In honour of our fifty-eighth Independence anniversary, I visited Woodford Square, aka The People’s University, where seeds of Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence grew. But instead of feeling pride, I felt shame.
Twenty tree stumps, envoys of once stately trees, left to rot without love or dignity illuminated Marcus Garvey’s words: a people without knowledge of their past… is like a tree without roots’.
Public spaces symbolise how we feel about ourselves. A tree cemetery does not bode wellbeing; instead it signifies a deep malaise. Aberrations of neglect in our capital are evident in our famous Queen’s Park Savannah and other public parks, where mutilated remains of trees proliferate.
Illegal deforestation continues in our protected forests, without abatement, or consequences, and our immaturity as a country can be judged by our un-sustaining agricultural practices. No nation can feel proud of such lack of foresight and indifference, can it?
The Royal Botanic Gardens marked its 200th year anniversary in 2018. Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat, speaking at the bicentennial anniversary on 6 December, said we were living in a society where many people lacked foresight and were ‘not even planning for the next two years, let alone 200’.
Despite his leadership position to create necessary change—as both the Savannah and reforesting falls under his ministry—Rambharat, instead, expresses frustration.
Local Corporation leadership demonstrates environmental incoherence by the prolific daily production of methane gas, a 26 times more potent green-house gas than carbon dioxide. Community-based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) workers fill garbage bags with grass cuttings and leaves; decomposition when deprived of oxygen triggers an anaerobic condition that makes highly flammable methane gas.
Landfills all over our country are filled daily with these methane bombs. In January 2020, Guanapo landfill burst into flames; and for a week neighbouring populations were severely affected. No cause was given but MP Anthony Garcia, said: “…the surface fire was extinguished… however, due the accumulation of gasses, there is an underground fire which would be brought under control soon.”
The event, but not the real cost to people’s lives is reported. Gary Aboud, an environmental activist, claims toxicity from the dump is leaching into the water-table.
Previously, in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019 the Beetham Landfill, erupted into fire. Port-of-Spain population was smothered in toxic smoke for days. The health hazards of landfills poisoning neighbourhoods in close proximity can be lethal.
Why were we not composting the tons of organic material CPEP produces?
Mr Sammy, a POS City Corporation administrator, explained to me—after I unexpectedly stumbled into their Mucurapo Road garbage truck compound, while investigating wild petunias on the roadside—that an extensive report had been done several years ago.
He said composting had been highly recommended, along with the purchase of wood-chipping machines to shred tree trunks and branches to become mulch instead of landfill. When I asked what happened to the recommendations, he half smiled and said that the report had been sent upstairs. The decision was above his pay grade.
I understood his wry smile as it was evident that policy remained the same. Instead of making gardeners out of CEPEP, their mandate is to produce potent green house gas.
In 2018, a comprehensive report was commissioned by the Minister of Planning regarding landfills, and intentions to transform environmental practices were announced. Organic household waste was accounted for as 27.15% but there is no mention of CEPEP’s contribution and no updates regarding abating landfill toxicity.
This tiny republic has produced many academic scholars. It is the birthplace of a significant acoustical instrument: the steel pan. It has produced Olympic winners, Nobel Laureates, a Carnival to rival Brazil’s. We can Google any subject, therefore, environmental ignorance cannot be a defence.
I wondered, in the spirit of the victimised, could we blame colonial attitudes, passed down to us? Can we claim that we are suffering from the Stockholm syndrome?
Can we argue in our defence that we have internalised the plundering, greedy, mentality of our colonisers, thereby, rejecting principles of environmental respect practiced by the First Peoples?
Colonial government was established around Woodford Square, formerly known as Brunswick Square, formerly known as Place des Ames or ‘The Place of Souls’. Downtown Port of Sport, and its surroundings were known as Cumucurapo (Conquerabia, Camocorabo, Cumcurape and Cumacarapo) by its First People: Place of Silk Cotton Trees.
It is here in 1787, when Don Chacon (the last Spanish Governor) diverted the St Ann’s River to become the East dry river, that we can timestamp the beginning of environmental degradation. Centuries before, the Ariapita river, renamed St Ann’s, ran through the square where the Tanio peoples lived on its banks, surrounded by Silk Cotton forests (Ceiba) they revered as Trees of Life.
During the Red House restoration in 2013, a burial place was found of 60 Tainos inclusive of 13 children. Radiocarbon dating revealed that they lived there between 125 – 1395 AD over a thousand years before the first Spanish conquest in 1498. They were good stewards of the home they called ‘Cairi’ (or Kairi) which meant Island.
Their dwindling survivors could only look on in horror when rampant deforestation began in earnest with the arrival of the French in the late 1700s. They came with their seasoned slaves and free black/coloured people and capitalism boomed. Plantations of sugar, coffee, cotton, along with an influx of captives from Africa, made Trinidad ripe for the taking by the marauding British in 1797.
Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, described by the Duke of Wellington as a ‘rough foul-mouthed devil, but very capable’, became the first British military governor. He inflicted harsh punishment on enslaved people. Those who died under his watch were considered fortunate compared to whom he tortured and displayed in The Place of Souls.
