Trinidad and Tobago – Protecting the iconic Three Sisters

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Eric Lewis, hereditary prince of the First Peoples of Moruga, at La Retraite Beach in in Trinidad and Tobago, to the east of which lie Trinity Hills. Courtesy: Eric Lewis

Eric Lewis, hereditary prince of the First Peoples of Moruga, at La Retraite Beach in in Trinidad and Tobago, to the east of which lie Trinity Hills. Courtesy: Eric Lewis

PORT OF SPAIN, Sep 2 2020 (IPS) – Trinity Hills in Trinidad and Tobago’s southeast region, also affectionately known as the Three Sisters, is home to a wildlife sanctuary that serves as a sort of incubator for fauna to reproduce and replenish the surrounding forest reserves of the Victoria-Mayaro region that includes the communities of Guayaguayare and Moruga. But a draft management plan for the Trinity Hills environment project and reports from surrounding communities suggest that urgent action is needed to prevent losses to the sanctuary and forest reserve.

Slash and burn agriculture on the boundaries of the sanctuary are posing a threat to the sanctuary itself; alleged marijuana growing deep within the protected area adds another level of danger because of the possibility of armed conflicts; illegal hunting threatens the viability of wildlife within the sanctuary and forest reserve; and the legal but nonetheless debilitating impacts due to international oil and gas companies cutting swathes through the sanctuary to lay pipelines also threaten flora and fauna.

Managing these problems and conflicting claims on the area will require the cooperation of all stakeholders, said Dr David Persaud, environmental manager in the Environmental Policy and Planning Division of Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Planning and Development .

He told IPS that for the moment some of the threats to the area were “anecdotal not empirical”. As chair of the steering committee for the Improving Forest and Protected Area Management of Trinidad and Tobago (IFPAM-TT) project, which ran from 2015 to 2019 and was funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), he has received information on the threats to the Trinity Hills area.

But “the actual assessment of the extent of the problem in the Trinity Hills wildlife sanctuary and the surrounding areas has to be determined,” Persaud said. “All of those things would have to be evaluated as part of further work to be done.”

The IFPAM-TT project management plan for the Trinity Hills area is yet to be finalised and submitted, he said, but it covers the threats mentioned as well as potential solutions, ranging from MoUs for management of the site, to operational guidelines for oil and gas companies, to enforcement of mechanisms to remove solid waste, as well as a research agenda and communications strategy.

The Trinidad and Tobago government and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations recently concluded an Improving Forest and Protected Area Management project designed to protect the flora and fauna of this ecologically important area.

  • According to the GEF, some 60 percent of Trinidad and Tobago land is forest and woodland, and includes several distinct terrestrial ecosystems and a high species diversity to surface area ratio.
  • Trinidad and Tobago is home to some 420 species of birds, 600 different species of butterflies, and 95 different mammals, among others. There are also over 2,100 different flowering plants, which include over 190 species of orchids, GEF states.
  • The area has other historical significance as well. Nestled in the soil beneath the Three Sisters’ feet are remnants of artefacts that testify to the island’s First Peoples inhabitants who view the area as a sacred site with some religious significance.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Forest Programme website notes that approximately 22 percent of the land mass in the English-speaking Caribbean is designated as protected areas, like the Trinity Hills. It also states that the degradation and loss of forests threatens the survival of many species, and reduces the ability of forests to provide essential services.

Eric Lewis, who is recognised by the First Peoples of Moruga as a hereditary prince and spokesman, and Arvolon Wilson-Smith, a Guayaguayare environmental activist and president of the NGO Black Deer Foundation, told IPS the problems caused by both illegal and legal activities range from forest fragmentation that displaces animals and has the potential to disrupt their reproduction; the loss of vegetation including trees that are hundreds of years old along with threats to the area’s 11 endemic plant species; and air, water and land pollution that is caused both by slash and burn agricultural squatters and the oil companies.

Lewis said that his community has proffered solutions to the problem of agricultural squatting–where farmers plant small acreage to grow crops without taking up residence–to assist the government of Trinidad and Tobago for more than three decades.

“If people [in Moruga] were given the same opportunities as those in urban areas, members of the community would not have to go into the forest reserves to do illegal farming,” he said.

The area is known for its pawpaws, coconuts, water melon, pumpkin, citrus fruits, breadfruits, peppers, avocados, bananas and other crops. It also has a reputation for organically grown marijuana. There is also a thriving fishing industry where shark, carite (streaked Spanish mackerel), kingfish, red snapper, grouper, lobster and oysters are fished.

Lewis said the people of Moruga have lived without many amenities for decades. “There is a lack of opportunity for educational progress. There is no hospital, no fire station, the health centre opens 8 am to 4 pm; the closest hospital is 15 minutes from Moruga’s farthest point. Many people have died on the way to hospital. There are no sporting facilities for the youth and only two secondary schools” for an area whose population he estimates to be around 30,000.

Wilson-Smith told IPS that members of the Guayaguayare community rely heavily on the oil and gas companies operating in the Victoria-Mayaro area for jobs (Trinidad and Tobago is the largest oil and natural gas producer in the Caribbean), though fishing and agriculture also provide employment.

The draft management plan drawn up for the IFPAM-TT project, for which she served as a community representative on a subcommittee, includes a proposal for ecotourism as a possible alternative livelihood that could draw people away from illegal activities in the forest reserve and the sanctuary. She said it was suggested at a subcommittee meeting “as a means to effect change”.

The area has several attractions that would be of interest to tourists, she said, including a mud volcano and a three-tier waterfall, as well as good hiking terrain.

Though the proposal for ecotourism still needs to be fleshed out, she is hoping that the community and the various arms of government responsible for conservation can work together to reduce the impacts of both the illegal and legal activities affecting the area.

Persaud said while every effort would be made by law enforcement to curtail illegal activities, the oil and gas companies were operating within the law since they would have obtained relevant permissions from the environmental agencies. “In any kind of development you will have some impacts. It is how we mitigate those developmental impacts,” he said.

Lewis does not agree. “Not one of the oil companies has contributed to any sort of sustainable redevelopment of the areas they have affected,” he said. “Because they have a certificate of environmental clearance does not mean that it is good for the environment.”

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