By: Selima Hauber
‘Boy Elutra sweet nah!’ was the response from someone who had just learned that I was relocating from Nassau to Eleuthera. I often get similar responses from folks who ask how my family is enjoying living in Eleuthera. Everyone who’s vacationed on any of the Family Islands can attest to this ‘sweetness’. Have you ever wondered why island life is ‘sweet’? Why do you feel so restored after a Family Island vacation? Being on vacation is part of it, but not the whole story. The reason we find island life ‘sweet’ has been scientifically studied and documented and it will serve us well to pay attention to the data to protect the ‘gold’ that carpets much of our archipelago.
The ‘sweetness’ that we feel when visiting our Family Islands has a lot to do with their very nature – vast expanses of untouched forests. Exposure to greenspaces like forests has been studied over the past thirty years by natural and social scientists who have made some surprising findings. For instance, can you imagine your time recovering from surgery being shortened just by having a view of natural scenery outside your window? Add to that the need for less and weaker postoperative pain killers and ensuring that hospital recovery rooms overlook a beautiful park becomes a no-brainer that can potentially save our healthcare system hundreds of thousands of dollars! What I find even more fascinating is that our immune system functioning is improved after contact with nature. Researchers have recorded increases in our bodies’ natural killer cells after a walk in the woods. These specialized white blood cells course through our bodies and annihilate cancerous cells and infected cells! Other studies show improvements in markers of cardiovascular health after contact with nature. It is indisputable that our green Family Islands are crucial to our physical health.
The benefits don’t stop at physical wellbeing. Mental health is also supported by time spent in the great outdoors. Exposure to green environments improves cognitive functioning, increases ability to focus, and increases resilience in the face of stressful events. Decreases in stress and anxiety were quantified by decreases in blood pressure, pulse rate and the stress hormone cortisol. This explains the feeling of stress vanishing as you venture down the heavily vegetated, single-lane roads of the
Family Islands. The connection between exposure to greenspace and depression is so strong that researchers can predict the prevalence of depression in neighbourhoods based on the amount of ‘greenness’ of that neighbourhood. One study in the UK showed that pharmacies in greener neighbourhoods dispensed fewer antidepressants than those in less green areas.
Improvements in physical and mental health are astounding enough, but social wellbeing is also improved by contact with nature. In a famous study of a housing project in Chicago, residents in buildings surrounded by trees and grass reported stronger social ties, a greater sense of community and healthier social functioning in shared space than those who resided in buildings whose courtyards were devoid of trees and grass. There were less reports of aggression, violence and general social breakdown. These findings were corroborated by police crime reports. Buildings that were heavily vegetated had 52% fewer total crimes, 48% fewer property crimes and 56% percent fewer violent crimes! The level of crime the capital is currently experiencing is very disconcerting and certainly connected to a myriad of influencing socioeconomic factors. Can ensuring that each neighbourhood has a well-maintained, public greenspace cultivate a greater sense of social and mental wellbeing among the residents, and help to restore the legacy of the connected communal communities of yesteryear?
Environmental protection is a high priority at One Eleuthera Foundation. Our campus was carefully carved out of an overgrown property making it a beautiful, tranquil place to work. We are keenly aware of the value of our terrestrial and marine environment and strive to promote cautious, sustainable development of all Family Islands. It is easy to make the case for environmental protection when considering climate change and protection of biodiversity, yet we still find vast expanses of forests being cleared for development. Do the data regarding nature’s effect on our overall wellbeing weigh heavily enough to deter you from clear-cutting to build your forever home? I am so encouraged by the Forestry (Declaration of Protected Trees) Order gazetted in February of 2021 that lists over one hundred protected plant species including endemic, endangered or threatened species as well as
those of cultural and economic importance. Before one develops a vegetated site, permits from the Department of Environmental Planning & Protection, and the Department of Forestry are now required. This is a big step in the right direction towards increasing public awareness of the value of our native forests.
For a small island developing state like ours, with limited industry and extremely vulnerable revenue generating sources, we have to put a dollar value on this natural resource and the services it provides. Healthcare costs stand to crush our economy with our high rates of non-communicable diseases. We must appreciate the ‘gold’ that lies in the greens and blues of our forests and waters to support our physical, social and mental wellbeing.
We have a great opportunity to plan the development of our Family Islands in such a way as to ensure that they remain mostly green and are available to provide the numerous healing ecosystem services that rich and poor alike benefit from. Protecting it for us and visitors to experience ensures lifetimes of health and wealth. Make it a priority to experience greenspaces regularly, just as you would take a multivitamin or drink eight glasses of water daily for your general health. The benefits to your overall well-being are priceless!