Our route takes us to low lying communities in 31 countries. In the Amazon we will weave through dense rainforest 800km from the Atlantic coast and in parts of Mauritania the we cross the Sahara 250km inland. In Guinea Bissau we will encounter uncharted mangrove forests and in Canada we will camp on the tundra. It will be an uncomfortable and exhausting ten months, traversing innumerable rivers and spending a lot of time under a mosquito net.
On each continent we are visiting sites of specific interest whose history or environmental importance provide case studies for our research. At each place, we will be filming, photographing and interviewing local communities and/or specialist researchers. This material will be used to develop curriculum projects for participating schools on subjects such as migration, slavery, trade, carbon footprinting, tourism, sea level change, the journey of music.
We are currently establishing connections with these places and our initial itinerary looks like this:
Our journey starts at a small cottage in the south western corner of Tiree. The sea is not more than 200m from the front door and on a stormy day, the spit from the waves carries to the windows. The descendants of the Cameron clan who worked this croft are now scattered all over the world, carried across the Atlantic during the clearances of the 1850s. The community on Tiree is both local and global, with old islanders visiting from Canada, Spain, Portugal and the USA. It is the Atlantic that has shaped their pasts and will continue to shape their future. The stories of these islanders will mark the perfect beginning to our journey.
Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, England
This world class research centre in Liverpool is owned by the Natural Environment Research Council. We will meet experts on climatology and oceanography. We want to increase our own understanding of the processes and research behind the current predictions on sea level change, to ensure we can share accurate and up to date knowledge with the schools we visit.
La Rochelle, France
The historic harbour at La Rochelle was one of the main staging posts for French trade and fishing in the west Atlantic and New World. The city was very active in triangular trade with the New World, dealing in slaves with Africa, sugar with the plantations of the Antilles, and fur with Canada. By the late 18th Century slavers made up a third of the traffic which passed between the medieval towers of the Old Port and the legacy of this wealth lives on in the city today. It therefore acts as an excellent linking point to connect our schools in Gambia, Ghana and Canada.
One of the oldest cities in Western Europe, the story of Cadiz links us to Central America and the vast plantations that still exist in Costa Rica and Venezuela. There is perhaps no other city in Europe that benefited as much from the Spanish age of empire as Cadiz. It was from here that Columbus set sail and it was here that the Spanish Treasure fleet was based. The legacy of the city’s Atlantic trade is marked around the city in its buildings and architecture and it is a vital historical starting point for exploring the idea of the Atlantic Community.
Situated on the edge of a low lying flood plain, former inhabitants of Larache make up Moroccan communities in London, Barcelona, Naples and Paris. The town is a bridge between Europe and Africa. It is a mix of Andalusian and Arab elements and historically the inhabitants built pirate ships for the Barbary Corsairs of Rabat. The site has legendary associations with Hercules, as it was supposedly here that he carried out his task of retrieving the Golden Apples.
Banc D’Arguin, Mauritania
If La Rochelle and Cadiz are of great historical significance, then the Banc D’Arguin is their environmental equivalent. Fringing the Atlantic coast, this world heritage site has the largest winter concentration of wading birds in the world. There are several species of sea turtle and dolphin, which the Imraguen fishermen use to capture shoals of fish, the only example of symbiosis between humans and dolphins. Their livelihood is now under threat, both from rising sea levels and also from European fishing vessels encroaching upon their fishing areas.
St. Louis, Senegal
St. Louis provides a vital link between our French and American legs of the journey. During the slave trade, it was the leading urban centre in sub-Saharan Africa with people, hides and beeswax exported to America. These slaves settled the low lying areas of Louisiana and many of the buildings in St. Louis share the same engineering as the plantation houses on the Mississippi floodplain (even down to the same oyster shell plaster). Such was the importance of St. Louis that New Orleans was built using the urban design of the city as its blueprint. But the future of St. Louis is under immediate threat. In June 2008, the UN-Habitat agency designated Saint-Louis as “the city most threatened by rising sea levels in the whole of Africa“.
Exploring Banjul takes us to the heart of the slave trade and its Atlantic legacy. It was in Banjul that the British first erected a settlement to enforce an end to the slave trade in Africa. The city grew up on a low-lying peninsular and became an important point for the return of freed slaves. Nowadays it is a focal point for anti-slavery conferences. This peninsular is now rapidly submerging as increased outflow from the river Gambia is combining with rising sea levels to devastate shoreline developments.
