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The Virgin Islands are a group of around 90 small islands and islets that form part of the West Indies and are within 50 miles of Puerto Rico. The islands are divided into two groups, one of which is administered by the United Kingdom (UK) as former colonies; the second group, which had been the Danish West Indies, was purchased by the American government in 1917 and is administered by the United States. The Virgin Islands are often considered to be an extension of the Lesser Antilles Islands. The islands are actually the peaks of mountains that are mostly underwater; the total surface area of the islands is around 190 square miles and the population is a little over 100,000. Annually, as many as two million tourists visit the islands.
The islands were originally settled with slave labor to produce sugar cane in plantations; this industry is no longer competitive. Few alternatives exist for the islanders apart from the tourism industry, which has been successful enough to attract migrant workers from other parts of the Caribbean, leading to some ethnic conflict in recent years.
Tourism has had in some cases a significantly negative impact on the physical environment, as motorboats, divers, and related activities have damaged marine life. The many coral reefs represent a particular attraction. These problems have been exacerbated by a succession of hurricanes, which have devastating effects on many parts of the West Indies. The UK and U.S. governments provide direct assistance to the island groups for which they are responsible, but have been able to do little to address the problems of scarce clean water and fundamentally weak economies.
A large petroleum refining plant is located on one of the U.S. Virgin Islands and attempts are being made to diversify the economy in terms of manufacturing and international finance. This latter issue is controversial because of the islands’ reputation, perhaps in some cases unfairly earned, for being linked with tax avoidance and money laundering. The Virgin Islands also suffer from problems such as HIV/AIDS, crime and drug smuggling, and the many nonpoliced beaches and coves make illicit activities comparatively easy to hide.
Climate change leading to intensification and prevalence of hurricanes and related phenomena represent significant threats to the security of the islands. Rapid development of roads, second homes, and related infrastructure on tourist destination islands has contributed to sedimentation and other forms of environmental degradation.
- Isaac Dookhan, History of the Virgin Islands (University Press of the West Indies, 2000);
- Lee Macdonald, Donald M. Anderson, and William E. Dietrich, “Paradise Threatened: Land Use and Erosion on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands,” Environmental Management (v.21/6, 1997);
- Caroline S. Rogers and Jim Beets, “Degradation of Marine Ecosystems and Decline of Fishery Resources in Marine Protected Areas in the S. Virgin Islands,” Environmental Conservation (v.28/4, 2001).