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A yellowfin tuna fish on a rocky beach.
The island of Dominica faces some of the most acute threats from climate change. Residents have begun to adapt.
Umair Irfan/Vox

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How a tiny island is adapting to climate change ... on its dinner plates

Dominica’s traditional foods are countering modern threats.

Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

KALINAGO TERRITORY, Dominica — Inside a small yellow roadside shop on the edge of a lush hill, two sisters are reviving an ancient staple to serve modern tastes and stave off a future threat.

The sisters, Valary Antoine and Arnique Valmond, are members of the Kalinago people, the largest Indigenous community in the Caribbean, with almost 3,000 residents living on Dominica’s east coast. At Eezee Side Cassava Delicacies, they are refining cassava, a brown tuber with white flesh. Processing cassava, also known as manioc or yuca, is hard work. You have to peel the bark-like skin, cut it up, press out the excess water, dry it, mill it, and sieve it. The result is a versatile white flour that is naturally gluten-free.

A woman in yellow shirt and a hair covering standing near a tub full of flour in a small commercial kitchen.
Arnique Valmond inspects some cassava flour.
Umair Irfan/Vox

Cassava is one of the earliest crops ever cultivated on the island as it spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. It’s a good source of vitamin C and produces more calories per acre than wheat or rice. Antoine and Valmond learned the business of harvesting, processing, and cooking with cassava from their grandfather, though the skills have been in the family for generations.

“He got it from his grandparents so then his knowledge of that was passed on to us,” Valmond said. “They only knew the cassava plain, or with just coconut. But right now we have added other things to the menu.” The sisters now use cassava to make breads, wraps, pizza, and desserts, which they sell across the island.

For Dominica, cassava is more than a local staple. The humble root vegetable is part of the country’s strategy for enhancing food security, promoting its culture, and adapting to climate change.

A man bends over a barrel as he works to process cassava flour in the work area of a shop.
Processing cassava into flour can be labor-intensive.
Umair Irfan/Vox

While no country has escaped the effects of rising average temperatures, Dominica is one of the most vulnerable. Some 16 miles wide, 29 miles long, and home to 74,000 people, the small, rocky, jungle-covered island nation already bears the scars of heat waves, sea level rise, and hurricanes that have killed dozens of residents and devastated its economy. These ongoing threats are poised to get worse for Dominica, and many island countries and coastal communities around the world are close behind in the line of fire.

Nearly one-third of humanity lives within 60 miles of a coastline, which makes Dominica a critical case study in how to endure a warmer world. “The island is a sort of a Petri dish for all island developing states,” said Cozier Frederick, Dominica’s environment minister.

Dominica’s government has responded with a suite of policies to reduce its contributions to the problem and prepare for what lies ahead. The island currently gets 80 percent of its electricity from diesel and 20 percent from hydroelectric power. Dominica is aiming to switch to 100 percent clean energy with a big investment in geothermal power, harnessing the volcanic energy of the island. It’s also deploying early warning systems to get residents out of the path of disasters and updating its building codes to better survive severe weather.

The goal is to make Dominica, a country facing some of the most severe harms from global warming, into a climate-resilient nation.

That’s where cassava comes in. Dominica has a footprint of 300 square miles and the majority of that land is too mountainous for many types of industrial agriculture. But cassava actually thrives in Dominica’s hilly terrain. As an underground tuber, it can withstand intense storms that would otherwise wipe out grains growing above. It can survive in the soil untouched for years, if need be.

 In the front, a woman and man laugh together, while in the background, another woman smiles. All three are inside a cassava food shop.
Valary Antoine (front) and her sister Arnique Valmond turn cassava into bread, wraps, and desserts.
Umair Irfan/Vox

Through reviving ancient traditions and leveraging modern technology, Dominicans hope to better withstand a scenario like the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. “We were wiped out,” said Samuel Carrette of the Climate Resilience Execution Agency for Dominica. “The statistics will tell you that.” The storm damaged 95 percent of structures on the island, exacting a toll of 224 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Airports and seaports were out of commission for weeks, leaving Dominicans without food imports.