His horrific torture of a 14-year-old bi-racial girl, Louisa Calderon, who refused to confess to a crime, stunned the population. Picton’s modus operandi was: let them hate, so long as they fear.
Picton’s mission was to mentally cripple, and destabilise both indigenous and African people. He ordered the destruction of their gateway-to-heaven, and Silk Cotton forests fell to the axe—leaving behind a legacy of dissonance that further disenfranchised the original significance of the Ceiba.
The one remaining survivor in Port of Spain, located in the Savannah near Belmont Circular Road—the last of the original forest—was cut down in 1997 under suspicious circumstances. It was never replanted by the Horticultural Division.
Port of Spain, now, remains bereft of its botanic namesake. We have a national bird, a flower, but not a national tree. This is rich irony: We are migratory like the Ibis, pretty like the Chaconia, but are we grounded like Ceiba, the Silk Cotton tree.
Or did Picton and Sir Ralph Woodford succeed in paralysing our connection to earth, and heaven, when they destroyed the forests that blanketed Cumucurapo?
Picton was recalled to face trial on abuse of power and to appease British opinion, moving toward abolition of slavery. Once the new colony was stable, a civilian governor, Woodford, was appointed in 1812. We can thank him for his vision to rebuild POS out of stone, instead of wood—as it had burned down in 1808—but his racist legacy doomed much of its architectural heritage to decay and arson.
In 1917, Brunswick Square was renamed Woodford, as a way to distance T&T’s German stakeholders. It was a re-branding aimed at promoting British values after World War I.
In the process, it suggested approval of Woodford: a governor who opposed the abolition of slavery and created a system of institutionalised racism aimed at strangling freedom of the upwardly mobile non-whites.
Famous for their ‘divide and conquer’ techniques, we can trace present tribal rivalry to the premeditated introduction of Asians into the mix—instigated by Woodford’s superior, Earl Henry Bathurst—to further divide and augment a British bio-political system. What had been an open market of equality among all shades of people became crushed under his divisive laws.
To legitimise land domination, civilisation was transposed on virgin neotropical forests by eradicating them. Alien species, deemed better than trees like the Silk Cotton were imported and planted in Le Place de Ames—newly re-named Brunswick Square—to erase memories of war crimes.
Woodford brought pitch from the Pitch Lake to suppress native plants we now denigrate as bush. His brainchild, the Royal Botanic Gardens, replaced an ancient rainforest which occupied 61.8 acres. It was planted with 90% foreign trees to showcase the botanic trophies of tropical Britain that boasted ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’.
In the eyes of the Old World, the romance of the exotic New World was enviable. The Queen’s Park Savannah—another Woodford re-brand—with its abundance of ornamental trees was described as more beautiful than the parks of London or Paris.
Charles Kingsley wrote about Trinidad in ‘At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies’, published 1887: ‘The island had never been surveyed: and no wonder… it is a mystery… how it has ever got done…. Considering the density of the forests, one may as easily take a general sketch of a room from underneath the carpet as of Trinidad from the ground’.
In The Road to Botany Bay, Paul Carter wrote: ‘… space itself was a text that had to be written before it could be interpreted’ (1987, 41). His spatial history reconstructed the ways in which European explorers and settlers translated the landscape into an object that could be comprehended, colonized, and consumed (RB Craib 2000, 10).
The surveyor’s science was essential to augment conquest. Carter concluded: ‘the country did not precede the traveller: it was the offspring of his intention’ (1987, 349).
In order to price, sell, buy, steal, will, exchange, or tax, one had to first be able to comprehend the land. Erasing forests and bush was legitimised for the purpose of surveying, and branding—so Crown Lands could be controlled, monitored and optimised.
The British were no different to the Spanish whose motto was: ‘By the Compass and by the Sword, more and more and more’. The word sword was replaced with axe. They did not care if deforestation decimated unique ecosystems; they were civilising the savages and beautifying public landscapes while raping the land.
Today, we clamour to take down the statues of Columbus here, or Picton in the UK, to demonstrate a global awakening. But if we treat land like they did, aren’t we implicit too?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking at Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, said: “[…] Here the central concern is not retribution or punishment but, in the spirit of ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships. This kind of justice seeks to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator.”
In the spirit of rehabilitation of the victim, what Independence Square needs are symbols of restorative justice. Replanting Ceibas along the promenade, and Woodford Square, in remembrance of Cumucurapo, would be a start.
Late former Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams said in his Independence speech: “You are the the future; we are at best the present—at worst the past.”
But what worst is he referring to? Does he, like the colonisers, only see the history of this land beginning in 1498?
Are we like ‘the settler’ who ‘makes history; his life is an epoch, an Odyssey’. He is the absolute beginning: ‘This land was created by us’; he is the unceasing cause: ‘If we leave, all is lost, and the country will go back to the Middle Ages’ (Fanon 1963, 51).
