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Living on a desert island: Porto Santo’s desertification should be lesson to us all

Updated: 
September 3, 2017 - 12:05am

Since we were just a couple of hours by boat from what is referred to as the “Golden Island,” we decided to check it out. The island of Porto Santo is the only other inhabited island besides Madeira in the archipelago, with a population of around 5,000 people. Around a third of the size of Kahoolawe, it truly is a desert island, but it was not always that way. According to local folks, the climate was much more moist even a century ago. Today, most farming has been abandoned, leaving rural houses and terraces of stone for archeologists to study. Even though farming and trees are mostly gone, the beautiful golden sand beaches attract European tourists, especially those from the far north.

Captain Zarco supposedly discovered the Madeira Islands in 1419, but remember most history is written by those who survive it. Studies of other records and new DNA research show that an earlier people called the Guanches were there long before. It is suspected that the Guanches may have arrived as early as 1,000 B.C. Even earlier people like the Numidians, Phoenicians and Carthaginians probably found the islands much earlier but never settled there, or at least left no permanent mark except some clay pottery and other items not destroyed by time. The migrations of numerous cultures throughout North Africa into Europe were probably influenced by the desertification of the Sahara, which was known to be previously tree-covered savannas. Human activities in North Africa have caused the loss of forests and affected the climate for millennium but these activities in Porto Santo have accelerated desertification more rapidly in recent centuries than at any other historical time.

The history of desertification on Porto Santo Island should be a lesson to us all. The introduction of rabbits, goats and sheep was certainly a factor, but the removal of the forest cover created conditions for erosion and soil loss. Rainfall patterns were disrupted. Where grain, grapes and vegetable crops were grown a few generations ago, even cacti have a difficult time surviving. Now attempts to reforest with drought resistant pines, tamarisk and some native plants are helpful but even these tolerant plants struggle.

Tourism is now the financial lifeline for the island community. A small airport has been constructed to bring in guests from Northern Europe during the winter months to play their only golf course. Potable water is being supplied by desalination facilities and several storage reservoirs have been constructed to capture the occasional storm waters. A sewage treatment plant has been built to supply water to irrigate the golf course and local agricultural endeavors. Windmills have also been installed so the island will be energy independent in the near future.

With a beautiful 10-mile golden sand beach and clear, relatively warm waters, tourism is doing well. The few hotels, restaurants, apartments and homes are landscaped with date and Washingtonia palms, fig, pomegranate and grapes. Low chill fruits like apples may be found growing, as well. Instead of emphasizing the negative, residents of the island decided to play up their positive qualities of history, friendly folks and delicious food. Reforestation efforts and self-sufficiency efforts are being emphasized. Perhaps a lesson we can learn.

Most Porto Santo landscapes include the one time almost extinct Dragon tree, thus assuring its survival. This is a lesson we can learn about the use of endangered plants that can no longer exist in the wild due to changes in the ecosystem. Our endemic Pritchardia palms are a good example. There are around 24 species found in no place other than Hawaii growing naturally. Here they are very rare even though they made up much of our forests before the first humans arrived. After the introduction of pigs and rats that ate the seeds, the palm forests began to disappear. Today, some species are limited to a few trees. One way to save them is to use them in our landscape planting. Many other rare natives can be used, as well.

What can we learn from Porto Santo and other islands throughout the world like those in the Mediterranean, tropical pacific and others? Of course we need to protect our native animals and plants where possible, recognizing that the altered environment may no longer be able to sustain some of them. Where possible, we should reforest our islands to increase rainfall and take advantage of other benefits of forests like reducing carbon dioxide, erosion and building soils. Planting trees that have economic advantages like koa, mahogany, teak, pine and others on lands that have been altered because of overgrazing is another approach.

Our visitor industry is great, but it may not continue to grow with all the new and beautiful places to visit around the world. We cannot always depend on tourism to be the only source of income so a major effort to agricultural and energy self-sufficiency is paramount. Let us support our local and state governments as well as private businesses in making this a priority.

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