São Tomé and Principé: how the waves wash away the trees of an island nation

We are in this twin island nation in the Gulf of Guinea to find out what life is like in a country bearing the brunt of climate change.

As a small island nation, with the smallest economy in Africa, São Tomé and Príncipé is really at the end of this crisis with very little money to tackle the huge problem.

Four percent of the country’s land mass has already been lost to the Atlantic Ocean. For coastal communities, it’s something everyone talks about.

We visited Praia das Burras in Principé, where entire strips of houses have already been washed away by the sea.

As 36-year-old fisherman Dionesio Neto Caleeb packs dried, smoked fish into hessian sacks, he told me that when he arrived, the silky golden sand we were standing on was once a forest .

The houses of Praia das Burras in Principé have already been washed away by the sea

“It was the waves that swept away the trees,” he says.

He points to a black volcanic rock jutting out of the sea about 20m (65ft) from the shore: “It was hidden under the sand.”

These islands were formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity deep underwater. Today they are mountains and valleys covered in lush tropical forest.

It is breathtakingly beautiful and home to some of Africa’s most significant biodiversity; endemic species of birds, amphibians and reptiles found nowhere else on the planet.

More than two-thirds of the islands are protected national parks and Príncipe is a Unesco biosphere due to its unique environment.

But is it possible to protect these wonders and have economic development at the same time?

“It’s difficult,” President Carlos Vila Nova says when we talk to him at the Palácio Cor de Rosa in São Tomé.

“Because our people, they say they don’t eat biodiversity. It’s true. But it is important for the world. And it’s an honor for us to have him.

São Tomé and Principé: how the waves wash away the trees of an island nation
A fisherman from the Velho hospital in Principé complained of the depletion of fish stocks

São Tomé still has the ambition to find oil. It has been sought after for decades.

The president is asked what it would mean for the country’s climate goals if they found it. He’s laughing.

“We haven’t found it yet, so I don’t know,” he said. But if they do, that would be very welcome.

“I would like to improve the living conditions of my people. If it comes from oil revenue, then thank you.

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