Interview with Professor Godfrey Baldacchino[1]

By Angeliki Mitropoulou, PhD Candidate at the University of the Aegean & Research Fellow at ENA Institute for Alternative Policies

In the Greek language, the term that describes the particular set of features attributed to the islands derives from the word “nissos”, which means “island”.  In your opinion, how relevant is the ongoing debate about the use of terms like “insularity” and “islandness” today?

This is not a simple question, so I need to start by talking about the current debate in island studies. It seems that the reason why islands are featuring anew in the imagination, in politics, and in the focus not only of islanders but also of mainlanders is their contribution to the battle against climate change, the battle for sustainability, and the many initiatives people are taking to cut down on their carbon footprint, by proposing and putting instead into practice ecosystems, economic systems that do less harm to the environment. Islands are very often used to showcase that this is possible.

Today islands are also becoming entrepreneurial — not just by developing mechanisms to mitigate climate change, to invest in clean energy, in the “blue economy”, and so on, but also by using these initiatives to attract tourists that don’t do so much harm to the environment, because they are usually well-educated, they stay longer, they are trained and interested in meeting people and visiting sites, and not necessarily staying on the beach.

So, all this is “good news” for the islands, that has “put them back on the map” after the end of the Cold War. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, islands were very much the focus of geopolitics. Now the focus is on geo-economics. That’s the short way of describing the change of focus.

Now, I think that the semantic debate continues because we keep fighting against this implicit idea that islands, just because they are islands, and not because of anything they do or don’t do, start off with negative baggage. In the English language –and in many other languages–, this is what “insularity” means. When the American economist Michael Porter wrote his influential book The Competitive Advantage of Nations, he referred to the islands only once, in order to describe certain practices that are close-minded, and people that are conservative and not interested in new ideas. He describes all this as “insular”. There we are. We, islanders and island scholars, have a mountain of prejudice and ignorance to climb.

The debate, of course, is more than just semantic. We very strongly believe that islands deserve to start off from a neutral point. So, “islandness” is being proposed as an alternative term, which, unlike “insularity”, is neutral. “Islandness” refers to the condition of being an island. That’s it. Full stop. Now, of course, we can continue the discussion, asking ourselves what “the condition of being an island” is. There are various variables. I will just tell you what I think the main variables of islandness are.

My answer is, of course, dependent on my own disciplinary background: I am a social scientist, so I may have a different point of view than someone in Literature, or somebody in Biology.  But I think we can agree that the characteristics of islandness are the following: First of all, we are talking about the geography of an island. So, we are talking about a piece of land surrounded by water. It has to be water. So, don’t tell me about islands in the city, islands in the desert, or islands on the top of a mountain. I have to say this, because biologists refer to these milieus also as “islands”, and the inhabitants of these islands are “isolates”, with their own particular evolutionary patterns, species, and so on. But that’s in Biology.

I think it is important to remind ourselves that water is crucial to understanding what happens on an island. It is impossible to understand an island without engaging with the aquatic medium that surrounds it. This is of extreme importance in island studies. But we are still prejudiced, because we look at the islands from the point of view of the land, rather than the land-sea continuum. A French sociologist has developed the concept of “meritoire”, thus combining the words “mer” and “territoire”; and US scholar Elizabeth De Loughrey refers to this condition as “terraqueousness”. Let’s try to remind ourselves that it is about land and sea, a land–sea totality. It’s one word, if you know what I mean. The French anthropologist Joël Bonnemaison, when undertaking research in South Pacific, wrote a book called The tree and the canoe.  The tree stands for rootedness, the tree doesn’t move; whereas the canoe is a mobile means of transport, but it is made from the bark of the tree. The above illustrated concept helps us look at this combination of land and sea in a very interesting way. This is really the “heart” of islandness, I don’t think anybody is going to object to this, whatever the discipline, whatever the background.

Then we start adding on features. If that, the combination of land and sea, is the geography of an island, then the history of an island is all about connection. While the geography refers to the isolated territory and its species, surrounded by water, if this isolated place is –or has been– inhabited, it cannot but have a history, because history depends on people, and, invariably, that history is going to be about movement to and from the island. Whether it is exports, or people leaving, immigrating, i.e. going somewhere else for good or it is coming back, together with new products, new ideas coming in, most islands are quite cosmopolitan. So, history is about contact, and this could be the other side of the coin. Geography implies what an island is, a piece of land, surrounded by water; while history is all about contact. Now, if it is about contact with other places, this is also where the mainland comes in. Hence, islandness is also about the relationship between an island and its mainland. The mainland usually is the closest land, but not necessarily. For places like French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean, for example, the mainland is still Paris: For colonial reasons, reasons of trade, monetary reasons, their metropole remains Paris.

