to begin again. 

This temporal perspective is shared as much with the land, as it is the people. “Indigenous people coexist with nature and its species, whereas Westerners simply exist upon a specific piece of land,” said Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer, a senior project manager for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and an Inupiaq leader. 

And so, in 2021, amid the extreme weather events that challenge a climate-changed world, building lives that coexist with nature is increasingly difficult. As ice and permafrost melt at alarming rates in northern latitudes, centuries-old relationships with rivers and coasts are becoming foreign and unintelligible. Simultaneously, the migratory patterns of animals and losses of plant life are too severely affecting tribes’ abilities to hunt and grow food. 

When different societies share fundamentally different connections with, and ethical standards for, the natural world, the impacts of global warming will necessarily be uneven. Such are the dire and immediate changes the Inupiaq are coping with today, which, they say, the world needs to see and better understand. 

Indigenous and Western values are complete opposites of each other, Schaeffer said. Whereas the Western world focuses on the self before family, and then community, this order is reversed in Indigenous society: community, which includes the natural environment, is placed above all else. 

“The community mindset focuses on a whole, which is vitally important when you are living a subsistence lifestyle and need to work as a team to accomplish harvesting foods,” Schaeffer said. The harvest of a Bowhead whale, she says, takes an entire community a year of communal work to store, preserve, and share. The expertise required to understand native waters and animals, all while climate change drastically alters ice melt, water flows, and migration patterns, is a science that too is underappreciated. 

“We eat the same foods our ancestors did thousands of years ago. We may use different tools to harvest, but the food source is the same,” Schaeffer said. “This ‘invisible’ subsistence economy is rarely incorporated into research. Yet, there are millions of studies of Arctic peoples. Until local observers that live in these places are inclusive to the process, there will only be one perspective shared, a Western one.”

Nearly each day brings new evidence, in the world’s rural and urban spaces alike, of the devastation from a warming climate. The activists on the front lines of such immediate, sweeping change and resistance are so often those Indigenous communities who altogether have the most to share, gain, and lose in this delicate environmental crossroads. 

“[There is a] lack of understanding of the traditional lifestyles still practiced by village residents, a lack of acknowledgement of the trauma left by colonization on our people, (and) a dismissal of traditional knowledge,” Schaeffer said. “The unique opportunity to include Indigenous voices to assist in formulation of questions and research is very much needed.”