With more domestic food production, Dominicans also want to cultivate a unique food culture that is as much of a draw for tourists as snorkeling in the bubbling champagne reef or relaxing in Wotten Waven’s hot springs. Dominica is a place where a fish fresh out of the sea can be on a plate in minutes. And residents say this all adds up to a lifestyle on the island that has enormous benefits: Dominica boasts one of the highest per capita populations of centenarians in the world, with currently 12 Dominicans who are over the age of 100, according to the Dominica Council on Ageing.

A stack of green breadfruits sits amid other produce at a market stall in Dominica.
Breadfruit, another Caribbean kitchen staple, for sale in Roseau.
Umair Irfan/Vox
Piles of cassava, yams, and other root vegetables sit on a blue tarp covering the ground by the side of a busy market street, with shoppers walking up and down.
Root vegetables for sale in the market in Roseau, Dominica.
Umair Irfan/Vox

But Dominica can only endure so much on its own. Like many island countries, it contributes a miniscule amount of greenhouse gas emissions to the global total, yet is facing some of the most direct consequences of warming. Already, extreme weather has hurt crop yields. The changing chemistry of the ocean and rising water temperatures are strangling coral reefs, altering where fish reside, and diminishing catches. And the ocean itself is rising up.

It’s a challenge many other countries are facing as well in a year where record-breaking heat, torrential downpours, and drought have shrunk harvests around the world.

Dominica’s survival thus also depends on actions far beyond its borders, both in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and in adapting to the unavoidable changes underway. However, from its soils and its seas, Dominica has many of the ingredients it needs to endure, and thrive, in a warming world, preparing for the future by drawing on its ancient roots.

Dominica has a long tradition of eating local, but climate change is shrinking the catch

An hour before the sun comes up, residents near the Layou River on Dominica’s west coast begin to check their nets, placed where the island’s longest river runs into the ocean. Their target is a tiny fish called the titiwi. They look like translucent minnows, and dozens can fit into the palm of your hand.

A man holds a handful of tiny translucent fish.
The tiny titiwi fish are a local favorite in Dominica.
Umair Irfan/Vox

The fish run into the sea at regular intervals timed with the cycles of the moon. At the right time of the month, the whole community gathers, and the fisherfolk — both men and women — wade into the waist-deep stream and gather up their nets to collect their catch.

The fish is a local favorite and even has an annual festival in its honor. It’s served dried, stewed, fried, or baked into fritters called accra. Some of the fishers even sample their catch raw.

A shirtless man in blue shorts gathers a fishing net from the surface of a river, standing nearly waist-deep in the water.
Dominica’s titiwi fisherfolk get up before dawn to catch the tiny fish as they run from the river into the ocean.
Umair Irfan/Vox

Fishing — in rivers, on shores, and out to sea — is a critical safety net for Dominica. On paper, it accounts for about 2 percent of its economy. However, a 2019 United Nations report noted that “small scale fisheries in Dominica have always contributed to the food security of the island’s small population, although this appears not to be accounted for in official statistics.” Most locals fish for subsistence, and much of the local seafood trade is informal, making it hard to track. But in times of trouble, Dominicans count on what they reel in on their lines and nets to feed their communities.

That was especially evident in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Maria, when shipping and air travel to Dominica came to an abrupt halt. “We interviewed quite a few fishermen about how they were impacted, and this revealed a few surprises,” said John Pinnegar, director of the Cefas Marine Climate Change Centre, in an email. “Apparently, the rapidly recovering … fisheries helped to alleviate food insecurity when other sources were disrupted.”

Two women holding plates full of titiwi accra, fried golden fritters, on a Dominica beach.
Two local fishers hold plates of accra, a dish made from fried titiwi fish.
Umair Irfan/Vox

Dominica’s tuna, marlin, mahi mahi, and even the tiny titiwi are now facing the effects of global warming. Catching titiwi requires closely monitoring the temperature, the seasons, and the tides that locals have observed over generations. The fishers say they’ve noticed that their hauls have declined slowly over the past 10 years as temperatures have gone up.