So, we have geography (=isolation), we have history (=contact), and we have the mainland – island relationship. This is where remoteness also comes in. The extent of isolation, the extent to which an island is separated from the mainland, and the nature of its history will determine how isolated it is. If it is very close to the mainland, very often it cannot help being overwhelmed by what is going on in the mainland. In fact, to such an extent, that the island becomes linked to the mainland. Sometimes even physically. So, if you have an island which is very close to the mainland, for instance, Evoia, you cannot help but looking at it almost as an extension of the mainland, as there is no other option. This is the destiny of such a place.

Then, there is also scale, as a function of size: not all islands feel like an island. If you are in the centre of Britain, as I was when I was doing my PhD at Warwick, spending one year full-time in Coventry, I assure you, there is no way you will feel like you are on an island. The island connection is extremely tenuous. The islandness of Britain was recently highlighted in relation to Brexit, with most of the problems arising from the fact that the United Kingdom is not an island. Because, if it were an island, it would have been much easier to establish a border with the EU. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom is “an island and a bit”. And a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is, as you know, causing all the problems. An “island solution” would have been an elegant solution, but it is not possible.

The last criterion [of islandness] is fragmentation. This is to remind us that islands are fractured. When we talk about islands, we don’t usually mean a single island. We mean multiple islands, because an island will tend to have its own islands. In some cases, an island becomes the mainland to a smaller island. You can also see this in the Aegean. If, for example, you take a look at the ferry services, you will find out that, in order to get to a smaller island, you have to go to a larger island first. So, from the point of view of the smaller island, the larger island becomes the closest mainland.

All these are quite objective, measurable criteria. The only debate is on whether you agree that they are crucial and endemic to the situation of an island, or not. To me, they are. It is impossible to discuss islands without discussing them. It is useful to break them down that way, so that they can be comprehended, when you try to explain them to somebody, as I am doing now. However, be aware that, in doing so, we underestimate the inter-relationship between the categories.

Climate change is nowadays more than a buzz phrase. Are insular regions immediately threatened by it? Do you think that governments worldwide are taking all necessary measures to protect them? Are there any best practices in the field?

Again, a very complex question. And the answer to the multiple questions hidden in your question is almost always “no”. People are increasingly realizing that climate change is a real thing. However, the problem that the islands are facing is that unfortunately much of the cash flow that is being made available for the islands is tied to the mitigation or adaptation to climate change. But in many situations the threat is not that immediate. Although it is real, it still probably lies in the future, and not necessarily in the foreseeable future. Climate change is a problem, but for many island jurisdictions it is a problem of the future. And I think that the pressing problems of the present deserve a stronger focus than those of the future. I am not saying we should choose one against the other, but, in terms or prioritization, I think that the immediate is more important than what is yet to come.

What lessons –if any– have we learned from the ongoing pandemic crisis regarding small island      development?

There is already a growing literature in the field. There are also papers that have been published, specifically referring to small islands and small island states, as well as data bases. For instance, we know for sure that there are still a few islands out there that remain Covid-19-free. They closed their borders very quickly in February 2020 and decided to keep them closed. However, they are the exception, not the rule. There are half a dozen Pacific island states and some island territories, like Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, and a few very small other places that could afford to shut their borders and kind of dig in, wait and see what happens. This, of course, means that they have not developed natural immunity to the virus. They did not have a single case and of course they had zero deaths, which may sound good, great, almost like paradise, but I think it is a paradise loaded with questions, because it may not work in the long term. At some point, these islands must reopen their borders, and we have to wait and see what happens.