Bijagos, Guinea Bissau
Guinea Bissau has the largest mangrove habitat in West Africa – the Bijagos – which is now under threat due to sea level rise. These wetlands provide a home to manatees, hippos and thousands of bird and fish species. The Bijagos people maintain unique farming techniques, growing oysters and farming shrimp off the mangrove roots. Rising sea levels are destroying the mangroves because they cannot move inland fast enough, resulting in the loss of a unique ecosystem and a people who have lived at subsistence level in the area for thousands of years.
Cape Coast, Ghana
Cape Coast was the centre of Britain’s gold and slave trade during the days of the British empire. Its dark history is manifested in the huge castle that dominates its coastline, built for the trade in timber and gold, and later used as a holding place for slaves to be transported to America. The city is now not only a centre of education for Ghana but also an important point of return for many African Americans. For us, it is an important point in the triangle that links black communities in America, Britain and Africa.
Some 800km inland, this is the furthest point from the Atlantic that we will visit. Named after a town in Portugal, Santarem was an important staging post for Portuguese explorations up the Amazon. For the last 100 years the land around Santarem has supplied Europe and the USA with rubber and vast plantations of soy bean and black pepper. It is now facing with profound change as its lower reaches are threatened by sea level rise.
If sea levels rise by one metre, 80% of Guyana’s population will be displaced. Its captial, Georgetown is one of the lowest lying capital cities in the world, up to 6ft below sea level. For British students, it is familiar as the place from which all our Demerara sugar has come from. However, the future of Georgetown is in doubt. The capital city only survives because of a sea wall built by the Dutch. The government is now on a major drive to strengthen the citiy’s defences. And this extends beyond the sea wall, because any further rise in sea level will pollute the groundwater sources of the capital with salt. Georgetown provides a unique case study of how sea level change is already impacting government planning and policy – something we will see with more regularity in the coming years.
Orinoco River Delta, Venezuela
7000 sq/km of the Orinoco Delta will be lost with a 1m sea level rise. Not only will this devastate the flora and fauna of the region, but the Orinoco Delta is also the home of the Warao Indians, an indigenous people who have lived in the region for thousands of years. Warao literally translates as ‘The Boat People’, referring to their intimate connection to the Orinoco River, where babies often learn to swim before they learn to walk. This relationship to the water is different from anywhere else in the world and presents us with a great case study to compare with the indigenous communities in Mauritania and Guinea Bissau.
Margarita Island, Venezuela
Columbus’s fourth journey across the Atlantic started in Cadiz and finished on Margarita Island. The local natives, named Guaiqueries, received the conquering Spaniards with chests of pearls. Over the centuries this island has harvested the ocean’s most glamorous commodity and still remains vital to the island’s economy. But it was also on Margarita Island that Simon Bolivar was confirmed as Commander in Chief of the new republic of Colombia and it was from there that he started to free Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia from the Spanish Crown. So Margarita links us both to the beginning and end of empire. And to a group of people who have lived off the ocean in a uniquely profitable way.
Limon, Costa Rica
It was here that Christopher Columbus landed in 1502 and in the following years it became an important slave trading port. The town remains a bastion of black West African culture – West African food and music still predominate and, suprisingly, most people speak English. The low lying forests around the town are home to the last remaining indigenous Indian tribes of Costa Rica, whilst the shoreline provides refuge for nesting green turtles. Sea level rise will swamp the town and cause the turtles and Indians to seek new habitats elsewhere.
The Nicaraguan government classifies Bluefields as an autonomous area and residents feel closer to Kingston, Jamaica, than their capital Managua. The town is named after a pirate (a Dutchman, Henry Bluefeldt) and serves as the Creole capital of Central America. It is home to a largely English speaking mix of inhabitants who enjoy reggae and rum, country and western and yam. Here, we will contact Bluefields Sound System, a music and video production company dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Indigenous and Creole culture from Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. A unique melting point of cultural influences and an excellent case study for exploring ‘The Atlantic Community’.
Cuero y Salado Wildlife Reserve, Honduras
Cuero y Salado was the first privately administered wildlife refuge in Honduras. The nearby town of La Ceiba has been declared Honduras’ ‘capital of ecotourism’ and is flourishing as a destianation for conservationists and eco-tourists alike. As one of the big growth industries in Central America, the companies that operate in this industry are acutely aware of the dangers posed by sea level change on their economy and livelihood. We are currently linking with several companies working in this field who are based in La Ceiba.
