Caribbean research receives a boost of 5 million euros

16 May 2014

Dutch-Caribbean research has received an impulse: A total of 19 researchers can start in nine new research projects that mainly focus on biodiversity, geology and society. NWO set up the ‘Caribbean research: a multi-disciplinary approach’ programme at the request of and in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The research projects will investigate topics like invasive species, corals, turtles, and the island identity.

A sea tortoise

Much of the planned research is embedded in the six islands through collaboration with local and regional knowledge partners. The studies will provide facts and knowledge that can be useful for local policy decisions. The ‘Caribbean research: a multi-disciplinary approach’ programme emphatically looks for the connection between different scientific disciplines. Applications with a multidisciplinary setup had a distinct advantage. Three of the nine studies have a historical or societal character. State Secretary for Education Sander Dekker is delighted about the high quality and varied research that can be realised in this programme. ‘The results of these multidisciplinary research projects can contribute to an improvement in the social climate on the islands. Furthermore this programme gives scientific research on and about the Caribbean islands the boost it deserves.’

Nine research projects

The biodiversity research will investigate invasive species in the ecosystem due to natural and human factors, the threat to coral from coral-excavating sponges and the changing chemical composition of the seawater, the effect of sea level rise on the ecosystem of bays and lagoons, the rate at which invasive exotic plants are spreading, the migration patterns of and threats to sea turtles, and the pros and cons of non-indigenous plant species.

The geological research will map the evolutionary history of the Caribbean and will investigate plate movements.

The societal research concerns the relationship between island identity and administration, the sense of belonging versus communality in primary education, and a study into common factors in the background of criminal Antillean women.

12.5 million euros

Following the state reforms in 2010, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has developed policy to strengthen the knowledge base and knowledge networks in the Caribbean and has given NWO the opportunity to utilise the possibilities for scientific research in this unique part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. All research projects are being carried out in collaboration with regional knowledge institutions and NGOs.

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has made a total of 12.5 million euros available to NWO for this. Five million euros from this has been spent in this funding round and a second funding round will take place in 2015/2016. Furthermore, through NWO the Ministry has made 2.5 million euros available to the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) for setting up a knowledge centre on Sint Eustatius. Last month this Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute (CNSI) was opened on St. Eustatius. Many of the researchers in this programme will make use of this institute's facilities.

Grants awarded

Stability of Caribbean coastal ecosystems under future extreme sea level changes Prof. H.A. Dijkstra, Utrecht University, Department of Physics and Astronomy 
The sea level in the Caribbean area is rising at an average rate of 1.7 ± 1.3 mm/year but the local differences are considerable. Ecosystems in shallow coastal areas, in the lagoons and bays, largely consist of chalk deposits produced by algae. These must be able to adapt to waves and changes in temperature and acidity, for example. This project will determine the effects of global (decadal) climate changes on these coastal ecosystems. To do this the researchers will determine the processes around the regional sea level rises and establish local changes in waves and sediment transport. The experimental work will investigate how the chalk-forming organisms respond to extreme changes. Ultimately, the researchers want to know how changes in the global climate system are shaping local ecosystems via regional changes.

Caribbean coral reef ecosystems: interactions of anthropogenic ocean acidification and eutrophication with bioerosion by coral-excavating sponges
Dr F.C. van Duyl, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ)
Local conditions such as pollution, overfishing and eutrophication (excess of nutrients) due to discharges of wastewater are threatening coral ecosystems. Climate change is also damaging the coral reefs. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not just causing global warming but a significant amount of the CO2 is also dissolving in seawater, which is causing changes in the seawater's chemistry. The extra CO2 in seawater is buffered by a decrease in the amount of dissolved carbonate, a building block of chalk from corals. As a result of these chemical changes the quantity of acid is also increasing and hence the term ocean acidification. All of this is probably enhancing the dissolving of chalk by coral-excavating sponges, the most important eroding organisms of coral reefs. The number of coral-excavating sponges is already increasing due to the extra nitrogen and phosphate nutrients from wastewater. The bioerosion of coral reefs is continuing to accelerate: the growth of the corals is decreasing while the loss of corals due to coral-excavating sponges is increasing. This project will measure the joint impact on coral reefs of the changing chemistry of the seawater, the eutrophication and the bioerosion due to coral-excavating sponges. It will also determine the degree of dissolving by sponges at different acidity levels and will try to understand the physiological basis of the dissolving of chalk by coral-excavating sponges.

Caribbean Island Biogeography Meets the Anthropocene
Prof. J. Ellers, VU University Amsterdam, Animal Ecology
Islands are vulnerable for the introduction of exotic plants and the loss of indigenous species because island ecosystems often contain few species. People have driven both the colonisation and extinction rates far above the natural values. Land use, economic activity and demography are now more important than the natural factors of isolation and size in explaining the number of species on islands. The island economy of the Netherlands Antilles is strongly linked to an intact and well-functioning ecosystem. Now the question is which species are most at risk. This research will integrate the consequences of human activities in predictive models about biodiversity on islands. That must lead to the identification of natural and human factors that determine the spread of species across Caribbean islands. These factors can predict the future of biodiversity on the Netherlands Antilles and provide knowledge for management decisions concerning the protection of the island ecosystems.

