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Appreciating our forest and protected areas

In parts of West Africa, forests are intimately linked with people, their ancestors and cultural heritage. Some consider forests as sacred spaces, providing meeting sites under “the big tree” to discuss important matters and make decisions.

In India, the Ganges River is sacred to Hindus who perform rites there, in homage to their ancestors and gods and its basin supports the agricultural sector.

Our First Peoples’ community acknowledges a spiritual connection with the environment, and an appreciation for forests which are shared with successive generations. Their connection is demonstrated in sustainable use of forests and their resources for medicines, indigenous craft and cuisine. Does the average Trinbagonian appreciate our forests and protected areas?

The Government is presently in year three of the four-year project, Improving Forest and Protected Area Management in Trinidad and Tobago, which is being administered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO/UN). The Government, FAO, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and European Union (EU) have provided funds to support the project’s implementation. With “improving” and “management” as keywords in the project’s title, the objective –and also, the challenge– is to develop a better approach to day-to-day management.

We have a long heritage of managing forest and protected areas – the Main Ridge Forest Reserve in Tobago, declared in 1776, is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest declared forest reserve– but what are the perspectives of people living in close proximity to these sites?

Last year, Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices surveys were undertaken in communities surrounding six areas: Caroni Swamp, Nariva Swamp, Main Ridge Forest Reserve, Matura Forest, Trinity Hills Wildlife Sanctuary and the marine area of North-East Tobago.

Ninety-eight percent of survey participants from communities around Caroni Swamp were aware of its protected status; in Tobago, 87 per cent knew of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve and 60 per cent knew of the north-east marine proposed protected area. Eighty-one per cent of respondents around Nariva Swamp knew of its protected status; at Trinity Hills, 45 per cent and in Matura, 42 per cent.

For some, the term “protected area” conjures up images of “Keep Out” signs, barriers or fences. In reality, these sites are managed under different pieces of legislation for different reasons. Sometimes protection is seasonal, such as turtle-nesting beaches in north-east Trinidad. Entry is allowed by permit and with an appointed guide.

Other areas are protected to maintain an ecological service, such as the watershed role of some forest reserves; people can enter to recreate and enjoy the space, but removal of trees is regulated. Other sites are globally important such as wetlands and managed as endangered wildlife habitats.A lack of awareness of protected status, impacts management. Issues of encroachment, illegal entry, pollution and poaching arise. People use these sites for recreation and resource use; survey respondents said they valued their economic potential and value “nature”. The average person may not, however, be making a connection between management of forest and protected areas and their ecological services.

WASA delivers water, but it comes from forests. Wild meat is purchased from a hunter, but animals reproduce and thrive in protected areas. When forests are removed, erosion, silting of rivers, rapid runoff and flooding can take place. Connections need to be made so that these areas are valued; we can no longer assume that “people know” these things, nor that they are exempt from managing these sites. A positive shift in understanding the role and value of forest and protected areas is needed in order to continue reaping the benefits they provide.

Improving Forest and Protected Area Management in TT is a four-year project being implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for the TT Government. Funding was provided by the government, FAO/UN, the EU and the GEF.
For more info: http://eppd-tt.blogspot.com/p/gef-improving-forest-and-protected-areas.html.
To learn more about our local forest and protected areas: https://protectedareastt.org.tt/

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