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2015 Ontario Budget: A huge leap forward for Transit

Over the years  most Federal and Provincial budgets have carried huge promises, with little actual substance. The same funding sources get reused and regurgitated under different names, to make it look like the politicians are actually doing something.  But while the 2015 Ontario Budget has issued some big promises, it surprisingly backs up those promises with real funding streams.

Over the past century Ontario has lacked a Finance Minister with the courage to create a dedicated fund for transit and transportation, primarily because it allows the public to see the actual funds that exist for transit expansion, to evaluate, calculate and understand what is truly available – and question the validity of campaign promises.

Finance Minister Charles Sousa has set up the Trillium Trust, making him the first Minister of Finance in Ontario to create a dedicated and transparent transit fund. This not only an historic event but a significant leap forward for transit in Ontario.   By creating a transparent dedicated transit fund, the Wynne government has taken a crucial step towards setting up a credible and reliable process for funding transit infrastructure expansion. The next step is to create a dedicated funding stream and they have addressed this, albeit in a small way. By dedicating the estimated $100 million per year beer tax to the Trillium Trust, they are sowing the seeds to creating the dedicated transit funding that Ontario so desperately needs to fund the projects promised in this budget.

Ontario is struggling to come up with the funds needed to pay for the $52.5 billion, 25 year Big Move plan launched in 2008. With little additional revenues put in place over the years to fund the Big Move, and shovels in the ground on projects like the Eglinton-Crosstown ($5.3 billion) the immediate need for funding is crucial.

By selling shares in General Motors and Hydro-One and combining this with additional funds from the beer tax, the Wynne government has found a way to raise approximately $5.3 billion to cover the estimated cost of the Eglinton-Crosstown.

Metrolinx will need an extra $3.4 billion a year over 10 years to meet the additional project funding requirements that the Wynne government is promising to spend in this budget on transit projects. Add this to the $50 billion already committed over 25 years for the Big Move, ($2 billion/year) and the total annual investment the Wynne government is promising is approximately $5.4 billion per year over the next 10 years. It’s a significant investment with its first year of funding covered by the sale of assets mentioned above. But  where will the funding come from for the following 9 years? Will it get pulled from Education and Healthcare or will Wynne demonstrate her strength to stand up for the dedicated transit funding Ontario needs? (We are waiting on a response from the Ministry of Finance).

That said, the fact that this budget also addresses the need to electrify the GO lines, clearly outlined in Mayor Tory’s Smart Track proposal – specifically mentioning Smart Track – demonstrates a strong desire to work collaboratively with Mayor Tory.  Minister of Transit Steven Del Duca explained Friday that working collaboratively “with partners” is important to the Wynne government.

The key to building the transit (roads, bridges and rail) that Ontario needs to remain competitive on the world stage is dedicated transit funding and by setting up the Trillium Trust and dedicating the new beer tax to it, the Wynne government has taken a major step inbuilding our communities. The next step is to secure a basket of revenue tools dedicated to this fund to generate the $5 billion annually needed to fund the commitments made in this budget. Tolls, high occupancy toll lanes, sales tax, carbon tax, congestion charges, and parking levies are all tools used in other jurisdictions. A strong campaign designed to educate Ontario residents on the value they receive (positive economic impact/jobs) from infrastructure expansion is crucial to gaining support for the dedicated transit funding needed over the next decade. The 2015 Ontario budget is the right, reasonable and responsible approach to moving Ontario forward.

Public Transit Fund announced in 2015 Budget

The 2015 Federal budget announcement of a public transit fund is a huge leap forward for Canada and we tip our hat to Prime Minister Harper for finally having the kahuna’s to announce it. The fund won’t actually start until 2017, and the 750million – 1Billion annual amount is a drop in the bucket to what is needed across the country, but it is the first step to helping cities across the country become competitive on the global stage and it is a step that other party leaders will have to follow.

But the Prime Minister isn’t wading into a pond of alligators, he’s walking into a dry desert desperately in need. A federal Transit fund will allow municipalities across the country to finally look at long term transit plans and allow urban centers like Toronto to have a real opportunity to combat the growing gridlock.

