Eden Changes

By Jheri St. James

An abundance of beautiful ferns and orchids makes the São Tomé and Príncipe moist lowland forests a treat to the senses. Colorful butterflies fill the skies, and the bustling with a noisy chorus of endemic birds. The long, woven nests of giant sunbirds dangle from the ends of tree branches. This glossy black bird is the largest species of sunbird on São Tomé. São Tomé thrushes and black and white São Tomé spinetails are found on both islands. The spinetail inhabits abandoned plantations and forest clearings while the widespread thrush also inhabits primary forest. Endemic snails slowly make their way across the forest floor, and are almost hidden among the leaves by their camouflage colors and patterns. This species of snail has an unusual "trap-door" opening on its hard, curved shell. At dusk, the darkened forests are teeming with bats feasting on succulent fruits. Sounds like Eden, doesn’t it?

Discovered and claimed by Portugal in the late 15th century, the islands’ sugar-based economy gave way to coffee and cocoa in the 19th century—all grown with plantation slave labor, a form of which lingered into the 20th century. While independence was achieved in 1975, democratic reforms were not instituted until the late 1980s. Although the first free elections were held in 1991, the political environment has been one of continued instability with frequent changes in leadership and coup attempts in 1995 and 2003. The recent discovery of oil in the Gulf of Guinea promises to have a significant impact on the country’s economy.

São Tomé and Príncipe is an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Africa. Two islands: São Tomé and Príncipe are located about 140 kilometres apart and about 250 and 225 kilometres respectively, off of the northwestern coast of Gabon Both islands are part of an extinct volcanic mountain range. São Tomé, the sizable southern island, is situated just north of the equator. It is named after Saint Thomas by Portuguese explorers who discovered the island on his feast day. São Tomé and Príncipe is the second smallest (in terms of population) African country (larger only than Seychelles). It is the smallest country in the world that is not a former US trusteeship, a former UK dependency, or a European microstate. It is also the smallest Portuguese-speaking country in the world.

Located on a chain of inactive volcanoes rising from the Gulf of Guinea, the São Tomé and Príncipe Moist Lowland Forest ecoregion is home to many endemic plants and animals. Each of the three islands in this region harbors its own endemic plants and animals. In fact, the island of São Tomé alone is home to 16 endemic bird species and an entire endemic genus of plants. Both São Tomé and Príncipe are critically important areas for bird conservation because of the many bird species that depend solely on this ecoregion for their survival. And from the giant sunbird to the dwarf olive ibis, the birds in this ecoregion show amazing variations in size, a result of their isolated evolutionary history.The islands of this ecoregion are an offshore extension of the mainland Cameroon and Nigerian mountains. Because of its wet, tropical climate and fertile, volcanic soils, this ecoregion has been the site of many sugar estates as well as coffee and cocoa plantations. While much of the original forest was destroyed for these purposes, there has been significant forest regeneration in many areas. The plant and animal species found on these islands are evolutionary offspring of ancestors that migrated from the African mainland millions of years ago and evolved in isolation ever since.Dorhn’s thrush-babbler, a brown and white bird endemic to Príncipe, is a scientific mystery. At various times it has been classified by scientists as a babbler, flycatcher, thrush, and a warbler. More observation and study are needed to classify it correctly.

Sao Tome and PrincipePhotograph by UEA Sao Tome Expedition 1990

Islands of São Tomé and Príncipe of the coast of Equatorial Guinea
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers) -- about half the size of Rhode Island

Over the last two centuries, Portuguese colonists cleared much of this region’s forests for the production of sugar cane and other crops. Many areas are still used for growing cocoa and coffee. While there has been some forest regeneration in areas of abandoned plantations, the loss of forests for agriculture in this ecoregion is a continuing threat. Another growing threat is the introduction of exotic mammals such as the black rat, mona monkey, and African civet, which threaten native birds and reptiles by eating adults and eggs. Twenty-three bird species in this ecoregion are of high conservation concern. Among these is the African Gray Parrot, which is captured from the island of Príncipe for the international pet trade.

Michael Garcia from the U.S. Embassy in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, was kind enough to make two collections for this art project—Gabon and Sao Tome/Principe. His collection was made, “… at Roca Sao Joa, in Sao Tome, a former plantation (roca), which today is a guest house/bed-breakfast. Today it also houses Sao Tomean art, is a working plantation and near great beaches and mountain bike trails.” Thanks again Michael, for your participation in our project. It’s people like you who make projects like ours grow and succeed.

Some examples of Sao Tomean art follow (1) Alfred Gockel (2) Tony Soulie (

The CIA Worldfact Book says this about Sao Tome and Principe: “This small, poor island economy . . . is optimistic about the development of petroleum resources in its territorial waters in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea which are being jointly developed in a 60-40 split with Nigeria.”

BBC News reports: “Fradique de Menezes, a wealthy cocoa exporter, was elected in July 2001 and re-elected in 2006 . . . The president wants revenues from new offshore oil fields to be used to improve public services. He is keen to reduce Sao Tome’s isolation and favours stronger ties with West Africa.”

Boca de Inferno

Eden changes. Sao Tome and Principe changes. We will watch with interest how these changes affect Mother Earth’s soils on these tiny dot islands off the coast of Africa. Will the market place dominate? Will care be taken of the heritage of earthly delights here? The birds at Roca Sao Joa sing a song of hope.




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