(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Atlantic survivors want more of the world

[Cape Verde] Pico do Fogo volcano on Fogo island.
IRIN

At close to 3,000 metres, the Pico do Fogo volcano is by far the most imposing landmark in the arid Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. The village of Cha das Caldeiras, within its vast crater boasts several vineyards, a wine cooperative and a French-owned restaurant.

The volcano, which last spewed out a stream of molten lava in 1995, is proving to be an important source of revenue for Fogo, a barren tropical island in the Atlantic Ocean which has few other natural resources.

"Over 30 per cent of the seats on planes flying into Fogo are taken by tourists," the island's mayor, Eugenio Miranda da Veiga, told IRIN. He welcomes this influx of money-laden visitors and recent investments in tourism made by returning emigrants who made their fortune overseas.

But da Veiga acknowledges that Fogo, like the other eight inhabited islands in the Cape Verde archipelago, still suffers from a chronic lack of development.

"There is not much economic capacity here and that means very high levels of unemployment," he said. "Our only richness is the imagination of the people."

Fogo has a population of around 40,000, most of whom are concentrated in its small capital, Sao Filipe, a neat pleasant town of white-washed houses and stone-paved streets.

Here there are clear signs of investment - new bars, hotels, a cybercafé and new houses under construction.

But away from the coast, a string of poor villages reveal a tougher side to the island. They are inhabited by poor subsistence farmers, who depend for survival on money sent home by relatives who left to seek work in Europe and the United States.

Cape Verde, 450 km west of Senegal, forms part of the drought-prone Sahel belt. Rain falls for only two or three months a year and sometimes not at all.

Local farmers produce meager quantities of beans, corn, sugar cane and sweet potatoes, but the island nation seldom manages to produce more than 11 percent of the food needed to keep its 430,000 people alive.

Public sector salaries are low, often less than $150 a month and the water supply highly erratic.

Teachers readily admit that primary school attendance rates are only high because of school meals provided by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and that many families struggle to find enough to eat.

Years before flying safely

"People want to find their own solutions here on Fogo," da Veiga said. "Nobody wants to be dependent. But for the time being we do need outside support."

In Cape Verde's fast-expanding capital Praia on Santiago island, Prime Minister José Maria Neves, talks of this former Portuguese colony in similarly pragmatic terms.

He told IRIN that 28 years after independence, the country had "taken off." But he added that it would be "10-15 years before we can fly safely".

On one level, Cape Verde’s performance since independence in 1975 looks like a big success story.

The average life expectancy is around 70 and the World Bank puts Cape Verde’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita at over $1, 300, well ahead of most countries on the African continent.

The United Nations Development Programme ranked Cape Verde 103rd in its Human Development Index for 2003. By contrast, Guinea-Bissau, which was linked with Cape Verde in a joint struggle against Portuguese colonialism, was ranked 166th, with a per capita income of around $150.

Both the government and opposition say political stability has been crucial to the country’s development. After fifteen years of one party-rule under the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV), the switch to multiparty democracy was made with little difficulty.

The formerly Marxist PAICV was swept from power in the country's first multiparty elections in 1991, but is now back at the helm, much changed, after a 10-year absence.

It defeated the opposition Movement for Democracy (MPD) in the 2001 parliamentary elections by the narrowest of margins and now preaches the merits of market economics, foreign investment and tourism. However, critics say the PAICV still sticks too closely to the old socialist mantras of the 1970s.

Neves, the 43 year-old prime minister, with a degree in public administration from Sao Paulo university in Brazil, is part of a new generation of Cape Verdean politicians.

But President Pedro Pires, 69, who was born on Fogo, is a member of the old guard. Pires was a key figure in the struggle for independence from Portugal, and spent six years as a guerrilla commander in Guinea-Bissau.

Both men ensure that Cape Verde continues to maintain a discreet influence in regional and continental politics in Africa.

For example, Pires was quick to offer his services as a mediator in Guinea-Bissau after the coup there in September.

Lobbying the EU

Cape Verde belongs to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), but some of Cape Verde's African connections now appear more symbolic than substantial.

Increasingly its mixed race inhabitants are looking north to Europe for the future, like the Canary Islands and Madeira.

Cape Verde has lobbied the European Union (EU) for the kind of special status accorded to other islands in the eastern Atlantic. It has made common cause with the Azores and Madeira, both autonomous regions of Portugal, and the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain, by becoming a member of the loose Macaronesia grouping, which seeks a clearer common identity for the islands of the North Atlantic.

Portugal has backed Cape Verde’s request for closer links to Europe and it remains by far Cape Verde’s most important trading partner.

The old colonial power still provides over 50 percent of the islands’ imports, particularly manufactured goods. And it buys 45 percent of Cape Verde’s exports, which include clothes, shoes, hides, bananas and fish.

At the same time, Cape Verde has pushed strongly to retain its status as a least-developed country (LDC), worried that it will lose access to low-interest loans from financial institutions and its entitlement to debt write-offs.

Cape Verdeans point out that there are uneven levels of development on the different islands. Cities like the capital, Praia, and Mindelo, a deep-water port on Sao Vincente island, may seem comparatively prosperous, but other regions have few resources and negligible prospects for economic development.

