Protecting forest and coastal resources: The Tobago side of GoRTT's IFMPA project

Map showing Environment Tobago's notion of the Marine Protected Area and the Main Ridge Forest Reserve
Map showing Environment Tobago's notion of the Marine Protected Area and the Main Ridge Forest Reserve

The idea of conserving the Main Ridge forest and the Tobago seascape north of Parlatuvier/Roxborough works to the benefit of everyone. Trees, we know, secure the freshwater supply, provide oxygen and helps to balance carbon dioxide. Trees also function as habitat to plants and animals - from which we derive food, medicines and joy. The sea is equally important in that while it provides ecosystem services to the wider (Caribbean) region it also feeds us.

But there are problems facing any mechanism that seeks to protect these two resources – or indeed any of Trinidad and Tobago’s thirty six forest reserves, thirteen wildlife sanctuaries and one marine park

. A big sticking point is effective management; over hunting, fishing, squatting, or even invasives (species). The other negative is the poor culture of use we have for things natural; not many people think that nature is under threat. The third and equally non-trivial pressure we put on our nature is pollution; coming from the farming and industrial sectors.

Yet how can we protect either forest or sea when the laws covering their governance are purposely vague, hopelessly dated or virtually unenforceable? The issue was highlighted in November 2012 when a group of environmental professionals were tasked to formulate a series of protected area management pilots to show how T&Ts natural (non-petroleum) resources could be harnessed for both economy and common good. That work was part of Improving Forestry and Marine Protected Areas Project (IFMPA); championed by the Environmental Policy Division of the relevant Ministry. IFMPA is now in full swing under the management of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on behalf of the Global Environmental Fund. IMPA is ambitious, unique too in that our government's technocrats seem willing for a change to use input and share responsibility with the widest possible group of ‘reserve’ users.

At the risk of oversimplifying its objectives, IFMPA’s end goal is to amend the present laws, make new ones where necessary so persons accessing the reserves, sanctuaries and marine parks will leave them in condition good enough for the coming generations to enjoy. IFMPA’s overarching mandate however seeks to achieve a management template for all of T&T’s protected areas under a financially practical model. This is a huge task indeed.

IFMPA relies on six pilot sites to deliver its objectives; Caroni Swamp, Matura, Nariva, the Trinity Hills Reserve (also known as Cat’s Hills), Tobago’s Main Ridge forest and the ‘proposed’ North East Tobago Marine Park. Each location is intended to contribute to the eventual management model. This necessitates the participatory approach – essentially, all community hands working the deck.

How is Tobago faring in the IFMPA?

At this point in the project Tobago looks to be leading the way. Under guidance from the FAO team, the local pilot committee has merged the island's two sites with intention to minimise replication of tasks, avoid inter-departmental confusion with the THA, and co-opt skills from users - many of whom have interests common to both resources. Obviously it’s not all roses. Tobago may be remote, semi-autonomous and can perhaps generate a vision of what it wants the pilots to be faster than Trinidad. Yet the pressures on its Main Ridge forest and proposed Marine Park will come from sources who are not - either by purpose or inadvertence, working with the team presently in place. Suffice to say their lack of presence from the decision-making (or participatory) process, makes the entire IFMPA project another doomed-to-fail exercise.

The challenge therefore, given that IFMPA project hopes to deliver a better management paradigm for two of Tobago’s bigger natural resources – setting aside the Trinidad side of things for the moment, is getting the users of those resources into the room.

Some NGO's are present. Environment Tobago, never shy in the cause of 'environment is there and committed to maintaining presence on any management system that willl accept them. The Education Research Institute of Charlotteville (ERIC) is there, along with community interest groups from Roxborough, Castara and Parlatuvier. There are some notable no-shows though. Two major local civil society players; the Tobago Hotel Association (THATA) and the Tobago Division of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce have not signed up. Which is passing strange since their collective incorporates many people who depend on the Main Ridge Forest and the seas off Tobago for a living. Also, the various hunter and fisher groups, usually quick to claim ‘traditional and cultural’ rights of access, do not attend IFMPA meetings. The Roxborough Police Youth Club – and others in that particular catchment have never contributed to ‘managing’ what is undoubtedly a major part of their inheritance. Also missing in the IFMPA sessions are the private landowners whose properties and activities impact on the pilot zones.

The State has not played well either. Aside from the automatic buy-in from the THA through the DAMME, the Assembly has not bothered to send its Tourism Department, Division of Public Infrastructure, Public Health, Community Development and Culture, Finance, or the Town and Country Planning Division to IFMPA meetings. Also, the operational arms of THA policy, such as the Chief Secretary’s Office – or at least its Legal Department, could add value by coming too. As could the Comprehensive Economic Development Plann/ers, the Planning and Implementation Department and last though not least the Division of Education Youth and Sport. Another key group who should show more interest in Tobago’s natural resources is the Utilities, particularly the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and the Electrical Commission (TTEC). Their collective mandate; to serve the interest of the population is undeniable - as is their power to destroy the natural environment in keeping those mandates.

In time to come, IFMPA (or a scheme deriving from it) will pretty much decide the nature of involvement of stakeholder groups as concerns the natural environment. Until then, Trinidad an Tobago can only try to get to grips with the nature of the problem. Actually even if IFMPA 'only' achieves a population better aware of the importance of conservation, the battle would be meaningfully joined. Of course if no such thing happens the entire four year exercise would be a waste of time.