Imagining the Nation in the Classroom: A Study of the Politics of Belonging and Nationness on Sint Maarten and Sint Eustatius
Dr F.E. Guadeloupe, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR)
A joint identity is missing both within the Kingdom of the Netherlands as well as in the former Netherlands Antilles. This research lets go of the conventional idea of nationality as an orchestrated collective identity. Instead it sheds light on the interaction between hegemonic ideologies of an exclusive belonging and the imagining and ‘performance’ of open community. Primary schools on Sint Maarten and Sint Eustatius will form the research locations. These institutions assume to teach children who belong, who belong less or who do not belong. At the same time the classroom provides the opportunity for the imagining and ‘performance’ of open community. A team of researchers, anthropologists, educationalists and cultural historians will develop tools for inclusive education. This project also wants to contribute to the debate about the position of the nation and the nation state in the 21st century.

Confronting Caribbean challenges: hybrid identities and governance in small-scale island jurisdictions
Prof. G.J. Oostindie, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Strong differences exist between the Caribbean Netherlands Islands in terms of scale, history and culture. They share an ambivalent attitude towards the former colonial power. Independence is rejected but there is discontent about what is referred to as the Dutch ‘re-colonisation’. This study will construct a sharper image of the current politics and island identities. Which influence do administrative reforms and migrations have on the identities partly rooted in the past and on current political activities on the islands? A post-doc will investigate the scarcely documented social history of the Windward Islands with a focus on migration processes and the new constitutional status. A second postdoc will investigate the administrative processes and tensions on the BES islands, as well as the consequences of Dutch interventions in these small-scale societies on the quality of the administration and the images formed about the Dutch. A PhD student will investigate the everyday practice of administration in the BES islands and the responses to this, especially with respect to cultural heritage and wildlife protection.

Caribbean cruisers in the Kingdom: ecology and protection of sea turtles
Prof. P.J. Palsbøll, University of Groningen, Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies (CEES)
Around the six islands that form the Dutch Caribbean are some of the most important nesting and foraging areas of sea turtles. Since the time of Columbus their numbers have fallen sharply due to human activity. Now international treaties have been concluded for the protection of the sea turtles. The Netherlands is therefore subject to both national and international obligations to protect the populations of sea turtles in the Dutch Caribbean. This requires knowledge about the migration routes, their population structures and habitat use. Via ecological experiments, satellite transmitters and with the help of new molecular analyses the researchers will map the populations before Columbus and the current status of the populations as well as the migration patterns. They will also examine threats to the populations and the effects of climate change on the habitats. The research results will contribute to a responsible conservation policy for the sea turtles in the Dutch Caribbean that is based on scientific evidence.

Pathways into crime: the interrelation of poverty, education, family factors and attachment among Dutch Caribbean women
Dr A. Slotboom, VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Law
Antillean women are overrepresented in criminality. They are often single mothers and so the detention of the mother has a major impact on her children. The causes of their criminality are not clear but there are often several problems: they are frequently poor, with little education, victims of violence or relational violence, and young single mothers. In addition they have often experienced violence and instability in their own families, with fathers who only played a marginal role. The role of psychological factors is unclear. No previous studies have examined the entire 'puzzle' from a multidisciplinary viewpoint to see which factor is crucial. In both the Netherlands and the former Antilles this project will investigate which factors contribute to the criminal behaviour. A steering group will ensure that the results are also available to policy makers and practitioners in the field.

4D crust-mantle modelling of the eastern Caribbean region: toward coupling deep driving processes to surface evolution
Prof. W. Spakman, Utrecht University, Faculty of Geosciences
The Caribbean area is geologically imprisoned between the large North and South American tectonic plates. The researchers will make a four-dimensional computer model that simulates the entire history of subduction and tectonic movement. The model can then be used for a variety of subsequent questions. How do large faults occur, what is their current mechanical behaviour, and how do volcanoes and earthquakes arise? The model might also be able to indicate the location of mineral resources. Furthermore, the model can provide information about how the earlier Caribbean Sea was linked to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, which is important to understand the climate development of this region.

Exotic plant species in the Caribbean: foreign foes or alien allies?
Prof. M.J. Wassen, Utrecht University, Department Innovation & Environmental Sciences
People can introduce plant species deliberately or by accident to areas where these do not belong. After the introduction, some plant species become invasive and then they drive out the original species from the ecosystem. Invasive exotics also threaten the most species-rich areas of the Netherlands: Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba. Tackling this problem is difficult, because it is not clear where an exotic species is rapidly spreading. Time series of aerial photographs are unfortunately not available. This project will investigate whether the rate of spread of exotic plant species can be derived from just one aerial photo in time based on the spatial pattern of an invasive species. If we know where a species is rapidly spreading, we can measure which environmental factors are causing this. Then the next question is what should be done about the invasive plant species on the BES islands. Exotic species can also have positive effects, such as the improved resilience of ecosystems against hurricanes, the prevention of soil erosion or keeping away mosquitoes. A computer model will simulate the future spreading of invasive exotic species and map the advantages and disadvantages of this. That computer model could be a useful tool for determining a good management strategy for exotic species on the BES islands.

Source: NWO