Many transit advocates had hoped the Budget2015  would announce some form of immediate funding, but alas  it holds off  until after the election, starting in 2017-18 it will provide an additional $750 million over two years for expansion in municipalities, and $1 billion per year ongoing thereafter for a new and innovative Public Transit Fund. ” The fund will work heavily with P3 Canada to ensure that transit infrastructure investment is done in a manner that is “affordable for taxpayers and efficient for commuters.”

Specifics of the Federal Transit Fund suggest that funds will be awarded to projects that are based on the P3 model … “federal support will be allocated based on merit to projects that will be delivered through alternative financing and funding mechanisms involving the private sector that demonstrate value for money for taxpayers, including P3s.” Specifics on  the use of Canadian companies and workforce were not mentioned, which is important to ensuring that the Federal transit  fund has the the greatest economic impact on our communities.

For decades municipalities have called for a federal dedicated transit fund and this budget demonstrates that finally someone is listening. It will be interesting to see what the other parties announce as the election looms closer, but one thing is certain — they will need to have a dedicated transit fund in their platforms or risk losing voters in urban centres across the country.

It doesn’t matter what your political stripe, the 2015 Budget announcement of a federal transit fund for Canada is a fantastic step forward. It will transform our cities significantly and allow us to be much more competitive globally. It is the right, reasonable and responsible approach to building cities across the country, and it is long overdue.

Serda Evren – team builder extraordinaire

One of the most challenging years in Serda Evren’s life taught her to look hard at herself, find the value in everyone, be open to people, and have fun. It was a very productive eighth grade.

“Leadership is about making decisions and sometimes you have to make tough decisions but you make them full of heart; you make them with emotion but you don’t let your emotions make the decision,” says Evren, who recently added a North American communications mandate to her role as Vice President of Communications and Philanthropy for MasterCard Canada.

When she was 13, Evren’s parents emigrated from Istanbul to Toronto, and suddenly the outgoing and full-of-life teen was the odd girl out. “We moved, leaving home and friends, for this completely new place at this critical age,” she remembers. “English wasn’t my first language, I wasn’t into New Kids on the Block. I was bullied and teased, but I realized you either make it or you don’t, and I decided to make it.”

That experience during her formative years made her realize the importance of seeing people for who they are, and understanding who she is. As she has advanced in her career, she has built on that philosophy to include helping others understand what they are good at. “I thought of myself as a generous, thoughtful, loving person and all they saw was a new kid. I wanted people to see who I really was, and that motivated me to always try to see people for who they truly are.”

Life became better, thanks in part to Evren’s practice of reading the newspaper aloud every day, cover to cover, to practice her English. By grade 10 it was flawless, and she was also a master of current events, which launched her passion for politics.

The University of Toronto was even better. She ran for the student union office, and in third year volunteered for the federal Liberal Party. With two years of volunteer service and a brand new political science degree under her belt the Liberals offered her a paying job. Thus began several years of long hours, lots of travel and sometimes living out of a suitcase. “The biggest gift of politics, other than the opportunity to change the world, is the people you meet. You work long hours in the trenches, you share beliefs, living together, travelling together, not eating or sleeping well. These people are your lifeline, and you form life-long friendships.”

Working in Federal and Provincial politics during the Jean Chretien and Dalton McGuinty administrations and a 14-month stint in Washington, DC, where she interned with Representative Congressman Anthony Weiner (yes, the “sexting” congressman) gave Evren insight into what makes a good leader, and a bad leader. A big part of that is surrounding yourself with the right people. “You can be a genuine, incredible, person, but if you’ve surrounded yourself with the wrong people it’s not going to work.”

Building a good team requires recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses. It requires some thoughtful introspection. “You have to spend time on yourself to be self-aware. You have to really understand yourself… your strengths, weaknesses, motivators, demotivators. If you’re not self-aware how can you possibly build an effective team around you?”

That also means finding your purpose. She advises: figure out the value you bring, what you’re really good at, and harness it. Deliver on it every day. Show up every day to make the team or the organization function better.

