Origins of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve

Tobago forest stream
Tobago forest stream.

Concerns about the destructive effect of man on his natural environment and climate go back into early history
As early as 450 BC, Artaxerxes I tried to control the felling of Lebanese cedar. Pliny the Elder (circa 100 AD) complained that Roman deforestation of the Mediterranean was going to turn the area into a desert. Ancient Indian texts on mediobotanical classification methods of the Eshava caste from Malabar were so superior to the European equivalent, the colonial Dutch who wanted to conserve the forests of Cape Colony translated them in to Latin and used them instead. There’s more. In pre-colonial East Africa, Cape Verde Islands, The Kingdom of Ghana, Mauryan India, China and Venice soil erosion was successfully combated by forest protection. Which allows us to put Tobago’s Main Ridge Forest Reserve in context. ‘Kings and Emperors throughout history have had forests and parks protected for the purpose of royal hunting and other pleasures. Tobago's Forest Reserve is unique in the world because it is the first forest legally protected to preserve the watershed.’ – David Rooks, Past ET President.

The story goes like this. In the mid-18th century scientist Stephen Hales was researching the circulation of sap in green trees and the relationship between green plants and the atmosphere. As a result, Hales recognised the intimate relationship between trees and rainfall. He then took pains to explain this to his friend Soame Jenyns, Cambridge MP and one of the Lord's Commissioners for Trade and Plantations; the organisation responsible for settling Tobago after the Peace of Paris in 1763 – the conference at which Tobago was ceded to Britain. This era was the height of the sugar trade in Europe. British settlers flocked to Tobago with land grants from the Crown. They cut down the forest rapidly, replacing it with sugarcane. So successful were they that by the end of that century people of means were said to be "as rich as a Tobago planter". Jenyns, understanding the ominous reality of Hales' scientific breakthrough declared the area now known as the Main Ridge Reserve as a Crown Reserve.

The forest is mainly Lower Montane Rain Forest, of the type common to the Amazon It originally comprised 10,000 acres but later another 4,000 acres were added. Jenyns tried to have the Reserve written into law. He suffered strong opposition in Parliament as many of his colleagues there were also owners of plantations in Tobago. They held the view the forest was "timber", probably thought too that after harvesting and marketing that resource they would access more land for planting sugar. Jenyns explained to them that if they continued along that particular path they would turn Tobago into a desert - their sugar crop would fail. It took Jenyns another eleven years to convince the lawmakers that he was right. Consequently, Governor Sir William Young, signed the relevant ordinance on the 13th of April, 1776. This, according to Scientific American left Tobago with the oldest legally protected forest reserve of its kind in the world. This act itself was marvellous but the words that made it law are incredible. In part Governor Young said:
"Did also in pursuance of your said Instructions remove to Your Majesty a tract of Wood Land lying in the interior and most hilly parts of this island for the purpose of attracting frequent Showers of Rain upon which the Fertility of Lands in these Climates doth entirely depend.


We are now commemorating World Forest 2016 and those words still matter.