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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 March 2008, 08:55 GMT
Island still struggling after eruption
By Nick Davis
BBC News, Montserrat

Smoke over Montserrat
Plumes of smoke can still be seen above the island
Prince Charles is visiting Montserrat as part of a Caribbean tour aimed at promoting sustainable development and youth opportunity. But can his visit help the island still suffering the devastating effects of a volcanic eruption in 1997?

As you fly over Montserrat the first thing that strikes you is the Soufriere Hills Volcano - it dominates the skyline as do the plumes of smoke coming from it.

The second thing is the colour of the island. It looks as though it has been split into two halves. One side is verdant and green, the other ashen and grey, not fully alive nor fully dead. It is a stark contrast that sums up the island's future.

Missing people

After being dormant for hundreds of years, the volcano suddenly became active in 1995 - but it was an eruption two years later, leaving 19 people dead, that started an exodus from the island.

Plymouth, the historic capital, was buried under feet of mud and ash and the damage affected most of the south coast. Now just less than half the island is inhabitable.

Montserratians left in their thousands, some heading to the US or other Caribbean islands.

There is no economic activity on the island
Bennette Roach

Many settled in the UK as Britain eventually gave passports to islanders who wanted to leave. Two thirds of the population decided to go, taking the population from more than 12,000 before to around 5,000 now.

Despite the fact that volcanic activity on the island has decreased over the years, few people have returned home. The opportunities that they found abroad just do not exist on an island where the biggest employer is the government.

Bennette Roach is the editor of the island's only newspaper, the Montserrat Reporter.

"It's a paradise for anyone who is visiting.... It's a great place to visit. Even when I go to England I meet people and they say, 'I'd love to come back home - but what to?' There is no economic activity on the island."

The eruption destroyed much of the agricultural land on the island, it closed the medical school, and many people from the US, Canada and Europe who had retired there also went home.

The once growing tourist industry is now non-existent.

Nature's worst

More than a decade later the economy still has not recovered and there is a sense that the people cannot take much more.

In 1990 Hurricane Hugo hit the island destroying 90% of the infrastructure and, just as things were looking up, the volcano came alive again. There is a generation whose parents stayed and battled through the worst nature had to throw at them who just don't want the fight.

The last few years have seen an increase in young people leaving the island as they look for more to do.

British and EU aid has done a lot to rebuild what was lost but there is a sense that, when the volcano erupted, it created a shift in the attitude of some of the island's people.

Plymouth, Montserrat
Montserrat's capital, Plymouth, was shrouded in ash

They had lost everything and now those that remain face a choice - do they stay or do they follow their countrymen and women and head abroad?

Montserrat's national anthem is God Save The Queen, and a visit by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall should be a big event on the island.

As a British Overseas Territory the links to Britain should be strong but some people do not see how the visit will make any impact.

John Black has lived on the island all his life. He asks: "What can Prince Charles do? He's no humanitarian, he's not going to be able to help us. We'll be nice to him but it's not colonial times, he's a visitor and we're nice to them."

Many parts of the Caribbean look to Britain as the motherland, but here it's different.

Montserrat's links to Ireland date back to the early settlers of the island in the 17th Century. Even now you'll still meet people with the name Patrick and Siobhan and your passport gets stamped with a Shamrock when you arrive at the small airstrip in Gerald's.

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are also just in time for the St Patrick's Day celebrations.

Montserratians party for a week before the big day and it's one of the only places in the world outside Ireland where it's a national holiday - but not for traditional reasons.

Legend has it that slaves chose St Patrick's Day to mount a rebellion because they believed that, with celebrations happening, their masters would be too drunk to put down the revolt.

The rebellion failed but it's still a day which is celebrated by descendants of those who fought for their freedom.

Eddie, a local businessman, says the royal visit will be good. "It'll promote the island."

But will it make a difference? "Things here will get better - it's just a matter of time. When, though, I don't know."

Regions and territories: Montserrat
04 Mar 08 |  Country profiles
Experts work on volcano warning
29 Aug 07 |  Edinburgh, East and Fife
Montserrat evacuation remembered
12 Sep 05 |  Americas

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