By Lauren Ritchie
Six weeks ago, on the island of Eleuthera, my Girl Rising colleagues and I led See My Island, a summer camp designed for young Bahamian women. Surrounded by crystal waters, pink sands, and lush banyan trees, we explored the island, focusing on how climate change impacts our land, livelihood, and marine ecosystems. Over the two weeks, participants began to see their island — and themselves — in a new light, revealing the potency of their voices and how they can spark change in their communities. Through poems, films, photo essays, and sculptures, they created stories highlighting how intense heat and devastating storms wreak havoc on our island paradise.
Six days ago, fires raged through a different island paradise, reducing the beautiful village of Lahaina to ashes and taking nearly 100 lives. The impact of climate change is undeniable with rising temperatures leaving Hawaii hotter and drier than ever before. Maui’s severe drought transformed invasive grasses into ready tinder while Hurricane Dora’s powerful winds fanned the initial sparks, creating an inferno that wildly engulfed everything in its path.
The haunting image of a once-vibrant Banyan tree, now scorched and bare, tells the harrowing story of what's at stake, not just for paradisiacal islands but for all of us on this planet. In the words of Barbados Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, “Our world knows not what it is gambling with, and if we don’t control this fire, it will burn us all down.”
I was born and raised in The Bahamas, witnessing firsthand the unrelenting impact of climate change, a force that has ravaged my home. The wrath of Category 5 Hurricane Dorian, national fish stocks in alarming decline, the bleaching and demise of our colorful coral reefs. Island communities like Barbados, Hawaii, The Bahamas, and others worldwide, have much more to lose than just picturesque beauty in this high-stakes gamble. And with economies often hinged on tourism, the uphill battle to reconstruct what drew visitors becomes even more daunting.
The thing about living in “paradise” is that tourists often reduce our home to its scenic attractions, completely neglecting the communities that reside there — and serve them — year-round. When I tell people I’m Bahamian, I’m met with raving beach reviews and childhood vacation stories, with some having the gall to say that they “didn’t know people were actually from there.” It’s a disturbing disparity between The Bahamas I call home and the tropical playground they visit.
Headlines about Maui’s devastation emphasizing the “tourist town” and “iconic getaway”, coupled with frustrated residents appalled by tourists snorkeling in the very waters where bodies were recovered just days prior, showcase how exploitative tourism dehumanizes and casts aside native populations. As disgruntled visitors give up their hotel rooms to house thousands of displaced residents and incoming guests are urged to cancel their trips to prioritize recovery efforts, the framing of Hawaii’s crisis foregrounds vacationer entitlement. It’s a slap in the face to everyone directly affected by the tragedy to see tourists cruising down the same roads where people are trying to deliver supplies. Especially considering that native Hawaiians have begged visitors to keep away for years to no avail due to rampant pollution and depletion of essential natural resources like water, this disaster exposes the harsh reality for tourist-dependent nations forced to choose between preserving their economy and protecting the rights of local people.
Although many understand the relationship between commercial development and environmental degradation, the colonial undercurrent of wealthy — usually white — tourists remorselessly extracting resources from native communities and diminishing our islands to the entertainment they provide, is far less examined. Even further, once you recognize that exploitation by present and former colonial powers is the reason why small islands are forced into this compromising economic and environmental position in the first place, the crises’ roots in capitalistic greed become all the more apparent.
Small islands are more than vacation destinations. They are homes to people, resources, and ecosystems, that can all be part of the solution to climate change. But first, we need the global community to finally see us holistically — to really acknowledge our plights and the perspectives we can offer as active agents with a say in our own fate. Most of all, we must bear witness to what’s at stake, and trace these tragedies to the source as we seek to put out the flames.
Don’t avert your eyes. Look harder.