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A footnote to the British Empire

In his 2002 review of The Mystic MasseurRoger Ebert wrote

The West Indies were a footnote to the British Empire, and the Indian community of Trinidad was a footnote to the footnote.

Even intelligent, educated people tend to make the mistake of assuming that, to some extent, things have always been the way they are today. What’s left of the British West Indies is, indeed, collected leftovers of Empire, too small to stand on their own, and the English-speaking Caribbean is little more than a footnote in geopolitics. But that wasn’t always the case…(more)


Farewell, Prof Kenny

I began my UWI experience knowing a little more about the place than the average undergrad. My sister, two years into her time there, saw to it that I knew the general layout of the place, such that I was able to easily win the Orientation Week treasure hunt (and the $50 prize, which was more than a little money back in 1989).

In addition to campus geography, I was also aware fo the basics layout of the chemistry, plant science and zoology departments. And more than anyone else, I had heard of Professor Kenny, the professor of zoology who would lock the door to the lecture room at 8 o’clock, so if you were late you were out of luck. So it was with a great deal of interest that I attended my first zoology lecture as an undergraduate. I don’t recall an awful lot about first year zoology. Prof Kenny taught the first few months of the class before Mary Alkins-Koo took over (in January, I think) with Graham White rounding out the year with vertebrates. Kenny, having decided to mellow in his ‘old age’ took to leaving the doors to the lecture hall unlocked, but his comments to late-comers were enough to ensure that I was in class by 8 am (or, failing that, skip class). If I made it, his lectures were an experience worth getting out of bed for. His long, lanky frame would move across the front of the lecture hall, sitting on the front table like a large bird of prey, now standing with one foot up on the front table. He had an energy in the classroom, full of movement, full of a slightly jerk energy.

Having done A Level zoology, I didn’t feel too great a need to make it to lecture. Until Graham White’s bit at the end of the year, there was very little that was entirely new to me. The lab, on the other hand, was a very different experience, and one that I would not consider missing. Labs allowed for direct interaction with faculty, a chance to talk, to get to know people. Even after his section was done, Kenny had a habit of dropping in on the first year labs and talking to students. While his entry usually attracted a large group of admirers, there were still opportunities to talk to him, tap into his wealth of knowledge.

Kenny always struck me as an unlikely environmentalist. His contribution to th environmental movement in Trinidad and Tobago is huge, and he inspired many people to work for conservation. As I understand it, he was a major inspiration for the foundation of the UWI Biological Society around 1987, a movement that not only launched many a career among environmental professionals in Trinidad and Tobago, but which also helped transform conservation from a ‘French creole’ hobby into a serious national concern. It’s an unusual legacy for someone who was not only born to the ‘local white’ elite, but also someone who seemed profoundly skeptical about whether there was any point whatsoever in trying to conserve anything at all. Still, he taught people to value nature, to love it. And even if he had little faith in their ability to stem the tide of destruction, the love of nature he instilled in his students made them care enough to try.

While I only took first year Zoology from him, so I don’t really know if I count among “Prof’s” students (after all, I never called him “Prof”), he certainly had a major impact on me. At the end of first year, he said to me “sure, you topped the class, but you should have done better” (I only got a B+). And that backhanded compliment was really one of the most important things anyone ever said to me.

In search of sea turtles

The grey dawn revealed rice paddies and the source of the strange, almost haunting cries – small wading birds with curved beaks. And with the dawn came an end to the rain that had transformed a mildly uncomfortable night into something truly unpleasant. The thatched-roof shed had provided adequate shelter from the rain initially, but the wind had picked up and driven the rain through the open sides of the shelters. Retreating behind a half wall had provided respite, but then came thick streams of water running across the floor of the shed. The only option left was to squat, cold and damp, and wait for morning.

The night had started with such promise. This was our second attempt to see nesting leatherback sea turtles – pouring rain had caused us to cancel our previous trip. We had made it past Sangre Grande, almost to Fishing Pond, hoping that the rain would let up, but reality eventually intruded. This week the weather had been more promising (although, regardless of what the weather was like it St. Augustine, it always seemed to be raining in Grande). Problems began with a late start – so late, that by the time we arrived in Fishing Pond the guides had given up on us and gone home. Being adventurous and moderately outdoorsy, we figured we could find our own way through the scrub and mangrove to the beach. After all, we could hear the sea, we could smell the sea…and there was a clear path. What could possibly go wrong?