The lack of rainfall in the archipelago is the most obvious problem. Cape Verde’s history is dominated by the years of famine and drought, with 1747 still referred to as the worst recorded.

In 2002, the government appealed for international food aid for the first time in 20 years after the harvest failed.

According to the World Bank, over 30 percent of the population live below the poverty line and 14 per cent live in absolute poverty.

Remittances to the rescue

The situation would be much worse were it not for remittances sent home by hundreds of thousands of Cape Verdeans living overseas.

Estimates of the volume of cash sent home each year vary, but economists reckon that remittances account for at least 20 per cent of Cape Verde’s gross domestic product of US $620 million.

The cash inflow allows Cape Verde to tolerate a huge trade deficit.

Cape Verde islanders have been going abroad to seek their fortune for more than 200 years. And with local unemployment high and the prospects for job creation very small, the desire to emigrate remains strong.

Migration to the United States began in the late 18th century when whaling ships began calling at the westerly islands of Brava and Fogo to take on crew. Cape Verdean communities have long been established in the US, notably in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and there has been an American consulate in the Cape Verde islands since 1816.

Estimates on the numbers of Cape Verdeans in the diaspora vary, but the United States still has the largest community, around 400,000.

Portugal has also been a favoured destination. In the past, Cape Verdeans often filled the gaps left by Portuguese labourers who quit menial jobs at home to seek more lucrative employment opportunities in northern Europe.

But the Cape Verdeans too have also ventured further afield, to establish large colonies in Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. There are also strong Cape Verdean connections with Brazil and with other countries in Lusaphone Africa. And around 25,000 Cape Verdeans live in Senegal.

However, tighter immigration controls in both Western Europe and North America have reduced the number of Cape Verdeans able to leave. Inevitably, the visas and study opportunities normally go to the best-educated and financially self-sufficient.

There is also a small, but increasingly visible problem of repatriation, that involves Cape Verdeans convicted of criminal offences or charged with immigration irregularities being deported from the United States.

Youth are a problem

Perhaps the government's biggest problem is being able to offer a meaningful future to Cape Verde's young people. Over 40 percent of the population is less than 14 years old. That is partly a reflection of the fact that many adults emigrate. But there is a growing concern that the brain drain of the country's brightest and best educated youngsters is being accompanied by a rise in juvenile delinquency and crime at home.

Unemployment in Cape Verde stands at around 20 percent and is increasing steadily in the towns.

Judith da Silva Ramos works as a youth counselor in Santa Cruz, a coastal town on the eastern side of Santiago with a population of over 30,000, often described as the poorest municipality on the islands. Ramos, who returned to Cape Verde after spending most of her life in Rhode Island, says it is increasingly difficult to encourage the young.

"The main challenge here is getting out of high school and getting a job," she said. "And then you can find you’re left with nothing after 12 years of education. The kids sit on the walls all day long or walk up and down. You see it in their faces. They are depressed. You find kids who are alcoholics. The main dream is to get out."

Ramos says Cape Verde will continue to live off aid and remittances for the time being. "The ships which come into Praia from the US have shoes, clothes and food on board. This is survival material. This is what people need."

Tourism could bring a boom

With its fishing boats, black sand beaches and seaside bars, Santa Cruz has obvious tourist potential. Successive governments have made it clear that tourism must play a leading role in Cape Verde’s long-term development. Some progress has been achieved.

In 1986 Cape Verde had just 13,000 tourists. By 2000 the number had risen to 83,000 and there has been a steady increase since. Italian and Portuguese hotel chains have established a presence. And the runway at Praia is being lengthened to give the capital a truly international airport. Most inter-continental flights currently land on Sal, one of the smallest and least-populated islands in the archipelago.

The government target of 400,000 visitors a year by 2008 looks unrealistic, but there is a constant drive to win new investors.

The government has made the case for specialist rather than mass tourism to limit the social damage that tourism causes and attract a higher spend per visitor. It is trying to market the islands individually on the basis of their ecological interest, beach facilities and cultural resources. The state airline, TACV, has been upgraded and awaits privatisation, but still makes a big loss.

Critics warn that tourism is not a panacea. Silva Ramos, the youth counselor in Santa Cruz, accepts there will be short-term benefits, but stresses that investors and operators must be given strong guidelines. "With tourism you can end up with corruption, prostitution and drugs," she said.

The government is now encouraging a more open debate on HIV/AIDS, challenging the widespread assumption that Cape Verde is an AIDS-free zone.

But the authorities have faced strong criticism for their decision to suspend pregnant students from school, a move condemned by opposition groups as discriminatory and counter-productive.

Sections of the Cape Verdean press have accused some hotel operators of riding roughshod over local interests and have warned of a dilution of Cape Verdean sovereignty.

But opposition politician José Filomeno Monteiro, vice-president of the MPD, says Cape Verde has to be as receptive as it can, to outside influences.

"There will be no indigenous development of Cape Verde because we lack resources and capital," Monteiro told IRIN.

He accused the current government of being far too slow and cautious in marketing Cape Verde to foreign investors.

Monteiro wants Cape Verde to look beyond Africa, Europe and North America to seek new friends and partners. "Look at the examples of Hong Kong and Singapore," he said. "We can be flexible. We can be friends with everyone."

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