In a small side room in a local community center, residents of the village of Brasso Seco, Trinidad have rallied around a local commodity. Cacao is connecting this tiny, out-of-the-way village to taste buds from around the world. The Brasso Seco Chocolate Company is a community-based company that uses locally-sourced ingredients to make some of the finest chocolate in the entire world. Combining sustainable farming practices and unbeatable ecotourism opportunities, the approximately 300 people of the village are working together to maintain the pristine rainforests and culture of this unique corner of the country.
A three hour drive to the northeast will take you to the village of Grand Riviere where locals are working to protect their own source of pride. Starting in March, thousands of Leatherback Sea Turtles make their annual migration to the village to deposit the next generation of turtles on the pristine beaches. In May and June, the beaches become so crowded with these 1,000lb giants, they often run out of room to make nests and end up accidentally digging up other nests. This is the site of the greatest concentration of the threatened Leatherback in the world. The locals have picked up the conservation baton via educational tours and eco-friendly community design and are doing their best to see that this species gets the best chance possible to persist long into the future.
Across the road from the beaches of Grand Riviere lies a trail leading into the forested hills of the Northern Range. Here in these hills is the last remaining stronghold of Trinidad Piping Guans, a critically endangered endemic bird with less than 300 individuals left in the world. And while some local residents are thought to still hunt the bird for bush meat, which is what originally led to the species’ near extinction, most take pride in protecting the Pawi (local name for the bird) and are quick to discuss all they know about the bird with an air of respect, providing a glimmer of hope for this once abundant bird.
Traveling south and east from Grand Riviere lies the largest freshwater wetland in the country. Nariva swamp is designated as a Wetland of International Significance and is the site of an active attempt to reestablish a population of Blue and Gold Macaws. These birds were extirpated from the island in the 1960s due largely to poaching for the illegal pet trade, but also habitat loss. Beginning in the late 1990s, reintroduction efforts slowly brought 30 individuals over from neighboring South America, in an attempt to restore this species to its native range. Today, with some luck, you can spot these colorful gems of the bird world flying over the canopy of this captivating wetland.
And while grass roots efforts like the ones listed above are making a difference and are almost assuredly the life blood of any conservation movement in the most remote areas of the country, greater funding and solid science are desperately needed to better protect the island’s ecosystems and organisms. This is where Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) fellows have taken up the conservation baton in an attempt to see that the Blue and Gold Macaw does take hold in Nariva for good. The fellows work to raise funding, conduct field-based research, and work with locals to build a sense of pride in protecting the Blue and Gold Macaw from the threats that still remain to this day.
In the center of the country near Arima, located at the end of a narrow and rough road lies Hamgel Field Station. Hamgel was established so field biologists and ecologists can have a place to set up a home base to operate out of while working to better understand and conserve the island’s natural resources. And this is where the CLiC fellows have gathered around a table on a pristine evening to have dinner with a group of young undergraduate ornithologists from Colorado State University.
The Colorado State University Field Ornithologists (CSUFO) have traveled 3,300 miles to Trinidad to take in the island’s diverse community of avian species and to learn about conservation efforts across the island. I have joined them to help better guide their interests and energy, but mostly I watch from afar as their collective maturity and knowledge is well beyond their years. Their razor sharp focus clearly indicates these students are serious about conservation and learning all they can in the short amount of time they have on the island.
As daylight fades and the plates of Dhalpuri Roti (local dish) slowly empty, the conversations build to a crescendo and I am just in awe. I’m in awe of these students and their genuine love for the world. They are exactly what makes this world a better place. And I’m in awe of the layers of conservation that are slowly building on the island, from villagers to scientists who have joined hands to protect this little corner of the world. Yes, Trinidad has not reached the level of success and acclaim that countries such as Costa Rica have achieved for their work in conservation, but the building blocks are there and it’s only a matter of time before Trini-based conservation is included in the same conversations as Tico-based conservation.
After six days and no more than 25 hours of sleep, CSUFO and I travel to the airport to head back to Colorado. As we stand in line to check into our flight, I sit back and listen to their conversations about this incredible eye-opening experience. These students and I bonded so hard with each other, with the locals, and with the island. It was truly a moving experience. And as the last bag was being zipped up before being checked in, I couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be a baton tucked into a corner, ready to spread the word of Trini conservation far and wide.