Keeping history above water | Discover

Erline Andrews reports on the work to protect the Caribbean’s distinct built heritage from the escalating impacts of climate change

  • Elbow Reef Lighthouse is the last kerosene-burning, manned lighthouse in the world. It was built by the British Imperial Lighthouse Service during the 1860s. Photo by Jon Arnold Images Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Buildings on Nelson Island, Trinidad. Photo courtesy the T&T National Trust
  • Kara Roopsingh, senior preservation & research officer at the T&T National Trust. Photo courtesy the T&T National Trust

Nelson Island, a tiny piece of land off the northwest coast of Trinidad, played a disproportionately huge role in Trinidad & Tobago history.

First Peoples tribes used it as a trading post. Indentured immigrants from India were quarantined there before going on to the mainland once they were deemed healthy. Labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler — after whom a major highway is named — was imprisoned there during World War 2. Detainees from the 1970 Black Power Revolution were also kept there.

In recent years, the National Trust of Trinidad & Tobago rehabilitated the island — installing solar panels and a desalination system to make it self-sustaining — and now it’s become a popular tour.

But like other small islands, it faces the threat of climate change, which is causing sea levels to rise and hurricanes to be more frequent and damaging.

“I know from the custodians out there [that] when a small storm happens it’s extremely scary,” said Kara Roopsingh. She’s the senior preservation and research officer of the National Trust, and was speaking at the Keeping History Above Water (KHAW) conference held over three days last March in Port of Spain.

“It’s vulnerable out at sea,” Roopsingh said of Nelson Island. “It’s a question to ask: What is going to happen in the wake of climate change?”

The KHAW conference was first held in the United States — Newport, Rhode Island — in 2016 as a response to concern for historical buildings there. This year was the first time the conference took place outside of the US.

The Port of Spain conference is part of a wider project — called Resilient Heritage: Trinidad & Tobago — to protect select heritage sites, including Nelson Island, from the effects of climate change.

Project team member Dr Sujin Kim of the University of Florida, who specialises in preserving built heritage with the aid of digital technology, showed conference attendees 3D scans of Nelson Island and the built and natural structures on it. The scans were captured using laser and drone technology, and showed inside and around the structures and their heights.

The images will be used to model the island’s risk from increasingly harsh climate activity, and develop a strategy to protect them. Downtown Port of Spain — in particular, landmarks such as the St Vincent Jetty Lighthouse, Fort San Andres and the Old Railway Station (City Gate) — will also be part of the project.

“We had to choose pilot sites. I wish we could do them all,” Roopsingh said during her presentation. “But we had to select some to start and test this methodology and see what the outcome would be.”

Roopsingh, who joined the Trust in 2015 as only its third staff member, is the driving force behind the project. A former teacher who holds a master’s degree in geography from the University of the West Indies, she won an internship through the World Heritage USA international exchange programme and spent three months at the University of Florida’s Preservation Institute Nantucket (PIN) in Massachusetts.

Morris “Marty” Hylton III was the director. They kept in touch, and in 2019 he invited her to be a guest lecturer at the institute. PIN was doing work in flood modelling, which is used to predict and mitigate the problem.

Roopsingh told conference attendees about being stranded in Port of Spain because of the flooding after heavy rain. “I was like, gosh, Trinidad floods every year all the time. This is a good methodology for us to try and use here,” she said of flood modelling. “And we started the conversation.”

The Keeping History Above Water conference was first held in the United States in 2016 as a response to concern for historical buildings there. This year was the first time the conference took place outside of the US

Hylton helped Roopsingh put together an application for a grant from the US State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), which helps countries save cultural heritage at risk because of natural disasters or conflicts.

An AFCP grant was used to help two museums on The Bahamas’ Abaco Islands salvage their collections after Hurricane Dorian devastated the country in 2019. Another grant is funding the restoration of the islands’ Elbow Reef Lighthouse — the only lighthouse that still uses a kerosene lamp.

Resilient Heritage: T&T, which started early last year, is due to wrap up at the end of this year. But Roopsingh and Hylton are optimistically calling it the end of phase one, implying that — hopefully — there will be a phase two.

AFCP programme director Martin Pershler spoke highly of the project and said he expects to use it as a case study in the future. Other efforts to protect built heritage across the region were also discussed at the conference.

Architecture professor Brent Fortenberry, who used laser and drone technology to capture images of historical buildings in other parts of the Caribbean — including Puerto Rico and Bermuda — said he and a team of researchers are trying to create a database. It will include “elevation scores” for buildings based on their risk of being flooded, and “condition scores” based on the state of the buildings. The combined scores will give conservationists a better idea of how vulnerable a built structure is, and how much effort needs to go into protecting it.

Avril Belfon, Trinidad & Tobago’s national archivist and the president of CARBICA (the Caribbean Branch of the International Council on Archives), announced the revival of the Caribbean Heritage Emergency Network (CHEN), which was first started in 2018 after the devastation of the previous year’s hurricane season.

Belfon describes CHEN as “a database of professionals who are willing to respond if and when there is an emergency — and even before — to help with training and institutional strengthening throughout the region.”

Jamaican archaeologist Andrea Richards is part of a team mapping the archaeological sites on the coasts of Antigua & Barbuda, St Lucia, Jamaica, and Barbados to assess their vulnerability. Community members helped identify the sites, and these communities’ involvement is a critical part of working to save them, Richards explained. It was a point other presenters also emphasised.

That community involvement is a significant part of the Resilience Heritage: T&T project as well, which ran five focus groups and an online survey. Late last year, Dr Kim also facilitated a workshop on the digital documentation of built heritage sites, while another workshop was held after the conference and took participants through the project.

In an e-mail exchange after the conference, Roopsingh was optimistic about its impact.

“It is my hope,” she said, “that the Resilient Heritage project will serve as a model to strengthen the resilience of historic sites and cultural resources across the Caribbean.”

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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