Secondly (and this is what I was telling you about Malta, Iceland and a few other places), islands have used their isolation to their advantage, because they managed to literally control who comes in and who goes out of their country. When you have very few entry points, you can control these entry points with great efficiency. Let’s take Malta, one of the islands I know best: Malta’s closest land is Sicily, which is about 70 miles away. So, if you want to enter the country, it is impossible to swim to Malta. If you try to come with a very small boat, I think you’re risking drowning – you need a boat of a certain size, at the very least. And if you have a boat of a certain size, you have to come in and register with the port authority. The port authority is one entry point. Then, there is the Grand Harbour, with a ferry connection to Sicily, which is also a cruise ship terminal and the place where ships come to provide us with grain, fuel etc. The Grand Harbour is the other entry point. Then, there is one single international airport. And there is the Container Terminal in Kalafrana, mainly for trans-shipment services. That’s it. There are no other entry points to the country. Therefore, it is relatively easy to make sure that the system does not leak.

So, whenever there is a case, it is very easy to trace it back, to do contact tracing to identify other people who may have been infected by the virus, leading to what I described earlier as a fairly stable situation that has been almost scientifically calibrated. By the way, Malta and other small island states, like the Seychelles, or Iceland, are amongst the countries with the highest rates of vaccination in the world. According to The Economist (September 11th issue), Malta ranks first on the list of vaccinations (99% of the eligible population has been vaccinated with one or two doses), followed by the United Arab Emirates, another small country. So, most relatively small countries, some of which are island states, have high vaccination coverage percentages. This has probably to do with the fact that [in these countries] governance, the political system, is omnipresent. In English, we use the word “ubiquitous”, which means “the state is everywhere”. So, if the state has decided that this is the [right] policy, it has a way of reaching literally everyone. By word of mouth, by its delegates, radio, television, the newspapers and the social media. It is impossible for people to be left out, not to know what is going on. It also helps that the main political parties are in agreement on the policy to be implemented. There is no disagreement regarding the policy or its details. A consensus kind of policy has been activated here. I think that answers your very complicated question.

If you will allow me, I would like to add another point to that question, since islands are coming back as places where people prefer to live. The pandemic crisis, again, has been a game changer here. It has led people to realize that they can work from home, many of us have found ourselves working from home. If you have a good network connection, you can probably work from anywhere. So, people that used to work in NY are now working from Barbados, because Barbados has introduced a visa, specifically targeted at US citizens who would come into the country, live in Barbados but not work for Barbados. They don’t need a work permit. They only need a resident permit.

And even before the pandemic, there were signs that some people who had been living in cities and had had enough of crime and worrying about their kids being attacked on the street, realized that many islands can be very safe communities, where people watch out for each other. It is very difficult to have an unexplained crime on a small island. It is very rare. So, the population of islands in many parts of the world, which used to be in decline, within the last 10-15 years suddenly seems to be growing again.

Sometimes you don’t even need to design a policy. People may find that there is a place where their money stretches longer, and where they don’t have to worry about where their little boy or girl is, because they can see them from the window playing outside. You don’t need a government policy for that. It just happens. And then the policy will follow, because the government will see what is happening and will say “ok, this is something we can perhaps invest in and accelerate it, thanks to our policy”.

Is it feasible for small islands to achieve high levels of attractiveness and competitiveness today?

I think that one of the short-term effects of the pandemic certainly is that a lot of people are still afraid of travelling, and if they are going to travel, they will not want to be shoulder to shoulder with people they don’t know. They may even deliberately try avoiding places that currently have a label reputation of being mass touristic destinations. Mykonos and Santorini, for example, are places with very serious obvious problems already: six cruise ships a day in Santorini – it is crazy for the size of the place!

First of all, there seems to be an implicit common understanding of a correlation between islands and tourism. This is wrong. There are many islands in the world that are not in touristic zones. Iceland is not in a touristic zone. You don’t go to Iceland to swim, because it is a cold-water island location. But they have managed very well: not because of their beaches or their sea, but because of other reasons, nature etc. So, first of all, we have to broaden our definition of what island tourism is. I wrote a book back in 2006 about extreme island tourism, which is all about cold-water islands and how they become tourist destinations not because of the usual “3 S’s” (sun, sea and sand), but because of the “3 I’s”: isolation, ice and indigeneity – it is a completely different rationale for attracting people. And always non-mass tourism, always niche tourism.

Islands are not necessarily destined to become tourism destinations, even though they usually do. They have a tourism component in their economy, but it need not dominate the economy. Because when it does, when tourism becomes more than 20% of GDP, you will run into political problems. Because islands are what they are, an economically very narrow political elite will heavily invest in tourism, pulling all the ropes you can imagine –even those you can’t imagine–, convincing the political system to help them, to assist them, to give them subsidies, grants, increased number of beds and restaurant tables, to build yacht marinas. The pressure will become huge. And it is very easy for a government that depends on a few island votes to succumb to that pressure.