One thing Evren’s team – and her bosses – will tell you is that she is fun to work with.
“Let’s have a good time. Let’s build something together we’re proud of, so you feel good about what you’re doing.” She is not a stickler for hierarchy. “It kills spirit and inspiration,” she says. “There have to be lines because you’re not doing the same job and don’t have the same responsibilities but … I’ve seen people who put 100 steps between them and junior staffers and there’s no reason that needs to happen. I’d rather be building the bridges, being collaborative.”

Her goal is to build inspired teams – where everyone has a purpose and a role in making something better, and making a real impact. “It doesn’t have to be something huge, like reinventing PR. It could be that at a moment in time you brought forward an idea that shifted a strategy or changed a perspective.” It also means she doesn’t have to pretend to be good at everything. Leaders who succeed in building teams of people with diverse skills create successful departments or functions.

“I have never had an ‘end goal.’ I believe in letting opportunities find me. Who knows what the future holds but if I help people find and develop the value they bring, that’s something that helps those individuals and the organization for a long time, and I call that success.”

Humility over hubris will fix the TTC

There is a systemic issue that has plagued the TTC for decades.  Historically the TTC has lacked strong leadership, with CEOs being fired every few years,  few of them have had the time or inclination to tackle the managers or hold them accountable for their actions.

Last week a few columnists and politicians hinted that CEO of the TTC, Andy Byford, was to blame for the Spadina extension overruns.   Like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland who shouts “off with his head” they wanted a simple solution without understanding the complexity of the problem.  The TTC’s main mandate is to deliver good service efficiently and Mr. Byford has done exceptionally well on that front, despite inheriting an organization with a long history of poor accountability and mismanagement.

Consider the recent auditor’s report that found the TTC had not been monitoring the use and maintenance of its non-revenue fleet going as far back as 2005. Take a closer look at the report and what becomes obvious is the systemic issues that CEO Andy Byford has inherited.   The auditor’s report demonstrated that accountability has not been part of the TTC’s culture for decades. To expect our new CEO to do a complete overhaul of the system in under 5 years is ludicrous.

It’s easy to criticize when it comes to failures, but much harder to understand what caused the failures.  The real challenge facing the TTC is to change the culture of entitlement and unaccountability that fills the management ranks. But Byford has taken action. He’s reviewed the TTC infrastructure department, fired those responsible for the Spadina extension overruns, and admitted that he needs help and that the TTC infrastructure department can’t handle the project. Not only did this take balls, but it took humility – exactly the trait needed to bring real change to the TTC.

Mr. Byford’s firing of the Spadina extension project managers not only tells Toronto he’s taking action but it has sent a huge message to all TTC employees –  that no matter how high ranking someone is, they will be accountable for their actions.  This is a message that many TTC employees, frustrated with the lack of accountability and the attitude of entitlement within TTC management, needed to hear. In Byford, TTC now has a leader with humility, who is determined to give the public the best service possible while at the same time weed out the hubris that will always cause an organization to fail.

Where does the TTC infrastructure department go from here?

The answer is obvious to those who work in the industry — the contractors and engineers — who have worked with the TTC in the past and now refuse to even bid on most TTC projects, to those who have spent the past decade quietly complaining to anyone who would listen, about the ineptitude of the TTC infrastructure department.  The solution the contractors, tradespeople and engineering firms suggest is to turn all the large transit projects that TTC has in their plans over to Metrolinx.

Metrolinx is the provincial transit body responsible for building transit infrastructure – most recently, the Union-Pearson Express (delivered on time and on budget).  Under the leadership of CEO, Bruce McCuaig, Metrolinx has steered its large projects through Infrastructure Ontario which has developed an efficient process (with a 97% success rate) to manage big infrastructure projects.  Add to this the fact that McCuaig has attracted some of the best in the field, and the humility that McCuaig brings to his role as CEO of Metrolinx and it is easy to see why so many in the industry see them as the great solution to Toronto’s infrastructure problems.

