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Aripo Savannas under threat
Running alongside the Valencia Bypass Road there is a fence constructed by the State that separates the roadway and the public from the environmentally sensitive Aripo Savannas Scientific Reserve.
On that fence, however, there is a gate that leads directly into the prohibited scientific reserve toward a wooden blue house.
When photographer Abraham Diaz and I approached the gate on Friday, it was locked.
After calling for a bit, a shirtless gentleman walked to the gate and spoke to us.
We explained that we were from the newspaper and were doing a story focusing on the area.
The Aripo Savannas came to the national fore earlier this week after conservation group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) showed photos of large swathes of land within the protected area being bulldozed in preparation for construction works on an extension to the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway from Cumuto to Sangre Grande.
FFOS accused Government of breaching an interim injunction stopping work on the $400 million highway.
The man at the gate, who identified himself as 44-year-old Anthony Dean, unlocked the padlock, removed the chain from the gate and let us in.
Dean said the gate was locked because people had a habit of coming on to the property and stealing his produce.
Dean is a farmer on the protected land.
He carried us to the back of his house where he showed us his crops.
Among the things being grown were bodi, peas, lemons and limes.
Dean said he grew up nearby and began squatting in the prohibited area because he could not find a job and had a wife to take care of.
Also farming on the land was 62-year-old Stephenson Alexander.
Alexander also had a house nearby.
He too said he was driven to the area because of a lack of employment.
Alexander said when he came to the area it was already destroyed by loggers and he simply made use of the affected area.
"We are making use of the area and we are putting food on people's tables and we are doing so without encroaching further into the protect area," Alexander said.
Alexander pointed to the marsh forest surrounding the crops as evidence.
"What we are doing may be unlawful but we are not lawless, there's a difference. Yes, we are not supposed to be here but we are not doing anything to harm anybody, we are working hard," Alexander said.
According to the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), the land is unsuitable for agriculture because of its low fertility. Alexander, however, said his produce flies in the face of that argument.
"The land gives you back what you put in and we keep proving that time and time again," Alexander said.
According to the EMA's resource management plan for the Aripo Savannas, one of the "critical threats" to the long-term viability of the area is the "incremental loss of habitat to agricultural and residential squatting".
"With regard to the former, agricultural squatting farmers remove the native vegetation and grow short term vegetable crops. These types of habitat transformation have to date been confined to the northern, western and eastern edges of the protected area," the EMA report states.
The EMA said it has had some success in slowing down the rate of new squatting in the area however, "from an ecological standpoint the changes which have already taken place are largely irreversible".
Dean said when the bypass road was being constructed some of the other people who were squatting in the savannas were relocated.
He and Alexander remained because of their crops.
"Apart from the loss of the native vegetation and wildlife habitat from sites which have been transformed by squatting, there are several issues associated with farming and residential use of lands within the protected area," the EMA report stated.
In 2003, it was estimated that approximately 375 hectares of land within the savannas is squatted upon.
This includes 150 hectares at Turure, 200 hectares at Kangalee and 25 hectares at Cumuto.
However, as late as April 2006, members of the Aripo Savannas Stakeholder Management Committee (ASSMC) noted increased squatting in the northern and southern boundaries of the proposed environmentally sensitive area.
"Despite successful legal action in 1998 against 42 squatters, no action has been taken and the problem remains. The Land Settlement Agency (LSA) is working with the ASSMC and Forestry Division to address this situation but as it remains unresolved," the EMA stated in its Literature Review—Aripo Savannas Environmentally Sensitive Area.
"Despite the fact that land capability studies indicate that the area is unsuitable for agriculture especially because of its extremely low fertility, land clearance in the proposed ASESA for short-term agriculture and animal husbandry continues. In 1966, a pig farming project on 60 hectares in the southern sector of the proposed ASESA was initiated. However, it was stopped after public criticism," it stated.
Living in the protected area over 30 years
Agriculture squatting is not the only issue that the Aripo area is faced with.
There are also residential squatters in the area.
One of the squatters closer to the Sangre Grande section of the savannas has a four-bedroom concrete house.
When the Sunday Guardian spoke to one of the occupants of that house he said the family had been living in the protected area for over 30 years.
He was born there.
Preferring not to reveal his identity the man said because his family's home was close to the periphery of the savannas he felt they were not doing any harm.
"We do not bother any one, my family came here years before I was born and we have always cared for the area," he said.
In between the signs stating that "squatting, hunting and trespassing" on the Aripo Savannas are prohibited several houses built have been built.
One of those house was built from discarded wooden signs advertising long gone parties.
The squatters do not believe that they are a threat to the area.
On the Cumuto side of the reserve there is a street with some four houses.
"I understand the need for protecting the environment, but I also understand that there is a need for progress, for people to live and even for a highway to help people get home and back," he said.
About Aripo Savannas
The Aripo Savannas, located in east-central Trinidad, represents the largest remaining natural savannas ecosystem with endemic flora in T&T. As such, it takes on special significance. It is also an outstanding representation of a naturally occurring marsh formation consisting of marsh forest, palm-marsh and savannas. It provides a habitat for a number of the country’s rare and threatened species of plants and animals.
In 1980, the Government, in association with the OAS, developed the Systems Plan of National Parks and other Protected Areas. In this plan, the Aripo Savannas was identified as an area to be designated as a Scientific Reserve, as it was the major remaining natural savannas in the country and supported a unique assemblage of flora. In 1987, the Aripo Savannas was declared a Prohibited Area under Legal Notice #113 of 1987 so designated under the Forests Act. Later, in 2004, the EMA began the process of designating the Aripo Savannas as an Environmentally Sensitive Area. In June 2007 the Aripo Savannas was declared an Environmentally Sensitive Area. It was designated as a Strict Nature Reserve because it is one of the areas in T&T with high scientific value, as it is the best remaining example of the types of ecosystems found within its boundaries. This designation makes the area eligible for special protection and management under the laws of T&T.
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