Stricken island let down by Britain

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Sir: I recently went to Montserrat, to paint the volcano which has been erupting for 16 months. This has had a devastating effect on the people and infrastructure of this tiny Caribbean island.

Their only town, Plymouth, has been evacuated and their tourist- based economy has collapsed. The south end of the island, where most cultivation took place, has been abandoned. Of the 12,000 population only 7,000 remain, the rest scattered through the Caribbean and to Britain.

Montserrat is a British colony, but I'm ashamed to say that this distinction does not seem to have afforded them much advantage in their time of great need.

Many of the Montserratians have been evacuated to the north of the island, but have nowhere to live. The solution has been to convert churches, and to erect metal warehouse buildings. When these arrived they had no windows, sanitation or cooking facilities; so these had to be cobbled together by the local government.

Spasmodically for the past 16 months, and continuously since April 1996, these unsuitable buildings have each been inhabited by 40 or 50 people living dormitory-style, their beds 2ft apart. They have no privacy, no family areas; they were allowed to bring no possessions. These squalid conditions are destroying their families.

Many Montserratians live in modest wooden houses set in small gardens, which they cultivate. Very little attempt seems to have been made to provide this simple necessity for the evacuees.

Unemployment is now at a high level, and around 70 per cent of the population live on food stamps and a rudimentary social security system. Building houses and clearing land would provide work and housing.

The British government bears a large responsibility for this state of affairs. We have apparently allocated pounds 23m to the island for disaster relief but it is hard to see much evidence of it being wisely spent, except on the excellent team of British vulcanologists. We maintain a governor in a chauffeur-driven Range Rover. Prestige projects are planned, consultants take their fees, but nothing changes for the evacuees.


Tywardreath, Cornwall