Britsch Lecture: Parrots of the Caribbean

At the annual Britsch lecture, Lisa Paravisini-Gebert discussed how political, cultural, economic and biological narratives of Amazona parrots of the Caribbean exemplify the rich interdisciplinary cooperation espoused by the environmental humanities.

IMG_5924PROVO, Utah (Oct. 22, 2015)—If Columbus were to revisit the Caribbean today, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t even recognize the landscape.

At the annual Britsch lecture, Lisa Paravisini-Gebert, professor of Caribbean culture and literature at Vassar College, discussed post-colonial environmental narratives involving Caribbean parrots and how parrot endangerment is just one example of how colonialism changed the physical and cultural landscape of the Caribbean over time.

“I want you for a moment to imagine a different Caribbean, one in which you can suddenly be rendered breathless by the sight of a thousand Amazon parrots flying overhead, darkening the skies,” said Paravisini-Gebert.

Paravisini-Gebert highlighted a narrative written by Columbus in 1492 as he initially sailed past the Bahamas. She said that when Columbus first sailed by Puerto Rico, he described flocks of parrots so numerous that they would darken the skies.

However, this same narrative foreshadowed the beginning of a gradual path toward parrot and macaw extinction brought on by the commodification of rare island birds and the ensuing colonization of the Caribbean islands.

Paravisini-Gebert explained how colonial practices contributed to the endangerment and even extinction of many species of parrots and macaws in the Caribbean. She said that native Caribbean peoples were known to have kept and traded live parrots and macaws, but that the colonial gesture of exchange soon augmented the scale of such trades, leading in turn to the eventual endangerment of numerous bird species.

She added that upon Columbus’ return to Spain, Amazona parrots and Ara macaws were exhibited with naked Native Americans at the royal court in Barcelona as a symbol of the promised wealth of the New World. Exotic pets became symbols of prominence in Europe, and the parrot trade soon became more prevalent than sustainable.

Alongside exotic pet trading, Paravisini-Gebert explained how other colonial practices promoted animal and plant endangerment in the Caribbean over time.

“Island bird species, given their particular vulnerability to human-caused extinction, represent roughly 90 percent of bird extinction since European colonizers targeted islands as prized possessions,” said Paravisini-Gebert.

She continued that the decline of both Amazona and Ara populations of birds in the Caribbean could be measured by the first century of the colonization process. This process, she said, included deforestation to open land for agriculture, cattle raising, widespread logging and the introduction of exotic plants and animals.

800px-Amazona_imperialis_MitchellThough post-colonial Caribbean cultures and landscapes have seen remarkable loss over the years from the impact of colonialism, Paravisini-Gebert said that hopeful national narratives inspired by endangered species of birds have surfaced to unite Caribbean peoples in preserving their ecological and cultural landscapes.

“At this troubled ecological crossroads, the struggle to save the parrots of the Caribbean from ecological extinction emerged as a most remarkable environmental narrative, one centered on how this species has come to command a high level of public appeal and symbolic national power throughout the region,” said Paravisini-Gebert.

One of these environmental narratives was inspired by the Rare Center for Tropical Conservation, a small non-profit organization that encourages environmental protection and conservation through instilling national pride in a target indigenous species, Paravisini-Gebert said.

A particularly successful example of this group’s efforts took place in Dominica, the program rallying grassroots support around the national symbol of a parrot known as the “sisserou” through posters, song competitions, billboards, bumper stickers, music videos and even church sermons.

The goal of this campaign was to fundraise enough money to purchase a forest reserve in Dominica in order to expand the birds’ habitat, Paravisini-Gebert explained.

“Funds for the land’s purchase came partly from children’s voluntary contributions of 10 cents each,” she said. “40 percent of all school children in Dominica contributed money, while an additional 40 percent signed pledges stating that if they had any money they would also contribute.”

She explained that such efforts are becoming a pattern throughout the Caribbean with encouraging results for not only parrots, but for other species within the parrots’ ecosystems as well.

Paravisini-Gebert concluded, “Caribbean societies’ resistance to the loss of the remaining parrots is an act of defiance, an effort to preserve what remains of the sacred in their natural habitats, in their contributions to biodiversity, their specific roles in island ecologies, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their particular beauty and their capacity to make us marvel.”

–Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers the department of Comparative Arts & Letters for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.