Crisis in Paradise
Environment TOBAGOFocus On Tobago´s Environment
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Crisis in Paradise

The island of Tobago has played a pivotal role in the development of environmental conservation in the Western Hemisphere. It was in Tobago in 1763 that the first officially declared forest reserve in the Americas was established.

This came at a time when many Caribbean islands, particularly Barbados and Hispaņola, were faced with severe deforestation as the European colonies pursued the sugar dollar. The fear of drought and shortages of lumber led to the British Crown declaring that a part of Tobago's forest should be maintained as a reserve in perpetuity. This was the beginning of a trend in forest conservation that was soon seen in St Vincent and later in North America. The idea of establishing forest reserves was not new when the Tobago Forest Reserve was established. In fact, it was the bitter lessons learned by the British in their colonization of the Indian subcontinent that prompted the move towards forest conservation in the Caribbean. Even then it was a little too late for islands such as Barbados, which had lost all of its primary forest to sugarcane cultivation by 1767.

It is ironic therefore, that having been the cradle of natural resource conservation in the Caribbean, Tobago now faces the serious risk of severe environmental degradation as we enter the 21st century. At a time when tourism is being promoted as the saviour of Tobago's economy, the natural assets that should serve as the foundation of this industry are being degraded and destroyed by both the activities of residents and the very tourism industry that depends upon these assets.

The problems are many. They include the rampant dumping of garbage, the loss of natural vegetation, the killing of nesting sea turtles, sewage pollution from households and commercial establishments, the siltation of coastal waters due to unrestrained land development, the damaging of Buccoo Reef by visitors, overhunting, overfishing and the loss of vital wetlands. This increasing level of environmental degradation is already having its effects upon the human population. For example, sewage pollution is posing serious health risks to bathers. The improper disposal of solid waste is creating a huge mosquito problem with implications for the control of dengue fever transmission.

There should be no doubt that we are in a state of crisis. When a land developer can come to Tobago and pursue a bare earth approach in developing a resort by bulldozing and burning acres of natural vegetation, then there is a crisis. When illegal dumps are mushrooming all over the island and no one is prosecuted for this activity, then there is a crisis. When Buccoo reef continues to deteriorate despite more than ten years of studies and planning, then there is a crisis.

Things are going wrong in paradise. We seem to be unable to manage the environmental problems that are developing. In some situations, the solutions that we have attempted to implement have actually increased the rate of degradation. A case in point is the use of broad spectrum insecticides in trying to deal with the mosquito problem, thereby also killing out our bees and other useful insect species. We are focussing on treating the symptoms whilst the patient is dying.

This crisis calls for strong measures aimed at the causes and not the symptoms. There is an urgent need for the increased allocation of resources for environmental management. Our THA Department of Environment should not be in a situation where it has to ask, "Who cries for her?” The Department of Environment should have the resources to implement the management plan for Buccoo Reef that has been gathering dust on a shelf in some body's office. Our Health Division must be given the resources to go on a sustained drive to reduce solid waste and sewage pollution and to clean up the island. We need a Town and Country Planning Division that has real teeth so that unscrupulous land developers can be stopped in their tracks and forced to make restitution for any damage caused.

The time has come for action. No more crying over spilt milk. It is time for mopping up and taking good care of the cow so that we will get more milk tomorrow. It is important that the new development plan for Tobago fully addresses the need for sustainable development and that environmental issues are given the attention that is necessary. To do less may result in our having to carve the epitaph "PARADISE LOST" on a tombstone for Tobago.
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