The titiwi fishers have begun to adapt. One challenge they’ve faced is in storing their catch when it’s abundant so they can save it for when times are lean. Development groups have been working to provide smokers and other preservation tools to the fishers.

However, there are more profound changes underway under the sea. Because of dissolved carbon dioxide, the ocean has become 30 percent more acidic since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. That has “osteoporosis-like effects on shellfish,” according to the NOAA. Ocean acidification also weakens coral skeletons, making them slower to grow and more vulnerable to disease, threatening the survival of all the sea life that depends on reefs.

Piles of brown seaweed sit on a beach, with lush green mountains in the distance on the other side of a small bay.
Fertilizer runoff and high water temperatures have led to large blooms of sargassum seaweed washing ashore in Dominica.
Umair Irfan/Vox

At the same time, these shifts have become an invitation for invasive species like lionfish. They eat smaller creatures that feed on the algae growing on coral. Without them, algae runs rampant, choking off coral growth. Lionfish also compete with native sea life for food. A single lionfish can reduce the native fish population on a coral reef by 79 percent, according to NOAA. Local conservation efforts have helped contain lionfish, but now Dominica’s corals are falling ill with stony coral tissue loss disease, an epidemic sweeping the Caribbean.

A man wearing blue shorts filets a fish with a narrow, thin knife, resting the fish on his leg.
Winston Luis, a fisher on the Layou River, prepares his catch.
Umair Irfan/Vox

To make matters worse, the oceans are warming fast. This year, the Caribbean saw the highest water temperatures in at least a century. Hotter water can slow down the ocean’s upwelling process that lifts nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, toward the surface from deeper waters to nourish fish. Warmer sea surface temperatures have also contributed to record-sized blooms of sargassum, an algae that’s been washing up on beaches where it emits smelly, toxic hydrogen sulfide gas as it rots.

Two men carry a large fish onto shore on a rocky beach, with two small fishing boats in the background.
Fishers haul in a large marlin in Soufrière, Dominica.
Umair Irfan/Vox
A white plate rimmed in a floral pattern sits on a wooden table, full of a variety of food, with a napkin-wrapped fork next to it.
Curried marlin, root vegetables, beans, and cassava balls served in the Kalinago Territory.
Umair Irfan/Vox

The whole planet will feel these shifts in the seas. The World Bank reports that 600 million people’s livelihoods depend in some way on fisheries, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 3.3 billion people get at least 20 percent of their animal protein from the water.

It will take more time to grapple with the full impacts of the recent extreme heat on Dominica’s fisheries, but some residents say they have already felt the impact.

Jesse Hoffman, the chef of Lacou Melrose House in Roseau, said he works with local farmers and fishers to source all of his ingredients from within the island. That was tougher to do this year. “It’s been an unseasonably hot and dry spring over here, and there was a while when you couldn’t really get much fish at all for a few weeks,” Hoffman said. “They were saying the water is too hot.”

A man wearing a blue apron and orange shirt prepares food in a restaurant kitchen.
Chef Jesse Hoffman prepares a loin of tuna at Lacou Melrose House in Roseau.
Umair Irfan/Vox

“When basically the normal seasonal temperature averages are going out of flux, it starts with the growers — they have all kinds of headaches with that, and obviously it trickles down to what we’re able to get and serve,” he added.

Dominica’s farmers and fishers are trying to anticipate how further changes in the climate will affect them and how they can prepare, but it’s been a struggle. One obstacle is that there isn’t enough regional climate data, according to Shobha Maharaj, a climate scientist who co-authored the chapter on small island states for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That makes it harder to deliver practical information to the people who are producing food.

So the demand for more local knowledge has revived interest in traditional farming and fishing methods as rising temperatures create an environment that no one has experienced before.