A partnership between Metrolinx and the TTC is the best solution for Toronto. It would allow the TTC to focus on delivering excellent service efficiently, while at the same time deliver the expertise that Metrolinx has to all our future transit expansion plans.

Against All odds

Two classic tales of survival

by   George Patrick

 

The enormous success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, the true story of an ill‑fated expedition up Mount Everest, has led to a succession of books dealing with real human beings locked in a deadly struggle with the forces of nature.

Twenty‑six years ago, the equivalent book was Alive : The Story of the Andes Survivors  by Piers Paul Read.  This was one of those books that I really meant to read but never quite get around to at the time.  So when I saw a hardback copy of Alive  in the thrift store for a loonie I knew it was time to splurge.

Older readers will no doubt remember this extraordinary story which captured the headlines at the time.

In 1972, a rugby team of former students at a Uruguayan Catholic school was flying westwards over the Andes to play a match in Chile.  There were forty‑five people aboard the twin prop plane.  Somehow the two pilots seriously miscalculated their position.  Thinking that they were descending to land in Chile, they crashed high up in the Andes mountains.  Many were killed outright in the crash, others died agonizing deaths from their injuries.  For the twenty‑seven survivors of the crash, mostly young men aged about twenty, an ordeal of almost unimaginable horror began.  Ten weeks later, only fifteen would emerge from the mountains.

High above the treeline, there was no vegetation or animal life to sustain them when their meagre supply of food ran out. The air was so thin that any exertion was exhausting, and the snows so deep that they sank up to their waists.  It was desperately cold.  All around loomed great peaks: there was no way of knowing whether the best way out lay to the east (Argentina), or to the west (Chile).

Gradually, hope of rescue faded.  The pilots, both dead, had radioed such an inaccurate last position that the air search had little hope of success.  In any case, the searchers were looking for a white plane in a desert of white.

Soon all the food was gone, and famished eyes slowly turned to the frozen corpses of their friends and family members.  The unthinkable became thinkable.  Before their long agony was over, all would have eaten human flesh, including hearts , livers and brains.  Like latter day Australopithicenes, they learned to crack bones to get at the energy rich marrow of former teammates.  Calling upon Catholic theology, they compared it to the eucharist, when Catholics eat the flesh of Jesus.

This tale of cannibalism was, of course, the thing that would capture the attention of the world a few days after the miraculous survival of the fifteen was announced.  Inevitably, that is what everyone remembers about the Andes survivors.  But there is so much more to this story.

Alive  is ultimately a portrait of a small society pushed to the very limit of its endurance.  In such extremes, individual character is pared to the essence.  The strong tend to walk over the weak ‑ literally, in the cramped, fetid fuselage where they huddled for warmth at night.  The weak tend to become whining, cadging dependents.    Some, strong to begin, crumble under the stress.  And in one case, a young man, hitherto a  nondescript also‑ran, emerges as a hero of Homeric proportions.

Alive  is an unforgettable story.

Reading this classic got me to thinking about other stories of human survival in the face of Nature’s impersonal cruelty.  Growing up in Britain after World War II, I read dozens of such stories.  Most famous of these was Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon Tiki Expedition (1950), that sublime tale of a bunch of modern day Vikings sailing westwards from Peru to Easter Island on a raft.  But it was not typical of this genre.  Although the Kon Tiki lads faced great danger, it all worked out for the best.  The whole affair is a bit of a joyous lark.

Most of the stories I read were grimmer — about soldiers fleeing from Japanese POW camps, stricken with dysentery and beri beri; or torpedoed seamen drifting for weeks on rafts in the middle of the ocean, tortured by thirst.  And so on.  Of all these stories, however, one has haunted my imagination over the forty‑five years since I read it.

In 1955, David Howarth wrote We Die Alone, the incredible story of  Jan  Baalsrud.

On a whim, I tootled down to my local public library and two‑fingered the title into their computer.   I really didn’t expect to find it.  But there (bless our underfunded public library system) it was.