Gales Point, Belize
This small village juts out into the Southern Lagoon, part of an extended estuary that is home to manatees and is the breeding ground for more than half Belize’s hawksbill turtles. Sea turtles are a good indicator species for climate change conservation planning. The health of beaches, mangroves, sea grass beds, coral reefs and ocean ecosystems can all be evaluated by the behaviour of turtles. The WWF is currently undertaking a research project to discover the impact of sea level rise on the nesting sites and feeding grounds of these turtles. The results will be used to create a model for assessing how climate change could affect other turtle species and to develop conservation strategies for elsewhere. We are linking with Marianne Fish, who is conducting this research on behalf of the WWFCA.
A little piece of the USA in Mexico. Beloved of students on Spring Break – Cancun has become Mexico’s sin city. According to college students what happens in Cancun, stays in Cancun. Cancun has been born out of the modern idea of the Ocean oasis – a white beach, blue sea and palm trees. Creating this for 250,000 people inevitably leads to huge pressure on the environment. Its high rise hotels, air conditioned atriums, and open air swimming pools contrast dramatically with the rainforest that surrounds the city. As urban expansion now threatens these areas, we will meet with local environmental groups to explore the possible impact on local ecosystems.
New Iberia, USA
New Iberia is a key town for the Gulf of Mexico oil rigging community. Generations of welders, engineers and tug boat drivers have constructed the platforms that pinprick the ocean bed in a tight-knit Cajun community, where the influences of French West African culture infuse the food (jambalaya) and music of the area. Here we will see a new relationship with the ocean as men plunder its depths for oil and natural gas. Inland, the architecture of Senegal is rediscovered on the floodplain of the Mississippi – plantation houses that are constructed using the same pyramidal pillar system as found on the floodplain of the River Gambia.
New Orleans, USA
Devastated by Katrina in 2005, no city expresses better the dangers posed by sea level change than New Orleans. A melting pot of French, West African, Creole and American culture, it is another fantastic example of how the Atlantic has connected people. The legacy of Katrina is still found in the poorer outskirts as well as the remoter bayou that surrounds Lake Ponchetrain. We have contacts with people who lived through Katrina, as well as organisations who have been re-building the area and planning defences against future catastrophes. Exploring these areas we also hope to discover the original historical plantations, built by the first slaves form Gambia and Senegal.
Key West, USA
The southern-most point of continental USA is important to us for many reasons. Its rich history as a British, Spanish and then American settlement gives us an insight into a community that made a fortune from wrecking and salvage, with residents luring ships onto the reefs to plunder their cargo. The ocean was an accomplice in their tasks and the flotsam and jetsom of its currents provided a healthy income. It is now a wealthy community, living a fragile existence amid the archipelago that is the first to suffer when tropical storms roll in from the Gulf of Mexico. How much longer will developers continue to build here when climate change experts are already calling for a long term strategy for evacuating Florida’s low lying areas?
Atlantic City, USA
The fortunes of Atlantic City ‘the Las Vegas of the east coast’ have risen and fallen with the tide. In the early 1900s it was a popular holiday destination, famous for its long boardwalk, impressive sea views and up-market hotels. But its popularity waned in the second half of the century and the hotels closed or converted into nursing homes. In a bid to revitalise the resort, casinos were introduced in the 1970s and its new visitors have not stopped gambling since. However, Atlantic City lies on narrow, sandy Absecon Island several miles off the mainland. Erosion of its beaches is expected to increase by 50 to 100 times with sea level rise, and experts warn that $6 billion will be needed over the next 50 years to prevent this erosion from destroying the city.
Nantucket Island, USA
Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world in the early 19th century, and its close relationship with the ocean is evident in the windswept houses that dot the island. For 200 years, its residents scoured the Atlantic in search of whale and cod, sometimes spending two years at sea on a single hunt. The legacy of this industry is found across the island – from the widow’s walks that grace the tops of whaling houses, to the historic fishing cottages that are still found within yards of the beach. With its western coastline currently losing 1ft a year to erosion, this sandy island is fighting a losing battle against sea level rise. Now the island is a tourist resort for America’s super-rich, but their houses are constantly threatened by the ocean. In 2008 alone, 5 houses and the island’s largest lighthouse had to be moved away from the encroaching tide.
We end where we began, with a small Scottish community on the shores of the Atlantic. But on the other side. Many of the Scots forced from their homes in the Highland Clearances settled in Nova Scotia (literally New Scotland). Right up to the 1960s, Scots were the third largest ethnic group in Canada and there is a rich Celtic culture and connection with the tartan land. Here we will be working with The Federation of Scottish Clans in Nova Scotia, exploring the history of these relations and trying to strengthen the bonds between coastal communities in these two countries.