Caribbean Beat Magazine

Saving Caribbean Rainforests

A regional action plan is under way to reverse serious deforestation and hillside erosion in the Caribbean. Additional material by Debby Seddon.

  • Bare ridges show the scars of deforestation. Photograph by Colin P. Clubbe
  • Tropical rainforest. Photograph by Colin P. Clubbe
  • The majestic silk cotton tree. Photograph by Colin P. Clubbe
  • Thick forest canopy on Trinidad's northern range. Photo courtesy Forestry Division, Trinidad and Tobago

The tropical forests of the Caribbean give visitors some of their most lasting memories. Who can fail to be impressed by the giant silk cotton trees with their enormous buttress roots, the parrots and hummingbirds, the jangling meshwork of thick lianas and vines, bromeliads and orchids?

But Caribbean forests are disappearing; the forestry crisis in the Caribbean is as acute as in Brazil or Indonesia.

Tropical forests are dwindling at a frightening rate around the globe: global deforestation estimates in the 1980s are now thought to have been well below the mark. In August 1990, the rate of tropical forest destruction worldwide was revised to 17 million hectares a year, a virtual doubling of the 1980 figure.

In the Caribbean, as in many other parts of the globe, people turn to the forests for food, shelter and raw materials in order to survive, and use the forest as an immediate short-term resource. The most pressing need is to marry their requirements with sustainable forest management.

To address the growing crisis, the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organisation), the World Bank, the World Resources Institute, the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and several major donor agencies designed a global strategy in the mid 1980s, called the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP). At least 83 countries have been involved in some stage of the project. The aim is to develop a long-term forestry plan for each participating country, and to identify priority projects which will need external funding.

In the Caribbean, nine Caricom countries are involved in TFAP, and country missions have already completed their reports for Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Montserrat, St Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago. The survey now moves on to Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. Separate projects have already been undertaken in Belize, Guyana and Jamaica. However, as Dan Chalmers, the Caricom Regional Coordinator for TFAP, says: “This stage is only the start of what has to be an ongoing process to correct decades of neglect of the region’s forests.”

In each participating country, a mission team of international experts from a variety of related disciplines undertakes a fact-finding mission. It studies reforestation, watershed management, wildlife habitat preservation, development of national parks, and the relationship between forestry and agriculture. Other priority areas are fuel wood and energy, conservation of forest ecosystems, and the utilisation of produce from the forest.

Each country has its own TFAP Secretariat and National Co-ordinator, plus a National Co-ordinating Committee. Through field excursions the country mission teams gain a good grasp of local forestry potential, basic problems and the major threats to national forestry assets. They work closely with local people, always careful not to impose outside views. TFAP is essentially a self-help project, and depends on the commitment and co-operation of rural communities and organisations involved in rural development.

One of the most frequent problems is poverty and deprivation, people trying to eke out a living by stripping forest cover to allow subsistence agriculture — “slash-and-burn” agriculture. A major TFAP goal is to promote good agro-forestry practice so that crops can be grown without destroying the forests for future generations.

Another major aim is to involve private sectors wherever possible and persuade them that planned forest development is profitable. There is also the obvious need for government involvement, especially over problems like illegal logging.

The programme is trying to change popular thinking: to identify forests as long-term resources, not simply as short-term, irreplaceable assets. Tropical forests are a huge melting pot of biological diversity, not all of which has yet been documented, and which could hold the key to important medicinal discoveries or new food reserves. They cover 7% of the earth’s land surface, but contain at least half of its total plant and animal species. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, with 5,000 square kilometers of land space, there are over 400 bird species, over 100 different mammals and over 2,000 species of flowering plants, a staggering abundance of species in a small area.

Even a seemingly insignificant plant may have important properties yet to be discovered. In Trinidad, the humble Ryania is the source of an important insecticide; globally, about 25% of all medicines contain substances derived from plants, many of which cannot yet be synthesised. In the Caribbean, the forests are also a source of valuable non-wood products such as nuts and fruit and handicraft materials, ingredients for traditional medicines and natural insecticides, as well as trees for feeding livestock.

Sustainable forest management is the key. With careful management, it is possible to extract valuable timber and forest products without destroying the forest. Natural regeneration can replace the trees and allow the harvesting of another crop.

As studies and recommendations come in, each island is revealing its own particular problems and potential solutions. In Trinidad, for example, while 240,000 of the 300,000 hectares of forest are protected, squatting is a serious problem. Squatting and the shifting cultivation that results “have caused severe deforestation on prime forest lands,” says Sheriff Faizool, national TFAP co-ordinator for Trinidad and Tobago. Among the consequences are the destruction of wildlife habitats and threats to the purity of ground water from the use of agro-chemicals. “Although Trinidad has one of the largest forest areas,” says Dan Chalmers, “it is suffering the most from slash-and-burn agriculture on forest lands.”

Another critical problem for the Caribbean, says Keith Laurie, a TFAP agro-forestry consultant, is the effect of deforestation on beaches. “When rain falls, trees on forested slopes allow water to drain off slowly. Once this tree cover is removed, water cascades downhill, taking the soil with it into the sea. This smothers the live coral that forms the reefs, and as the coral dies beach erosion rapidly follows. The coral provides the beautiful white sand for which this region is famous, so there is no replenishment of the beaches if the coral is dead. This problem is already occurring in some parts of the region.”

Other potential hazards were dramatised in late 1991 when a tropical wave passing over the Philippines caused mudslides on badly deforested hillsides, killing 6,000 people.

Yet perhaps the most drastic problem facing Caribbean islands is the lack of environmental lobbying and of specific land use plans. Chalmers points to Haiti as a grim warning of what can happen when there is virtually no forest cover left. The slash-and-burn system, along with scavenging for fuel wood, has virtually stripped Haiti bare, leading to disastrous land erosion. The slopes have degenerated to bare rock, causing flash flooding, and valuable topsoil in the valleys has been washed away. And because there is no soil left on the slopes, it is virtually impossible to replant trees.

“Haiti,” says Chalmers, “is an important lesson for the region. It illustrates how insidious the process is. It can quickly reach a disastrous point, and once it gets beyond that it is very difficult to repair.”

Hence the importance of the TFAP programme. The Caribbean is the only region in the world without a facility to train foresters to first-degree level, though there is a proposal to establish one at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies.

Chalmers says: “The TFAP is the most important single forestry development project that has come to the region. It is much more than just planting a few trees. It is an all-embracing project involving people from the bottom up, and it is a challenge to the private sector. And the operative word is action.”