Harvard, sustainability, Exuma, and COB

Yesterday morning, Facebook posts notwithstanding, I was in Long Island waiting to board a plane to Georgetown, Exuma, as part of a ten-day long ethnographic study of Exuma, Long Island and Cat Island.

The study is part of a longer-term project whose ultimate goal is to create a plan for the sustainable development of Exuma and its cays, a plan which, it’s hoped, can provide a blueprint for the development of other islands. This year, as part of the project, seven Bahamian students doing Field Experience at the College of The Bahamas have teamed up with 16 students from the Harvard Department of Anthropology and the Graduate School of Design to carry out ethnographic field studies. There are several teams of students, most of them in Great Exuma and the Cays, but also in Cat Island and Long Island.

Since Friday, I’ve been travelling with the professor of the Harvard course to the different locations where the students are deployed, meeting with them and talking to them about their personal projects, helping to troubleshoot (where possible or necessary). On Friday and Saturday we were in Long Island, helping the students there settle in. Yesterday we moved on to Georgetown, where several events intertwine: for me, the main one is working with my students, but there are workshops and meetings between the people in Georgetown and the people from Harvard. What’s exciting about it is that we’re working together on a piece of ethnography that is put together like a mosaic. Ethnography, the in-depth study of a single community at a single point in time, is traditionally done by a single anthropologist who goes to a different society from her own and lives there for an extended period—at least fifteen months—they used to specify in Cambridge, which allowed the researcher to observe a full year of activity and also gave a three-month cushion to permit a working level of acclimatization.

What’s happening in this case is something a little different. Researchers from Harvard have been working since 2012 on different elements, and the project will continue through 2015—a five-year span that will incorporate perspectives from a wide range of researchers. Some are student researchers, and some are working on doctorates and post-doctorates. Some are established researchers as well. Some are students of design, some are anthropologists. It’s the mosaic approach to ethnography, and now, in 2014, the voices of Bahamian students of the College of The Bahamas have been added.

The project has murky connections, to be sure. In 2010-2011, the Bahamas National Trust and the Free National Movement government came under heavy fire after the revelation that the Aga Khan had been given permission to create a marina for Bell Island, his private island in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. The process required dredging of the sea bed and the conversion of an inland pond, and there was strong opposition to the development. (That opposition, according to more recent reports, has abated somewhat, as the PLP is now the government in power; the current narrative seems to be that far less damage was done to the environment than those in opposition feared. Be that as it may. The permissions were given, the development has taken place, and we must all, especially those of us who are the citizens and stewards of this remarkable country, move on.

It’s probably no coincidence at all that the Aga Khan has established a gift and grants to research and plan for the sustainable development of Exuma and the Cays. Cynics like me will have the tendency to regard this largesse as a payoff for being allowed to do in the Exuma Land and Sea Park far more than Bahamians who have been living on the communities within that park for over two hundred years. There is certainly more than a whiff of inequity about the permissions given to the über-rich to develop private islands in the Exuma Cays, even within the Park, while locals are prevented from using the resources which have provided them with subsistence for generations. But the reality is that the permissions have been given, the inequities are being enforced, and all that we are left with is the prospect of amelioration.

And here’s where we come in,  the students of the College of The Bahamas and myself. The gift and grants are being administered by Harvard University, the Aga Khan’s alma mater, and since 2012 students and faculty from Harvard University have been visiting Exuma, conducting research to contribute to the island’s development. In 2013, the College of The Bahamas was approached in various capacities to join the project. One of those capacities involved linking up with the fieldwork that would be carried out this spring in Exuma. I happen to teach a Field Experience course this spring, and the students in that course are required to conduct field research somewhere, at some time. The project’s challenges notwithstanding, this element offers potential for that amelioration.

 Here’s where the potential lies. One of the most fundamental flaws we have in our governmental system is the fatal disconnect between the Family Islands (I refuse to call them “Out”) and New Providence, where officials sit in air-conditioned offices, meet with high-faluting investors, and carve up our archipelago for finite, quickly-spent pocketsful of cash. The way in which we administer our nation is akin to the Europeans dividing up Africa with a table, maps and a ruler during the nineteenth century, or  the Allied generals of the First World War deploying their troops to die among the barbed wire and trenches of the European front. The decisions made by our leaders are cavalier, ill-informed, greedy, and destructive. Bahamian patrimony is being disposed of for sums that spin the heads of politicians and civil servants but that carry with them heavy doses of nothingness: they mean almost nothing to the investors who offer them, and they mean less than nothing to the people who are most directly affected—the Family Islands, our fellow citizens, who are daily being deprived of their traditions, their communal means of survival, their ways of life, and their sustainability.

My students, the students who attend COB, are potentially the politicians and civil servants of the future. The experience they are being offered by their involvement in the project is my hope of contributing to long-term and future change—of creating a sense of respect and understanding for the different ways of life of our archipelago, for the wealth and beauty of our environment. 

There’s another far more pragmatic, element as well. The studies being led by Harvard are generating data about our islands, data that can and may be crucial to the future well-being of our nation. This project will end in 2015, and that end will be accompanied by a set of reports and plans which will be touted and bound and, if past experience is anything to go by, shelved. But the data itself, the raw material that is being generated in the process, will be the property of Harvard University, not of The Bahamas—unless the College of The Bahamas is involved at the base level of the research. We have missed a year of this already, but the fact that Bahamian students are now involved in the ethnographic process is one way of ensuring some access to the intellectual riches that are now being generated. And that is my ultimate goal here.

Long blog post. Big, big deal. From here on in I will be blogging, as internet permits, about the things we are discovering on our journey. Watch this space. And, my fellow Bahamians, prepare for action if needed. This is the only Bahamas we’ve got.

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