Jan Baalsrud was a young Norwegian.  When The Germans invaded Norway in 1940, he fought against them until resistance was futile.  He then escaped over the border to neutral Sweden, and  made his way, via Russia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Aden, Bombay, South Africa, the USA and Newfoundland, to Britain.  There, in the Scottish Highlands, he trained as a freedom fighter.

In March 1943, Jan and eleven other patriots landed on the very northern shore of Norway just north of Tromso, well above the Arctic Circle.  Their mission was to disrupt the Nazi air reconnaissance that was playing merry hell with the convoys carrying supplies into Murmansk, our Soviet ally’s icefree port in the north.  (It is worth consulting an atlas for this story.)

The twelve men were unlucky from the first.  The Germans were waiting for them.  Detonating the eight tons of explosives in the hold of their disguised fishing boat, the twelve tried to make it to shore and flee.  Only Jan made it into the snow‑ covered hills.  One foot was bare, and a German bullet had shot off half the big toe.  Jan’s only hope now was to elude the Germans who were hunting him down, cross the mountains in Arctic winter, and escape once again to Sweden.  We Die Alone  is the epic tale of Jan’s journey, a classic of human fortitude.

Before his ordeal was over, Jan would suffer as few have suffered.  He was entombed in snow more than once; swept downhill by an avalanche; wandered for days snowblind until he walked into the wall of a cabin; and was reduced by starvation and suffering to half his body weight. Yet he never lost the indomitable will to survive.  Finally, entombed once more in the snows of the high  mountain wilderness, he examined his gangrenous, frostbitten toes, and made a decision.  Taking out his pocketknife, he severed nine of them.  This is the scene that has remained with me over a lifetime.

What I had largely forgotten was how hundreds of Norwegians, finally given an opportunity to do something against the Nazi invaders, worked together, at enormous personal risk, to help their crippled young hero over the mountains to freedom.  Like Alive, this is a story about individual survival in a wasteland of snow and perishing cold.  But it is also, like Alive, a story of community, of human beings coming together to meet a challenge that few of us are ever likely to face.

David Howarth, in his introduction to We Die Alone, admits that Jan’s story defies belief.  But the author retraced  the steps of Jan’s agonizing odyssey, speaking to all the Norwegians who helped him, or who, for example, found Jan’s smashed skis where he was swept down the mountain by the avalanche.  In every detail, Jan’s story held up.

Alive  and We Die Alone  are two extraordinary testaments to the human spirit.

There are several editions of both these stories, some with modified titles.  The same is true of Kon Tiki.

 

Piers Paul Read.  Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (Lippincott)  1974.  352 pages.  Also a revised edition by Adventure Library 1996.

David Howarth.  We Die Alone (Collins)  1955.  256 pages.  Also in Adventure Library 1996.

Plowing transit funding forward

I have a lapel button with the words “I’ll pay for it” transposed over a subway map. It’s a reminder of all the people I’ve met over the years (while campaigning for dedicated transit funding) who were willing to pay for transit expansion as long as they knew their funds would go directly to it.

Last week Toronto City Council announced it would have to borrow $86 Million to cover cuts the Province made to social housing back in 2013. Mayor Tory had hoped to convince the province to reverse their decision but they wouldn’t, or, to be more accurate, they couldn’t reverse their decision because they too are having revenue issues.

The critics have attacked Mayor Tory on his decision to borrow the funds needed to cover this shortfall to social housing. But we can’t expect Mayor Tory or City Council to address the huge revenue problem Toronto has, when we as a city refuse to support candidates who advocate for more funding.

It’s time to deal in facts, and the very basic fact for Toronto is that there isn’t enough revenue to provide, or expand on, the services the city currently has to fulfill. From housing to transit Toronto doesn’t have the funds we need to provide the services and the anti-tax attitude dominating every issue has limited our ability to keep up with other growing cities. There are two questions we have to ask : Do you want more transit in the city? Do you want to care for those in need? Politicians who even suggest Toronto use dedicated revenue tools common in other cities, get swept aside for those who shout “no tax increases.” Our civic leaders can’t invest in our city because we refuse to give them the support to do it.

