Social & cultural impacts of the Montserrat Volcanic Crisis in a wider Caribbean context

Montserrat is a small Caribbean island of approximately 102km2 in size and is situated to the South of its closest neighbour, Antigua. Both islands form part of the Leeward Islands chain as shown below:

The island itself is a British overseas territory of volcanic origin, and until recently remained dormant.

However, since 1995, the island has been severely affected by eruptions of the Soufriere Hills Volcano and the subsequent pyroclastic flows and mudslides associated with the volcanic activity.

Such events have destroyed Plymouth, the Island’s capital, the Airport situated on the East coast and much of the Southern third of the island.

This has resulted in considerable social implications as a consequence of de-territorialization defined by Rozdilsky (2002) as “the process of losing the natural relationship between culture and social territory, including the old & new forms of symbolic production”.

The island once had a population of over 11000 people, which decreased considerably by approximately 2/3 to just 4500 in 2000 and is now home to only 80% of the original population figure – approximately 8 000 people.

In response to the eruption, approximately 2500 people relocated to other Caribbean islands and 3300-3700 had relocated before 1998 (DFID, 1999).

Currently, the population is concentrated into the Northern third of the Island following the introduction of an Exclusion Zone encapsulating the most dangerous areas surrounding the Soufriere hills as shown below:

The evacuation of people from dangerous areas of the island caused localized unrest and placed enormous pressures on the islanders. As Shotte describes the effect of these movements:

“Life for Montserratians has never been the same since July 1995.

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Three phases of internal displacement within the first nine months of the volcanic crisis, proved to be a frustrating and emotionally draining experience. Thus began the roller-coaster existence of a people whose lives were forcefully propelled on to unexpected and challenging roadways”.

The considerable reduction in land available for housing created serious social impacts;

Those who chose not to leave the island following evacuation from the South where faced by two possibilities – share with friends/family or be placed in temporary accommodation such as the Montserratian Defence Force barracks at Geralds. Eventually 1 in 7 people were housed temporarily in shelters.

For many, a sense of order and stability in life is represented by land and home. For many Montserratians, this has been removed, producing disassociation and a confusion as to the sense of belonging. The people of Montserrat pre-1995 had a particular emotional attachment to their land. Plymouth and other areas around the island not only symbolised their identity and sense of being but also their ancestors’ struggle against colonialism and slavery. The land was previously seen as “a type of security that can be handed down” (Skelton. 2000. p70).

Evacuation from the South has placed a strain on the areas of Davy Hill and Geralds where a large proportion of relocation has taken place.

Geralds in particular has and is facing major changes through the construction of the new Airport to replace Bramble Airport, which was lost under pyroclastic flows on the East Coast. Despite offering 35 new jobs when completed and many during construction, at a cost of $EC42.6 million, the airport will dramatically change a large area of cultivated and inhabited land in the North of the Island meaning yet more relocation for those unlucky enough to be living where the airport is being built.

Angela Greenaway (2002) comments that:

“…for sustainable development to be achieved, there must be planning which caters for the local community but also has a healthy respect for the environment.”

This statement supports the need for sustainable development incorporating the airport but will come as little relief for the residents of Geralds who could well be relentlessly affected.

The airport is however, very important to the development and safety (in terms of evacuation) of the island as more passengers will be catered for in light aircraft than the heliport could ever support. The questionable closure of the port (Osbourne, 2003) however, and removal of a twice-daily ferry service capable of carrying over 300 passengers is likely to hinder the development process until larger aeroplanes are able to service the island. For this to be the case, the runway must be extended which, according to the head of construction for the airport, is impossible given the shape of the land.

Montserrat is characterised by a unique social and economic structure following the recent volcanic activity.

Once self-sufficient and striving for independence, Montserrat is now more dependent than ever on Britain. The island once boasted low levels of unemployment and one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean and up until the 1995 eruptions, had not received budgetary aid from the UK since 1981 (Skelton, 2000).