The paths, it seemed, led nowhere. We followed them in what appeared to be circles. Instead of leading us to the boardwalk through the mangrove, one path dumped us into the mangrove, ending in mud and water. We obviously weren’t on the path to the beach – instead, we were probably following paths used by crab catchers. They didn’t lead anywhere – the scrub we were trying to find our way across was probably the intended destination. After about an hour of trying, we gave up and joined the rest of the group who were milling around outside a pair of sheds. The maxis that had dropped us off were long gone. There was nothing to do but wait for them to come back for us at sunrise. It wasn’t a horrible idea – we were with friends, we were away from campus, it was a nice night. And then it started to drizzle…


These guys have moved into a mango tree in my parents back yard. It’s kinda cool.

Here’s a detailed picture. I’m not sure what species they are – my sister is hoping to get an ID, but if anyone knows…

Update: Apparently they are Phyllostomus sp.

Learning not to burn

As the dry season progresses in Trinidad, smoke becomes an ever-present feature.  While people blame “bush fires” on spontaneous combustion, most are either arson or agricultural fires.  While it always bothered me to see the landscape burn, it was the especially intense fire season of 1987 that really opened my eyes to the problem.

The Agricultural Fires Act, passed somewhere in the distant past, was an attempt to prevent burning.  The act made it a crime to plant annual crops on land that had burned.  I would be surprised if the act has ever been enforced; more to the point, while it may have been used for punishment a few times, it was designed to change behaviour.  And on that front, it was a colossal failure.

Fire has always been used to clear land for agriculture.  Where permanent cultivation replaces shifting cultivation, fire becomes less important as the frontier moves on.  But where land is farmed for a few years and then abandoned, fire is an essential tool.  This is especially true on poor tropical soils – not only is fire an efficient tool for clearing land and releasing nutrients from the vegetation, but the ash is also increases soil fertility by raising the pH and increased the nutrient holding capacity of the soil.  Fire is also useful for controlling pests and pathogens – in the tropics there is no winter to knock back pest and pathogen populations.

But there’s a cost to using fire.  The simplest one is the risk of escape – agricultural fires are a major ignition source for wildfires.  Fires kill beneficial soil organisms, they consume soil organic matter.  And smoke can have a major effect on health and quality of life.

The latest issue of New Agriculturist has an article on the work of a group called Sustainable Harvest International which is working with farmers in Central America to teach them alternatives to burning.  They are teaching the use of cover crops, integrated pest management, and erosion control techniques and something called bocashi as ways of reducing reliance of fire as an agricultural tool.  Bocashi is interesting

This highly effective and inexpensive natural fertiliser can be made from readily-available materials, including manure, coffee pulp, or rice hulls, together with yeast and molasses. These are then mixed with healthy soil. The yeast feeds on the molasses during a 15-day fermentation and decomposition process, aided by mixing manually twice-a-day. The bocashi mix is then added to crops, and yields either match or improve upon those obtained with chemical fertilisers – at a fraction of the cost.

They appear to be teaching the use of permanent fields as an alternative to shifting cultivation.  Back in the day when I thought of forest conservation as the most important issue, I would have supported permaculture over shifting cultivation without a second thought.  But permanent cultivation usually entails heavy chemical use, and leads to continuing losses of soil carbon, soil fertility and the general “health” of the soil.  It appears that this isn’t what is being done here – working with an eye to sustainability (rather than just forest conservation), this group appears to be getting it right.  An important factor is that it appears to be improving the quality of life for the people involved:

Don Cheyo, a graduate of SHI’s Honduras Program, says “We eat better and I live with the land – planting good food, building up the soil and planting trees. I have learned not to burn.”

It’s great to appeal to people’s better nature, but you’re more likely to make permanent changes if you also make their lives better.

Which brings me back to the Agricultural Fires Act in Trinidad and Tobago, passed in 1965.  The failure of the government to enforce this law has been a source of frustration to the conservation community in Trinidad, probably ever since it was passed.  Quite frankly though, it is and has always been a useless piece of legislation.  Granted, any law that isn’t enforced is useless, but it’s especially bad when it seeks to change established behaviour.  You can’t simply tell people “don’t burn” and expect them to stop, not when burning is an integral tool for them to earn their livelihood.  Although some people do set fires for the sheer joy of watching them burn, the people who set agricultural fires do so because it’s a tool for them to earn a living.  If you provide people with reasonable alternatives, you may be able to bring about change.  After you provide people with alternatives, you may want to add the option of the “stick” – legal penalties against the undesirable behaviour.  Laws like this only serve to convince people that government is out of touch, uninterested in them.  But then, in our post-colonial society, government has never been “of the people” – “home rule” and “independence” were merely the delegation of royal power to someone who was physically closer to you.  Neither the governed nor the governing ever really understood what “representative government” is supposed to mean.