It’s time to change. Time to come together as a city and begin the work required to educate our residents on the crisis Toronto will have if we don’t act today.  We have elected someone who may turn out to be one of the best Mayor’s Toronto has ever had, he’s a consensus builder, a centrist not shackled to the far left or right. But we can’t expect Mayor Tory to deliver the services Toronto needs if we don’t provide him the funds to do it.

When it comes to revenue tools there are a number of good ideas that the Board of Trade, Metrolinx and the Transit Alliance have endorsed. Metrolinx suggested a basket of revenue tools that included a 1% sales tax, a 5 cent gas tax, parking levies, and an increase in development charges. Other North American cities have used toll roads, and the Toronto Act gives our city the ability to toll the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, which were downloaded to Toronto over 20 years ago.

It’s time for each one of us to rip away the rigid anti-tax attitude that has settled over Toronto, and held us back from building an effective and vibrant city. The first step is to envision what the city might be like if we invested in transit. Think of the jobs this kind of investment would bring, and of the future we would be building not just for today but for our children. The next step is to work actively to dispel the myth that city hall is rolling in funds with the reality – Toronto has a revenue problem that must be solved. If you would like to help, please join the Transit Alliance campaign for dedicated transit funding – you can become a member, volunteer, and share our posts on your social media wall. Forward. Together.

“Operation Soap” brought out our ugly

Today is Feb, 5th and on this day 34 years ago Toronto police organized “Operation Soap” raiding four gay bathhouses in the city and arresting over 300 innocent men. It was perhaps one of our lowest points as a city and should serve to remind all of us how easily our rights can be taken away.  Human rights are, unfortunately, easily ignored when those given power are ignorant.

Peter Bochove was co owner of the Richmond Street Health Emporium at the time of the raid in 1981 and said the police came in with crow bars and sledge hammers “ they were offered the keys to the lockers and the rooms, but they held up a crowbar and said — we brought our own. We ended up in the shower room and we were all told to strip” One of the cops who was looking at the pipes going into the shower room said, “gee, it’s too bad we can’t hook this up to gas.” http://www.yorku.ca/jspot/5/stand_together/3/

The campaign was an initiative by the metropolitan police to push gay bars and bathhouses out of business – but also to silence those who advocated for gay rights.

Instead of driving the LGBT community underground it worked as a catalyst, uniting the gay community and building support through mass demonstrations, rallies and marches.  It was the beginning of six years of steady harassment by the police of gay press and gay men across the country; but also the beginning of the gay rights movement in Canada.  Instead of hiding, gay men took to the streets, marching with their supporters, pushing the boundary and speaking out. It was the end of the silence.

Today is a day to remember, and a day to celebrate all those who stood up for gay rights and refused to stay silent.

Social media exposes all

Love it or hate it, social media is having a huge impact on the world and it is one that I view optimistically.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are the newest forms of communication and they are working to build better communities. There are some interesting trends that have developed over facebook in conjunction with Twitter and Youtube, that are causing people to be more reflective, more compassionate and better informed.

Take for instance #ThrowbackThursdays – this is a general call for users to post old pictures of themselves to share with their community.  It requires people to dig through their past and gain  little reflection in the process. Or the growing trend to capture everything on video. From kittens wrestling to puppies playing, video producers are everywhere adding a creative drive to new media that is reshaping the entertainment world.

But perhaps the most significant impact of social media is its ability to allow knowledge to grow and expand. No longer can editors act as gate-keepers, deciding what is important and what is not. In a world were pictures, videos and words can be shared with the click of a button the opportunity to learn has never been more accessible. Social media is a powerful tool that can be used as a weapon, or a form of defense – think of all the videos that have come out exposing assault, pushing people to be more.  The real strength of social media rests in its ability to expose injustice and the hidden messages that rest just under the surface.