Thus imperial history assigns meaning retrospectively and from without, rejecting context, locality, and specificity… preexisting places and alternative conceptions of space that preceded the colonialist enterprise vanish from view. (RB Craib 2000, 10)
If we embody colonial contempt for our environment and are oblivious to how we continue to abuse; we come to the post-colonial question: Which system do we choose now—that of the former stewards of the land, the First Peoples? Or, plunderers of the land, the greedy capitalists that slashed and burned?
In History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, Williams wrote: ‘[…] the Amerindian civilisation… was essentially agriculture, representing an important advancement over the paleolithic period of human history. They cultivated the soil by constructing round heaps or mounds of earth, firstly to loosen the soil, secondly to protect the roots against the dry season, and thirdly for composting with shoveled ashes’.
Ironically, the PNM, like the Pied Piper, led the nation away from agriculture: ‘Before the great oil came…. It was all agriculture.… We ate locally. Now…US$600 million worth of food is imported!’
We are not grounded in pre-colonial environmental-awareness to connect us to the land and appear to associate the growing of food with Massa day. We cannot expect anyone to love a place in which they are taught to take and not give back; entitlement is a precursor to moral failure.
The colonialists acted as if ‘the country did not precede the traveller: it was the offspring of his intention’ (Carter 1987, 349). Perhaps, it can be argued that our society also acts like the traveller, as if independence took place in an environmental vacuum and was given to a people who cannot remember and therefore dis-member.
If Minister of Rural Development and Local Government Senator Kazim Hosein would educate CEPEP to mound with grass clippings around our trees, shrubs, instead of making methane bombs, then we would be following the First Peoples’ coherent example of composting with the dry season in mind.
We don’t need a university degree to know that returning organic material to the ground is one of humanity’s oldest traditions; this is evident in how we bury our dead: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…
I was born out of this global cross pollination of humanity, my DNA is represented by 32 distinct geographical locations. This country is the only place where I feel as if I am finally home, having lived many years abroad.
It is with its nature that I feel at peace. The way the rain smells, the sound of parrots flying home in the evening, the memories of my maternal grand-mothers who Woodford would have put to sit at the back of Trinity Cathedral, Brunswick Square, so they would know their place, segregated and humiliated.
But it is my grandmother’s spirit, and her mother, my great-gran, born 1903 and 1880, who anchor me when I am here. Love connects me to my birth place and the bones of First Peoples buried here, along with some of my great grandparents.
I mourn, with the dead, the destruction evident in the absence of once abundant butterflies, whose caterpillars starve because we destroy their host plants, aka bush. Dwindling birdlife, wildlife, amphibians and fish, approach their extinction threshold, not just here but globally.
In 1801, Alexander Von Humboldt, considered by some to be the world’s first environmentalist, coinciding with the British arrival in Trinidad, speculated during his exploration of Venezuela, that we might travel to distant planets and take our ‘lethal mixture of vice, arrogance and ignorance with us’—after he witnessed the devastating effects of deforestation by the Spanish.
He argued that the planetary natural systems were an interwoven living whole, and by pulling at its innate threads we had begun to unravel its integrity. Deforestation of indigenous forests is a silent holocaust.
We, the inhabitants, don’t need permission to begin reforesting with native trees, such as the Ceiba, Sandbox, Tonka Bean, Guanacaste, Brazil Nut, Balata, Autograph tree—if governmental bodies will not.
My grannies saved every green scrap for the compost heap. They knew that one part urine to 10 parts water made fantastic plant fertiliser. They could grow anything and made the most delicious ice-cream from Barbadine growing in the small backyard, on the chain link fence around the fowl yard.
When we were sick, Granny knew where to get shining bush, vervain, zebapique, caster-oil, senna pods, aloe, neem; and how to prevent infection with spider-web. The etymology of the word religion (religare) is interpreted by Lactantius (4th century) as: to fasten or bind; while Augustine, preferred: re-eligere ‘to choose again’.
My grannies were not academic people but they bound us to the earth. They ebbed and flowed with eco-principles that encouraged us to choose again, to commit and bind to the life-source.
Our islands are still home to extraordinary beauty and diversity of the non civilized kind. We cannot bring back the dead but we owe a debt of gratitude. Nature is holding on, it can still regenerate itself; if we choose to grow beyond the past and present capitalistic greed and callousness, and be the change we want to create.
The public is welcome to participate in statutory meetings held by Local Government on the last Wednesday of every month, but they are held early in the day, when the average working person cannot attend.
Perhaps, we can begin our civic duty by demanding that they make meeting times accessible to the working public, so we can attend these meetings and demand change.
In The Human Planet, Lewis and Maslin argue Anthropcean began when the colonists imposed their civilising destruction on global ecosystems, like a meteorite falling out of the sky and destroying the dinosaurs; they ravaged the planet.
‘We have become a new force of nature, dictating what lives and what goes extinct. Although… our power, unlike plate tectonics or volcanic eruptions, is relative—it can be used, modified or even withdrawn’.
It is time to reevaluate our colonial concept of beautification and, in the spirit of ubuntu, focus on the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances. And to put less emphasis on the pretty Chaconia and more on Ceiba: Gateway to heaven—a stalwart champion of biodiversity that connects earth and sky.