A woman wearing an orange shirt holds a crab in two hands.
Many Dominicans fish for subsistence and as a backup food source during disasters.
Umair Irfan/Vox

Dominica can’t hold the rest of the world at bay forever

To cope with these challenges, Dominica needs to bring in more money as well, and that means inviting more visitors. Tourism already makes up 25 percent of its economy, according to the World Bank.

Dominica bills itself as the Caribbean’s nature island, leveraging its pristine mountains, rainforests, 365 rivers, and shorelines as draws for tourists. The country is especially popular with scuba divers. To allow more visitors, the country is currently in the process of building a new airport that can accommodate airliners from Europe, as well as building new resorts. Giant cruise ships already fill Dominica’s port on a regular basis, and more may soon dock.

But all this development has exposed a tension. It runs counter to the idea of the island as a natural oasis. “We’re trying to balance with keeping nature intact, but also, we’re mindful that it may not grow if there’s no one outside seeing it and appreciating it and learning from it,” said environment minister Frederick.

Locals also worry about the climate impacts of all this additional travel from overseas. More visitors from afar means more greenhouse gases.

A freshly caught mahi mahi fish lies next to another fish in Soufriere, Dominica.
Fish like mahi mahi are abundant in Dominica’s waters, but the changing chemistry of the ocean is contributing to declines in the catch.
Umair Irfan/Vox
A platter of golden breaded fried fish and French fries, with glasses and people in the background.
Battered and fried mahi mahi served in Roseau, Dominica.
Umair Irfan/Vox

“Every person flying to Dominica burns … fuel,” said Samuel Raphael, the proprietor of the Jungle Bay resort in Soufrière, south of Roseau. “It’s true that there’s a conflict. There’s an opportunity cost for everything.”

At the same time, Dominica’s tastes have already begun to change. There’s a growing appetite for imported packaged and processed foods which are often less healthy than fresh local options. And as they move away from subsistence farming and fishing and into the service sector, the island’s residents are becoming more sedentary. Extreme weather that damaged boats and uprooted crops further accelerated these trends as people resorted to food from boxes, bags, bottles, and cans.

A white plate holds lobster over yellow rice.
Lobster served at the Coulibri Ridge resort in Dominica.
Umair Irfan/Vox
A partially eaten fish sits covered in yellow sauce on a white plate, with a fork nearby.
Some resorts and restaurants in Dominica emphasize getting their ingredients from the island itself rather than through imports.
Umair Irfan/Vox

“What I realized after Maria, for example, we had an increase of persons reporting high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Casius Darroux, a former minister for Kalinago affairs in Dominica. “Personally, I think it is because of the imported products or the stuff that we’ve got after Maria and may have triggered it.”

One way Dominica is seeking to increase its food security and promote its cuisine is by collaborating more with its neighbors in the Caribbean. “We share common history,” Frederick said. “We have a national flag, a national song, a national food, a national plant, but we’re able to create synergies among ourselves.” Already, some of Dominica’s fishers are working with neighbors on islands like Saint Vincent to share techniques on how to increase yields for species like titiwi.

A man in a gray jacket and white shirt smiles and raises both hands while talking. He is seated at a desk with a laptop computer and a stack of folders on it, with the Dominica flag hanging in the background.
Dominica Environment Minister Cozier Frederick in his office in Roseau.
Kreig Harris/UN Foundation

The task is not only to protect food security as temperatures rise, but also to preserve what makes Dominica’s cuisine unique against the bland homogeneity of globalization. Dominica teaches some of the most important lessons in how to eat on a baking planet as farmers, fishers, cooks, chefs, and diners around the world contend with the consequences of climate change. The biggest obstacle, though, is cultivating a taste for more sustainable economies and whetting appetites for bigger bites out of global greenhouse gas emissions. Without a concerted effort to reduce warming, far more dire outcomes will be on humanity’s menu.

This story was supported by a grant from the UN Foundation.


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