Do not take your beautiful island for granted.
We are two British volunteers, who have given up the daily grind in our native city of Brighton to offer our services to Environment Tobago for one year. We have been given the privilege of writing about our first impressions of the island, after a month of being here. Had we really found the paradise we were looking for?
Like many Britons, our vision of Tobago was one of the classic Caribbean island with constant sunshine and unspoilt palm fringed beaches. But what really attracted us were the coral reefs and the pristine rainforest teeming with wildlife, which are unique to Trinidad and Tobago. On the surface this certainly appeared to be the case. We spent two wonderful weeks when we first arrived, diving with stingrays in clear blue waters, watching fishermen while the sun set on golden sands and awestruck by the lush forested hills everywhere you look. However, when you dig deeper, it is easy to see that there are many real threats to your beautiful environment here.
The first thing that struck us was the solid waste problem. Litter is everywhere, on the streets, in the sea and even on some of your most beautiful beaches. The problem ranges from individuals dropping plastic bottles on the ground to trucks illegally dumping waste in the bush. It’s a real eyesore and a health hazard to humans, breeding pests and disease as well as posing a huge threat to wildlife and the environment. A well known problem, for example is that turtles, already an endangered species often choke on plastic bags thinking that they are jellyfish. The problem could so easily be solved by the simple provision of more litterbins and designated garbage disposal sites. People’s attitudes to disposing rubbish needs to change as well.
Coming from the cold, murky, dark and over-fished waters of the British coast, we were really looking forward to exploring the reefs, full of brightly coloured fish and coral . What we didn’t expect to find was an old chicken wire cage which had trapped at least 30 reef fish, many of which had died as the rest were struggling to escape! While we understand that fishing is an important source of food and income on the island, it is imperative that the correct type of fish are caught using environmentally sound fishing practices. Other common practices, such as spear fishing can kill off coral which has taken thousands of years to grow. Without the coral there would be no reef fish. A balance must be struck, so that people can continue to fish for many generations to come without endangering the delicate marine ecosystem.
We were also shocked to find out that irreparable damage has been done to the famous Buccoo Reef. Ironically, it is as a result of it’s beauty that it is being destroyed. Despite the reef being recognised as an environmentally sensitive marine area, tour operators continue to allow tourists to walk on the reef, killing the coral. If this continues there will be no reef left, so this practice is of no benefit to either tour operators or tourists. The coral should be admired from glass bottomed boats or while snorkeling or diving, taking care not to touch.
To us Britons, the rainforest holds a mythical sway in our hearts. This is partly because it is the lungs of the earth and is home to more species than any other ecosystem, but also because we are no longer lucky enough to have any natural forest of our own. It is truly an amazing sight to look out over the Tobago hills and see trees as far as the eye can see.
However, the rainforest isn’t really the wildlife haven we imagined it to be. While the birdlife and insects do seem abundant, there is a glaring lack of mammals in the rainforest. Even in our limited English woodlands, you are likely to find a variety of mammal life. We were amazed to find nothing here, no tracks, no droppings, not a trace. We understand that Tobago has already lost the majority of it’s mammals as a result of over hunting. Monkey, ocelot and deer, once commonplace are now extinct here. It is a shame that people have not learnt from the mistakes of the past and continue to over hunt the few remaining wild animals. There is a real danger that future generations will not be able to enjoy the diversity of wildlife that Tobago was once renowned for.
It is very telling that though we have heard countless election promises in the build up to October 7th, there wasn’t one mention of these very important environmental issues from any of the political parties.
It seems you have reached a point in Tobago where you have to make a choice of either following the path taken by many other Caribbean islands and developing your country to the detriment of your natural resources or leading the way forward and forging a future that benefits both the people and the environment. Many people have begun to recognise the damage that has been done and which is continuing to take place everyday on this unique and precious island. Environment Tobago is working hard to educate people and raise awareness of the environmental dangers posed by thoughtless development and practices. We look forward to working with Environment Tobago over the coming year and helping them to fulfill their mission statement, which is to:
"...conserve Tobago’s natural and living resources and advance the knowledge and understanding of such resources, their wise and sustainable use, and their essential relationship to human health and the quality of life." - By Anoushka Visvalingam and Graham Wellfare - October 2002