The extent of Montserrat’s ‘substantial borrowings’ (Cassell-Sealy, 2002) following 1995 was highlighted by the Chief Minister John Osbourne, who when interviewed, estimated that 80% of development funding post-volcanic event was received from the UK and EU.

A return to self-sufficiency by 2007 is a target set out by the Montserratian government despite the admittance that independence is now ‘impossible for the foreseeable future’ (Osbourne, 2003).

As a direct result of the volcanic activity and threat of future such occurrences highlighted by the introduction of the exclusion zone in October 1996, much of the aforementioned population reduction was through migration to other Caribbean islands (predominantly the neighbouring Antigua to the North and Guadeloupe to the South), North America and most importantly the United Kingdom (Mainly due to colonial links).

The decrease in population generated several negative effects such as the dramatic reduction in revenue from taxes and a productivity base loss of 95% (resulting from the dramatic reduction of both males and females in the main productivity age group of 15 – 64 years old) (DFID, 1999).

Similarly, the island is experiencing the ‘brain/skill drain’, which symbolises the loss of talent and intellect to other countries from the same age group.

Attracting Montserratians back to the island is proving a difficult task mainly due to the rates of pay, which are low in comparison to other countries such as the UK. Services such as education suffer considerably as a result with the lack of teachers hindering future development of the education system. This is a problem which the government hopes to ease with the use of subsidies from the UK, should they become available.

Pre-1995 the economy was primarily service-based with a significantly large female workforce – acting as both producers and reproducers (Skelton, 1989). Since the volcanic activity began, the depletion of the service industry has meant the majority of job vacancies now exist in the construction industry, an industry dominated by male intake.

This male preference is causing a detrimental psychosocial fallout (Barnes, 2001) which has lowered self-perception and worth for women.

According to Lee (1996), Montserratians are experiencing the ‘pull’ of the UK and other locations away from the threat of volcanic activity as well as the ‘push’ of poverty.

In an attempt to achieve sustainable re-development of the island, three major government-backed agencies have been introduced.

Firstly, the Montserrat Volcanic Observatory (MVO) provides the siland with detailed analysis of the volcanic activity, mainly through Radio Montserrat.

As Jill Morten, director of the MVO (2003) states:

“The level of trust the people hold for the observatory is evident and the government and emergency department rely heavily on data from the observatory when changing the exclusion zone area or in case of an evacuation.”

Secondly, the Emergency Planning Department (EPD) was introduced to ensure the minimal impact of any natural disaster possible is experienced. As Horatio Tuitt (2003) from the EPD explained:

“The department have plans for every conceivable eventuality including Operation Exodus – the plan to evacuate the entire island should it be necessary.”

Finally, the Physical Planning Department (PPD) ensures the most effective use and management of land on the island. Modern techniques are used to develop the island as Angela Greenaway (2003) states:

“Using base maps, surveying techniques and aerial photography, the department is working towards having the entire island plotted using GIS (Geographical Information Systems).”

It is hoped that with the successful management of the natural hazards which affect the island, the Tourist Industry will be able to re-develop itself and the national economy.

The Government is targeting tourism as the main source of income as it was pre-1995 through re-development and since 1998, figures have steadily increased:

* 1999 saw a 37% increase on the figures for 1998

* 2001 saw a further 9% increase on the figures for 2000

(West, 2003)

Achieving sustainable development is key to the re-development of the island if it is to build for the future, this is possible in many ways including using the remnants of the eruption for tourism (such as Plymouth in its inundated state) and using the unique culture and habitat that characterises the island as a whole.

The second method is perhaps one of the most important.

As those who visit the island soon realise, Montserrat features a unique culture which welcomes visitors and when combined with the natural beauty of the island, creates an alternative to many other holiday destinations.

Key to the re-development of the Montserratian tourist industry is for the UK to assist in the promotion of the island as a safe tourist destination and to curb the negative media attention surrounding the volcanic eruptions of recent years.