So, it is always advisable, not just from an economic or sustainability point of view, but even from a political point of view, to diversify your economy. And you can diversify your economy. Tourism in Malta is only 18%-20% of GDP at the most (pre-pandemic figures – now it’s less). We have other areas of the economy that are doing fairly well, including manufacturing, finance, or gaming. There are 12.000 people here working on gaming platforms. There is also transshipment (we have one of the largest transshipment terminals in the Mediterranean). So, there are ways and means which islands can still exploit –their location, or the fact that there usually is a stable government, which is very attractive to investors– in order to offer services and products that go beyond tourism.

Which are the main challenges small islands and their residents face today?

Convincing mainland based and biased politicians that islands deserve their own development strategy is the main challenge. Islands are often looked upon as extensions, just another piece of land. So, if you have this model, this project that worked here, you think you can simply transplant it from A to B, and expect it to work there just as well. Please, let’s be a bit more reasonable here. Let’s listen to what islanders have to say and let’s look at the specific conditions in which islanders live, because they demand respect, they demand recognition. One of these conditions is transport. We must always keep in mind that the lifeline of an island is connection (as I said earlier, island history is about connection), and connection today depends on ferry services, air services, and bandwidth. These things unfortunately require a lot of money, so either the government or people with very deep pockets will have to literally come in. And they will determine what kind of life eventually gets lived on those islands.

Are there any closing remarks you would like to make about the Greek Islands and the Greek Archipelago?

When I heard about this summer’s fires in Greece, I was in Canada. It is not common for the Canadian news media to report anything about Greece. But the fires were there, we could see what was happening: people dying, people who had lost their home and were afraid of going back, and so on. But that only lasted two-three days. And then that was it. Greece disappeared from the Canadian media consciousness. This is what we have to fight against. And this is not going to change. People’s attention, as far as small islands are concerned, is unfortunately going to keep being driven by transient, occasional, bad news.

Let me remind you of the Costa Concordia shipwreck, on Friday the 13th January 2010, on the small island of Giglio, Italy, with a population of 1.600 people. They became heroes for one night. And that was it. The captain of the vessel was one of the first people to leave the ship. While he was trying to get to the island, the Mayor of the island was heading to the ship, to help the passengers and crew get off the ship in safety. It is crazy. But that is the nature of small islands.

Unfortunately, we make news for all the wrong reasons. Even when people show interest in us, the agenda is usually already set. They know what they want to say or do to us, not with us. They want to throw climate change money at us, because they think that this is what we should be doing. And if we want to build a hospital, then we will probably get to hear “sorry, this is not what we are interested in”.


Who is who

Godfrey Baldacchino PhD (Warwick), BA (Gen.) (Malta), PGCE (Malta), MA (The Hague) is Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology at the University of Malta. He served as an Island Studies Teaching Fellow, UNESCO co-Chair and Canada Research Chair in Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), Canada, between 2003 and 2020. He is founding Executive Editor of Island Studies Journal and, since 2018, founding Executive Editor of Small States & Territories journal. He served as Visiting Professor of Island Tourism at the Università di Corsica Pasquale Paoli (2012-2015). He was Member and Chair of the Malta Board of Cooperatives (1994-2003) and core member of the Malta – European Union Steering & Action Committee (MEUSAC). In 2008-2010, he was Vice-President of the Prince Edward Island Association for Newcomers to Canada. He has been President of the International Small Islands Studies Association (ISISA) since 2014. In June 2015, he was elected Chair of the Scientific Board of RETI, the global excellence network of island universities. In 2021, he was appointed (thematic) Malta Ambassador for islands and small states. He served as Pro-Rector for International Development and Quality Assurance (2016-2021) during the first Rectorate of Professor Alfred Vella at the University of Malta.

His research interests include: island studies, small state studies, political geography, sociology of work, international relations, island tourism, entrepreneurship, immigration, labour relations, human resource management, adult education, worker empowerment and the development of cooperatives.

Prof. Baldacchino has (co-)authored or (co-)edited some 50 books, reports and monographs. Since 1993, he has authored some 160 peer-reviewed journal articles or book chapters. His work has appeared in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Swedish (apart from English and Maltese).

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