Take for example politics. Over the past century land developers have influenced politicians to build infrastructure that will increase their property values. They might push for a railway station that connects to their property in order to increase their property value, or they might go further and influence the design of the entire rail line to have fewer stops in order to increase their land value even further – the demand for space near the stop will be much greater. However social media can easily expose this sort of corruption. Property ownership is easy to find online, connections between developers and those who created the design can be easily exposed. Can you imagine the damage that could be done to a politician promoting a rail line with few stops through the city if social media exposed that the design for the line was created by developers with property at those stops?  No longer can a group of land developers push through a poor design. No longer can politicians get away with paying off their sponsors. Social media is just starting to shape the way our society moves forward and I for one am looking forward to the impacts it will have on our future.

In pursuit of the guilt-free tan

By Kate Zankowicz

Locusts are swarming the beaches of the Canary Islands and sea turtles are washing up on the shores of Mexico. With such startling ecological costs, how can one manage to frolic in the sand without a burdened conscience this winter? Although I was initially skeptical about ecotourism, I have suffered from the shock of accidentally discovering that raw sewage pipe while innocently combing the beach for cowry shells in the past. I decided that my trip to Saint Martin/Sint Maarten had to be more environmentally kosher.

For those readers who are envisioning being tangled up in mangrove roots while tracking the elusive Sacred Ibis bird, or being forced to tag and label heaps of turtle eggs, think again. You don’t have to be a freakishly avid bird-watcher or relish portage through the jungle to be an eco-tourist. Although Costa Rica may seem to be the most obvious eco-tourist destination, there are many Caribbean islands that are making a commitment to ecologically smart tourism practices, led by CAST (the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism) and various nature foundations and ocean reserves.

The small Dutch and French island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, for instance, boasts a Marine park and a bird sanctuary. This has been in response to the overwhelming number of tourists (1.2 million a year) who come to cavort on 92 km of pristine white sand beaches and turquoise blue surf. Paradoxically enough, the very things that attract tourists to the island are endangered by their presence there. The main town on the Dutch side, Phillipsburg, is replete with all the trappings of any North American shopping mall. There is a Tommy Hilfiger and Gap for the 20,000 tourists who come off the cruise ship each day to do some shopping they could very well have done at home.

It’s a quaint colonial town, but one that remains surprisingly silent about its colonial past: supposedly discovered by Columbus, invaded by the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the English, and even the Americans (Juliana Airport is the old U.S. military base). The island was a sugar plantation economy until the tourists started coming, and was a key producer of salt for Dutch herring until the resorts started being built. The border between the French and Dutch sides is marked by a solitary monument. The main difference is that there are sexier guavaberry cocktails and more nude beaches on the French side. Both sides are on the Euro currency, and accept every credit card imaginable.

In the face of a population that seems to double every few years, the marine parks and wildlife preserves are important steps in safeguarding the island from environmental degradation. The Sint Maarten Nature Foundation on the Dutch side has been instrumental in reducing the anchoring damage by establishing boat-free zones in the marine park, and also reducing the coral reef damage caused by cavorting divers. This last is done by building “reef balls,” artificial reef environments that are made from fibre-glass but simulate the real thing. These pockets of enclosed reef teem with stoplight parrot fish, cushion sea stars, queen angelfish, fire worms and conchs without endangering ecologically sensitive reef areas, and are still a diver’s delight.

The foundation also plants palm and mangrove to counter beach erosion, and has established a Turtle Watch to keep tabs on the three species that lay their eggs on the island: the green turtle, the hawksbill and the leatherback.

Although ecotourism sometimes seems like a shameless marketing tool, promising adventure in the rain forest, life-changing ancient cave exploration, or botanically enlightened hikes with native guides, Sint Maarten’s ecotourism is of a quieter variety. There are many hotels that profess to be “ecolodges” simply because they offer bird watching tours, and one should, of course, be aware that “eco” can be misleading.

But as I lolled about the beach, or sat beneath the tamarind trees, a hibiscus bloom behind my ear, I felt considerably more at ease knowing that just beyond the sand was a pelican reserve, and that my brief stint with scuba diving didn’t damage a single coral polyp. The fact that no one asked me to label a sea turtle egg made it even sweeter. And thankfully, there was not a single biblical swarm of locusts to be found.