H/T Jeremy, Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Birds of Trinidad and Tobago

The classic guide to Trinidad and Tobago avifauna has always been Richard ffrench’s Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, which is currently in its third edition (coauthored with Roger Neckles).  Another book, also titled Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, was published in the Helm Field Guides series earlier this year.  It was it was authored by Floyd Hayes (formerly of the University of the West Indies and Caribbean Union College in Trinidad), Martyn Kenefick (who distributed the Southern Caribbean bird alert) and Robin Restall, a Venezuelan-based “ornithologist, writer and artist”.

I haven’t seen the book yet, but Floyd and Martyn are solid birders.  Restall has written quite a few bird books as well.  At 256 pages it’s a little shorter than ffrench’s 426-page second edition.  Hopefully when Carol gets a copy I can get her to write a review.

Boissiere House

The Magnificent Seven stand on the western side of the Queen’s Park Savannah.  Built at the turn of the twentieth century, these seven stately homes are some of the most recognisable architectural icons in Port of Spain.  And sadly, they may soon stand alone.  Nicholas Laughlin writes about the loss of the city’s architectural gems:

We’ve seen this happen so many times before. Just in recent years we’ve lost the Lee House on St. Clair Avenue, Bagshot House in Maraval, the Union Club on Independence Square, Coblentz House in St. Ann’s, and numerous smaller gingerbread houses all over the city. Just a couple months ago, the big orange Pierre house on the Roxy roundabout disappeared, after years of neglect. The Trestrail Building on Broadway, with its cool, understated Corinthian columns, was bulldozed to build another yet office tower.

boissiere-1.jpgStanding just south of the Magnificent Seven is another house of comparable grandeur.  Built in 1904 for C.E.H. Boissiere, the Boissiere House stands is an architectural gem.  From saveboissierehouse.org:

The house at 12 Queen’s Park West is a particularly fine example of late Victorian creole “gingerbread” architecture, with elaborate wooden fretwork and a beautifully proportioned “Chinese pavilion” with a pagoda-style roof and painted glass windows. Inside, the main rooms have gesso-work ceilings and fine wood panelling. Though it is a relatively small house, it has a wealth of detail typical of far more elaborate mansions.

The house is also remarkably intact. The family that has owned it for 104 years has made very few modifications to the structure or to its main outbuildings. The degree of preservation is rare, and the layout of the house tells us a great deal about domestic life circa 1904.

Finally, because of its prominent position on Queen’s Park West, the Boissiere House is a major Port of Spain landmark, familiar to hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors. It is a crucial part of the urban landscape.

After being kept in the family for 104 years, the house is now up for sale.  The asking price is $10 million US.  Given its prime location, it’s likely that anyone who buys the house will be interested not in the house, but in the property upon which it stands.  While the current owners do not want to see the house destroyed, they are unable to continue to preserve it.  The National Trust has produced a listing of 25 buildings that will be legally protected from destruction (a list that includes the Boissiere house), and the list has been approved by Cabinet, but it has not cleared all the bureaucratic and legal hurdles.  So for now, the house has no protection.

A website has been set up to save the Boissiere house, and two Facebooks groups have been started for that purpose.  An online petition has been set up, calling on the government to do something to save the house.  Calling on the government to “save” the house is rather nebulous; the website offers a range of possible solutions:

Cabinet approval of the National Heritage List would be a major step, since the house would enjoy immediate legal protection. In the longer term, if the house passes into the hands of another private owner, it must be with the understanding that any commercial use will not damage its fabric. It could be bought and restored by a generous corporate citizen, or pass into public hands via a non-profit trust. There are many tried and tested models for preserving historic structures while generating income from them. If the right agreement could be made between the present owners and future buyer, overseen by the National Trust, the Boissiere House could serve as an example of how to preserve Trinidad and Tobago’s architectural legacy for the future.

The image copyright Nicholas Laughlin and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 generic license.  The original image.