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Caribbean Environment Talks End in Miami - 2004-03-26

Representatives from 31 countries have ended talks in Miami, Florida aimed at fostering cooperation on ways to protect the Caribbean environment. The Caribbean basin is under severe environmental stress, and experts say countries in the region need to cooperate more on a regional level to protect one of the world's most pristine environments.

It was called the White Water to Blue Water Partnership Conference and for the first time since the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, hundreds of experts met in Miami to discuss how to better protect the Caribbean.

Franklin MacDonald, the chief executive officer of Jamaica's National Environment and Planning Agency, NEPA, says the countries in the Caribbean Basin are under a great deal of environmental stress.

"The small Caribbean islands have problems with watershed management. We have quite dense populations on limited land space, so people do use the upper watersheds for farming," he said. "We have problems to do with the coastal zone, because we have expanding tourism facilities. There is real competition for land space and land use because the population of some our towns is [occupied] up to 50 percent of some of our islands, so you also have in relatively small spaces quite large urban numbers."

Conference participants looked at the issues of watershed management,dying coral reefs, declining fish stocks and rising pollution levels in a series of meetings designed to bring together technical experts,government representatives and business leaders.

Mercedes Silva of the Caribbean Tourism Organization says managers in the tourism industry in the Caribbean are just as concerned about the environment as those in government and non-governmental organizations.

"I think tourism has been seen as an enemy because of the lack of information about the possibilities that tourism can bring to the table," she said. "I have to recognize that working in the tourism industry we have a very bad reputation. Our participation in sessions like this one will really help us to portray the tourism industry in a different way. We recognize our mistakes but we are also here to put on the table the possibilities that we offer."

Ms. Silva says those possibilities include new initiatives by hotels in the region to foster beach conservation and cleanup efforts as well as improve water quality management systems. She says most hotel operators in the region know their survival depends on a clean environment.

Franklin MacDonald of Jamaica's Environment and Planning Agency says it is not only hotel operators who depend on a clean Caribbean. He says millions of people living in the region depend on the Caribbean Sea.

"It is absolutely critical," he said. "We depend on it for our food production, for catching fish, for the tourism industry. We are absolutely dependent on the Caribbean for all our livelihoods. We in fact market the Caribbean environment and culture in a significant way so we need to make sure that we are looking after it."

The White Water to Blue Water Partnership Conference was organized by the U.S. State and Commerce Departments, who pledged several million dollars in funds for projects aimed at fostering environmental cooperation among countries in the region.

U.S. officials say a major goal of theirs was to introduce conference participants to key technical experts in the U.S. government.

Every country in the region except Cuba was represented at the conference. Cuban officials say their attendance was blocked by the United States. U.S. officials cited visa restrictions for the Cuban's absence. U.N. officials participating say Cuba, the Caribbean's largest and most populous island, will participate in programs aimed at fostering environmental cooperation though Cuba's participation in U.N. environmental programs.