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The Various Shapes of the Insular Caribbean: Population and Environment

From: Caribbean Studies
Volume 40, Number 2, July - December 2012
pp. 17-37 | 10.1353/crb.2012.0024

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

When we look at a map, we expect to see the portrayed landmasses (e.g., countries) reflecting their actual sizes and shapes. If it is a thematic map; this is, a map that displays information about a specific theme; the different units are colored according to the information displayed (what is known as a choropleth map), or with symbols representing either quantitative or qualitative information (for example, a proportional symbol map). In the case of the insular Caribbean, logically, the Greater Antilles occupy a larger extent than the Lesser Antilles and the small islands in the northern Caribbean (Map 1). Oftentimes, geographic patterns displayed on regional maps are not easily discernible, particularly for those islands with smaller sizes (this will depend, of course, on the scale and extent of the map). This can be problematic because the information, and ultimately the message that wants to be conveyed through a map, can be overlooked or missed due to the inherent size differences.

There is a type of map that allows us to “redraw” conventional maps by varying the size and shape of the geographic units in relation to the quantity they represent. Such maps are called cartograms. Cartograms can be very effective in conveying messages that otherwise could be missed if mapped following the “true” geography (size and shape) of the mapped area. In the case of the insular Caribbean, it is possible then to visualize the Lesser Antilles in a larger size than the Greater Antilles if the data for the Lesser Antilles has higher values than that of the Greater Antilles. When interpreting a cartogram, it is important to keep in mind that geographic precision (i.e., geographic position, land size and shape) is not the focus of the map; these elements will, in fact, be distorted. What is important, and what makes cartograms useful, is to be able to easily identify geographic pattern and the message carried by the map by comparing and analyzing the sizes of the displayed geographic units. Such maps provide an alternative way of viewing and interpreting the mapped area.

In this Cartographic Essay we present a series of cartograms of the insular Caribbean that portray different themes about population, economy and the environment with the aim of presenting a regional “snapshot” of a variety of topics related to such themes. Our objective is to provide information that can allow the reader to make connections between the mapped topics and among the islands. Additionally, the cartograms present information that is related to, and further discussed in the articles that constitute this Special Issue.

We start the essay by displaying information about regional population dynamics, including total population, population change, urbanization, and population density (Maps 2 to 6). A look at these maps shows extreme differences within the region. In the case of total population, for example, numbers range from 11 million in Cuba, to only about 5,000 in Montserrat (Map 2). One phenomenon that characterizes most of the Caribbean countries is the high percentage of population living in urban areas. In 2010, more than half of the countries in the insular Caribbean had an urban population of more than 50%, and for some islands (like Anguilla and the Cayman Islands) urban population was 100% (Map 3). The region is also characterized by rapid rates of urbanization. For some islands, changes in urban population have been extraordinary, as in the case of Turks and Caicos (800% between 1980 and 2010), Haiti (345%), the British Virgin Islands (233%), and the Caiman Islands (229%). Regional change in urban population between 1980 and 2010 was, in fact, higher than the change in total population (81% change in urban population versus 40% change in total population) (Maps 4 and 5).

Population density provides a relation between size (available space) and number of persons which, in the case of many islands in the Caribbean, is critical. In a cartogram, when density values are taken into account, the population factor within the region presents a different picture: the smaller islands become larger and the larger islands smaller (Map 6). Population densities are generally higher in the Lesser Antilles than in the Greater Antilles (with the exception of Puerto Rico and...

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