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St Helena
Geographical Information Systems on an Isolated Island State

Client: St Helena Government (ANRD)
and St Helena National Trust
Donor: DFID OTEP
GIS lead consultant: Alan Mills

St Helena

Background – a Quick Climbing Tour

Threats and Solutions

Mapping and Managing

Elements to Consider

St Helena  

The island of St Helena is about as remote an inhabited location as you can get in the whole world. Not only is it over 1000 km from the nearest continental point, but the lack of an airport means the only way on and off is via the last Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St Helena, which plies between Cape Town and Ascension Island once or twice a month, taking at least two days to reach St Helena.

Its position on the trade routes between Asia and Europe made it an important restocking island of water, goats, fruit and vegetables for passing sailing ships, and was claimed by both Dutch and English before becoming an UK Territory. Its isolated position and fortress-like geology made it the perfect exile prison for Napoleon Bonaparte.

St Helena’s inaccessible location from its volcanic origins on the mid Atlantic Ridge some 14 million years ago meant only a few faunal and floral species reached the island by their own means, and those which did have morphed into specialised varieties and multiple cross breeds. It has given St Helena some of the most important endemics and exciting landscapes in the world.

The restocking from sailing ships did a lot of damage to this landscape – goats ate the plants, termites got into the wood, new vegetable, fruit and cereal crops were brought in and competed with natural vegetation. The expansion of flax in the early 20 th Century overran areas formerly covered in the beautiful endemic cabbage trees, dwarf and giant jellicoes, ebony and redwood, and tree ferns cloud forests; ancient gumwoods were replaced by eucalyptus and pine forests.

With the collapse of flax the opportunity has come to regenerate these globally important endemic species, and mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can assist in showing how well the replanting of endemics and their management has been successful.

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Background – a Quick Climbing Tour  

St Helena, twenty kilometres by fifteen, from the sea looks almost completely inhospitable. Five hundred foot cliffs meet the seafarer, broken through by a small number of steep valleys from beaches rocked by rough seas.

Only at three points do roads reach up into the interior, one of which is where the capital, Jamestown, resides. Houses, offices, shops and workshops squeeze into a narrow gorge and two single track roads wind up the steep valley sides to reach the interior.

Rising about 250m, the dry desert landscape of the exterior (such as the valley from Sandy Bay, below left) beaten by salty winds, is home to a few lichens, occasional bushes and grasses in the few permanent watercourses, and endemic plants such as the Devil’s Baby Toes (below).

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Valley from Sandy Bay

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Devil’s Baby Toes

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Above this you enter a Mediterranean environment, with pines and aloes, intermingling with sprawling villages and above 300 m, a surprisingly rich, almost Scottish, landscape of pastoral lands, pine and eucalyptus forests interspersed with deep wooded valleys. Agriculturally this is the most productive area, and vies with forestry for space.

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The moisture from condensing trade winds is highest at the top of the island – around Diana’s Peak. Skirting the mid island ridge was the extensive flax monocrop. Although not commercially cropped for the past 30 years, the flax still predominates, and only small stands of the cloud forest endemics cover the ridge. You have passed through a multitude of microclimates, climbed over 1000m but are still only ten kilometres from the coast.

The Peaks National Park is aimed at trying to keep this unique ridge habitat going, but also to regenerate and expand the endemics to the flax fields, which still cover over 60% of the park.

Threats and Solutions

In summary, threats to the rich and special biodiversity of St Helena is primarily its sheer endemism, but also aggressive competition from introduced species, exposure to disease, development pressure and local ignorance. By protecting the endemic species through parks and sites of special interest, this can stem the flow of deterioration of their habitats, but this in itself is not enough. Many of the species are at critical levels of wild sustainability (some indeed have become extinct) and positive efforts are needed to cultivate new seedlings, replant areas, monitor bird species (such as the endemic wirebird) and study invertebrate environments.

The Government’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department (ANRD) and the St Helena National Trust (STHNT) have worked together to protect the endemics plant species at Diana’s Peak, and have received support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP) to run a clearance and replanting programme, based on a seed collection and nursery for the endemic plants. Local initiatives started a replanting of gumwoods in a plain on the east of the island. This is now the highly successful Millennium Forest and gumwood planting is expanding and succeeding.

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Mapping and Managing

The botanical and practical programmes developed with the OTEP project have given the endemic species the foothold it needs to restore these globally important plants. It is often difficult to show how the effort has succeeded, what factors have worked and what need more study. By mapping the vegetation, success rates and influencing factors, the scientists working towards sustaining these species can monitor their estate, and help convince the government, public and especially the children what has been achieved and what still needs to be done for this valuable resource.

TheNRgroup, through Alan Mills Consulting Ltd and Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA, have been awarded a further OTEP grant to develop the GIS which will allow environmental management to be mapped and monitored in an integrated way. Vegetation, insect, bird and cetacean monitoring will be integrated with development control, especially in view of the access issues of creating a new airport at Prosperous Plain and port improvements at Jamestown. Following a visit by Alan Mills in autumn 2005, more on-island training, data collection and protocol making will occur to build the capability for St Helena to run its own National GIS in 2006.

Elements to Consider

The project will not only develop applications, but will help St Helena to manage the complex GIS software and have easy ways of updating data in the medium term future. As well as having well defined applications for mapping and spatial analysis, National GIS needs to consider many other issues, such as data needs, software and hardware, metadata, standards (projection and coordinate systems). By sharing resources and information in a structured database, and by documenting information in a catalogue, St Helena can streamline money and trained personnel to efficiently use the resources, and by using the current technology, can allow decision makers access to useful environmental information applications that can feed into development control, strategic planning, access issues and environmental management issues. The OTEP project hope to implement this plan, develop the key datasets and train personnel to use, manage and publicise the information to help conserve these vital environments by 2007. The diagram below attempts to conceptualise the information flow from data providers on the left providing raw data to a structured database which is reference through a metadatabase or data catalogue. Synthesis of various datasets and analysis techniques provide applications in the orange boxes which can then be fed to departmental users of for particular government meetings.

Although a small island with limited technical and human capacity, St Helena can still benefit from GIS technology for pertinent national applications, and help to sustain its globally important environment alongside everyday needs.

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Page last updated October 2, 2013