Similarly, the promotion of the island needs to be enhanced with help from the UK (where many tourists are likely to come from) and a reduction in the reliance upon word-of-mouth and repeat visitors as mediums.

The problems faced by the tourist industry in Montserrat are highlighted by Roselyn Cassell-Sealy of the National Development Fund (2002):

“Our incapacity to control the quantity and quality of the context of international news releases continues to handicap our attempts to market ourselves as an alternative small island tourist destination as well as a very real potential investment option”.

Currently, the Caribbean economy as a whole is a very complicated system originating from its colonial history (Boxhill, 1999).

Most of the islands are still influenced or governed by their previous colonisers. More recently, the Caribbean countries are in the process of developing the idea of a Caribbean Single Market and Economy. Key features of which include the introduction of a single Caribbean currency, which would be utilised by all the full members of CARICOM (Caribbean Community & Common Market) in an attempt to prevent marginalization and the influence of

Trans-national Corporations. (Boxhill, 1999)

Although Montserrat is a British Territory and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future, it is a member of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), using the Eastern Caribbean Dollar ($EC) as its main currency.

Despite its reliance upon the UK and EU for funding, Montserrat maintains full independent status within the OECS (Skelton, 2000). However, the Chief Minister has highlighted the island’s intentions to join the Single Caribbean Currency should the plan come to fruition.

Montserrat purveyed one of the stronger Caribbean economies prior to the volcanic crisis (Skelton, 2000). Despite the activity since 1995, the standard of living on the island is still of a reasonable quality and is much higher than on other Caribbean islands & areas of Africa and South America.

Processes such as Globalization (featuring increased communication and transport links), have attracted migrants from such areas.

Montserrat is keen however not to allow the introduction of possible detrimental activities to the island such as drug and gun cultures which could spoil the image and portrayal the island is striving to achieve as part of its sustainable development.

The Governor, Chief Minister and Press officer Keith Greaves highlighted such matters as well as the already evident cultural changes which are a feature of the modern global community and are brought to the island by tourists and migrants alike.

Such actions do however introduce the possibility of a sense of confusion as to the national identity which Montserratians are attempting to ascertain.

As Fergus (1994) comments; “Montserrations are still not certain what they are”.

One part of the Monserratian culture which is evident, and indeed prominent, is the importance of religion to the people.

Walking or driving through villages on a Sunday morning immediately presents the level of importance the church holds to the people. There is very little activity, except for those going to or from church. Communities appear to be based around religious activities and groups with most activities being held in the local church hall.

It is difficult if not impossible to determine what the future holds for Montserrat and its people.

The volcanic activity since 1995 has had several socio and cultural impacts on the Island.

The people have been relocated, sometimes on several occasions and are uncertain where their future lies – perhaps this is why so many have moved to security and a certain future associated with an alternative sense of being. Many of those who took advantage of the UK government’s 2-year ‘exceptional leave to enter’ granted in April 1996 allowing free entry to the UK for Montserratians.

It is also important to point out that those who chose to remain or moved to the island are now located in one third of the original size of the island. Islanders are now therefore living more ‘on top of each other’ and the scope for future conflicts greater than those already experienced through activity such as relocation is increased.

If the island is to achieve sustainable development, the reliance upon the UK and EU will continue for some considerable period and it is difficult to see how Montserratians will be able to achieve a real sense of nationalism and complete identity until the island re-develops considerably.

It is not of course a foregone conclusion that volcanic activity will cease in the short term. This raises the question as to whether the Southern area of the island will ever be safe to use again in light of recent events.

Either way, the socio-cultural impacts on Montserratians’ lives are likely to continue until the island achieves a stable economy and structure similar to that which existed pre-volcanic activity. The question remains as to when and indeed if this will happen.

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Social & cultural impacts of the Montserrat Volcanic Crisis in a wider Caribbean context. (2017, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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