The Origin of the Tobago Forest Reserve
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The Origin of the Tobago Forest Reserve

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.

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.

In the mid 18th century there was a scientist, Stephen Hales, researching the circulation of sap in green trees and the relationship between green plants and the atmosphere. Results of his research displayed the intimate relationship between trees and rainfall.

Hales explained this to his close friend, Soame Jenyns, Member of Parliament for Cambridge and one of the Lord's Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, the organisation responsible for settling Tobago after the Peace of Paris in 1763. At this conference the island 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 filthy rich people were said to be "as rich as a Tobago planter".

Jenyns, understanding the ominous reality of Hales' scientific breakthrough declared all the area now known as the Main Ridge Reserve as Crown Reserve. It originally totalled approximately 10,000 acres but later another 4,000 acres were added.

Jenyns tried to have this protection made law. He suffered strong opposition in Parliament as many of his colleagues were owners of plantations in Tobago and viewed the forest as "timber". They thought that after harvesting and marketing this valuable resource, they would have more land for planting sugar. Jenyns explained to them that if they continued along that course they would turn Tobago into a desert. Their sugar crop would fail. It took him another eleven years to convince enough of them that he was right. The Governor, Sir William Young, signed the 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 it says:

"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.

William Young

Assented to by his Honour the Commander in Chief this Thirteenth day of April One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Six."

The forest is mainly Lower Montane Rain Forest. This type of forest is prevalent in the Amazon. In effect our legacy is tiny sample of the Amazon in tiny Tobago.
David Rooks

*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.
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