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Learning from Soufriere experience – Part 2

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As indicated last week, this week’s column will supplement the activities of NEMO in drawing lessons from our experiences of the Soufriere eruption of 1979, by looking at a different aspect of those events, the political and economic challenges.

They form a valuable part of our history and can provide us with critical pointers as to possible approaches to such disasters.

First though, let me add my sincere condolences to the families of two former Parliamentarians, those of the late John Horne who passed away earlier this week, and to Louis Jones who is still recovering from the death of his wife a couple weeks ago.

I sincerely hope that our people, especially the post-1979 generations, are participating actively in the NEMO-led activities which primarily focus on the invaluable lessons to be learnt in disaster preparedness and in addressing such unfortunate circumstances as that of the aftermath of the volcanic eruptions.

It is similarly important to be able to learn from the economic and political challenges of the time, how we coped with them and what pitfalls we can avoid in handling any future disasters. It is true that 1979 was a rather unique year in our political evolution, since we had to face the hugely dislocating and economically disastrous effects of the volcanic eruption while we were on the homestretch to the reclaiming of our national independence, as well as preparing to stage our first general elections after independence, but these make the learning experience all the richer.

When Soufriere erupted in 1979, for the second time in a decade, our country was, economically and politically, very much different from the SVG of today. Our economy will still very much tied to an export-led agricultural economy which, while many features are still present, has undergone significant changes in the four decades which have passed since then. The backward nature of our rural economy then certainly had its effects on our handling of the relief and recovery efforts.

However, in this limited space perhaps we should concentrate on some of the political experiences of the time and the lessons learnt since, though circumstances have changed, we may miss the fundamentals of the period. By the time the volcano first spewed out its sulphur and ash in April 1979, our country was very much a politically-divided one.

The most significant feature of the politics of the previous year had been the deep political divisions over the formal decision to embark on the process of constitutional evolution leading up to national independence. This had brought about deep political divisions both among the parties then represented in Parliament (the governing Labour party of Premier Milton Cato on the one hand, and the parties led by the late Ebeneezer Joshua and Sir James Mitchell on the opposition benches), as well as with the extra-Parliamentary political and civic forces.

Those deep divisions centred first on whether our country should proceed to independence and the process to be followed, especially in the framing of a new constitution for our country. They were to have a significant influence on the relief and recovery efforts with a lack of cohesion at the political level at a time when our country most needed unity of will and purpose.

The singular thrust for political advantage exerted negative influences even among the displaced population, and the insistence of the then administration in pursuing an approach which all but excluded political opponents, and even civil society actors, did not help in the process. In spite of repeated appeals, there was little effort to forge the national platform, cutting across political differences, which is so essential for success in handling disasters of such magnitude.

As a result we were plagued with inefficiency in the deployment and distribution of relief supplies, the use of such supplies for partisan political purposes, giving rise to the term “Soufriere bodow” to be applied to such supplies, and even in some cases to waste and corruption. There was also crass political opportunism and manipulation and the deplorable action of some merchants to try and profit from the situation by black marketeering.

All of these negative tendencies helped to retard the efficiency and effectiveness of the relief effort. It would be interesting to do a study of this period, a study which NEMO itself could derive huge benefits from, even if it is only to understand the political pitfalls to be avoided in handling national emergencies.

But perhaps the most important lesson was one which teaches us that in times of national disaster, it is of paramount importance to forge a platform of national unity of will and purpose. Our relief and recovery efforts, our passage to the achievement of nationhood, and our entire post-independence development would all have been much richer and rewarding if we had followed this path. I will hopefully, be able to develop on this theme at a later stage.

Renwick Rose
is a community activist and social comm
entator.

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