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Is This the Most Crowded Island in the World? (And Why That Question Matters)

(Alex MacGregor)

Alex MacGregor | Longreads | February 2017| 19 minutes (5,053 words)

Geographers have an affinity for superlatives. Among the millions of named features on Earth, if something can claim to be the biggest, tallest, deepest, longest, or otherwise most extreme, it gets a lot of attention.

Asserting any superlative involves a degree of hubris. Our world has been picked over for superlatives, but how sure can we really be about any one claim? Any elementary school class will recite in unison that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world — that is, unless the class happens to contain an Ecuadorian student. Ecuadorians correctly learn that the highest mountain in the world could be measured by distance from the center of the earth, rather than of from mean sea level. By this measure, Ecuador’s Chimborazo is taller than Everest. (An asterisk is warranted for even this basic claim.)

Of much less prominence on the globe, but also a tricky superlative to nail down, is the most densely populated island in the world. A handful of the perhaps 100,000 islands on Earth have stratospheric population densities: Ultra-crowded islands exist in places as disparate as Kenya, Hong Kong, France, and the Maldives, but it’s regularly cited that, by the numbers, the densest of all is Santa Cruz del Islote, a 3-acre islet of about 1,200 people off the coast of Colombia. This claim has been repeated in numerous publications, most recently by The New York Times, and it’s even the subject of a short documentary. Journalists usually emphasize the bonds of family and community in a place so radically removed from western consumerism.

All of which makes for an uplifting read about a fascinating place. But what if the premise is wrong? I can’t comment on the experience of life on the island. But we’ve already learned to be wary of superlative claims, especially when westerners are the ones keeping score; what about this one? What if this is merely a very crowded island, and not the most crowded island?
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