Green Infrastructure, Ecosystem services and Climate-Smart Growth in the Caribbean

Pictured: storm damage in St. Martin after Hurricane Irma,

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Climate resilience is needed

Increasingly severe and frequent climatic events in the Caribbean have triggered many people to start looking beyond traditional disaster relief strategies for a long-term solution to climatic disasters.  Irma alone wiped out 14% of GDP in Antigua and Barbuda and decimated an estimated 200% of Dominica’s GDP.  Such storms not only affect the Caribbean’s economic development, but also the everyday lives of the 40 million people living in the region, making new, innovative policies and disaster resilience an absolute necessity on the agenda of these island states.  Many Caribbean governments are finding a foundation of resilience by simply better understanding the land on which they inhabit.  Green infrastructure—servicing the ecosystems that already exist in an area—may be the pathway to wealth, health, and improved social relations in afflicted countries, providing personal security from natural disasters through nature’s own processes.

Green infrastructure can be anything from a natural and restored native ecosystem to a protected open space or working land.  Wetlands, wildlife habitats, and nature preserves offer valuable processes that can provide a “land and water legacy” for present and future generations if protected and serviced properly.  The Ecological Society of America describes green infrastructure as “functioning natural ecosystems [that] perform services that are the fundamental life-support systems upon which human civilization depends.”  The environmental functions of green infrastructure, such as wetlands, can provide groundwater replenishment, storm protection, nutrient retention, and storage of carbon—a major role in climate change mitigation.  For example, Florida’s cypress swamps remove 98% of all nitrogen and 97% of phosphorus from wastewater before water enters the ground reserves if in a healthy and functioning state.  Deterioration or destruction of wetlands through human intervention can release dangerous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to accelerated warming of the Earth and intensification of storm events.

Green infrastructure can also create monetary gain to suffering economies in the Caribbean through income generation for local workers, increased tourism from the rejuvenation of an ecosystems’ natural beauty, and prevention of further costly environmental deterioration.  Local communities in Vietnam saved the equivalent of US $7.3 billion per year that they would have paid in dyke maintenance through the restoration of mangrove forests.

Such benefits of green infrastructure have been observed in the coastal community of Negril in Jamaica.  After an unofficial no fishing zone in Negril lead to substantial rejuvenation of lobster, shrimp, and fish populations, the group of fishermen who first enforced this rule decided to build on this task to involve climate change adaptation through revival of sea moss growth.  With the help of the Coastal Protection for Climate Change Adaptation, Negril has broadened its green infrastructure initiatives to include the protection of the natural mangrove forests and coral reefs, as well as restoring man-made structures like groynes and revetments.  These services aim to minimize the impacts of climate change on the island and improve climate resilience in Negril.

Many Caribbean nations have united in a “climate smart zone” coalition, pledging to this idea of green infrastructure.  The Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator is working “to build low-carbon and resilient infrastructure including nature-based approaches, to better withstand future extreme weather events. It will do so by identifying and uniting commitments to building a more sustainable and resilient future for island nations through collaboration between national governments, regional and international institutions as well as public and private sector organizations.”  It is these type of partnerships and leadership from Caribbean leaders that will move the needle on sustainable development and green infrastructure implementation in the Caribbean.  Green infrastructure goes beyond traditional conservation strategies to create ecosystem rejuvenation alongside development, infrastructure planning, and growth.  This congruence of environmental and economic goals leads to shared values, providing mediation of opposing viewpoints of the “developer” and “conservationist” to achieve both economic growth and thriving ecosystems.  Over time, green infrastructure could lessen the burden of hurricanes and natural disasters that Caribbean nations face.

Article written by:

Tony Pooley, Sustainability & Resiliency Development

Allison Hajda, Sustainability Intern 


Green Infrastructure by Mark A. Benedict and Edward T. McMahon

Ecosystems and Disaster Risk Reduction: Working Paper in Contribution to the Global Assessment Report

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