Caribbean Beat Magazine

Time to Grow | Green

In recent years, a handful of NGOs in Trinidad and Tobago have worked to set up community-based agriculture initiatives, both to provide healthier food options and to make local communities more self-sufficient. It’s a movement that has become even more relevant in the time of COVID-19, writes Nazma Muller, as food security becomes crucial

  • Photograph courtesy The Alliance of Rural Communities
  • Photograph by Marci Paravia/Shutterstock.com

What started as an informal exchange of skills among kindred spirits may be the saving grace for Trinidad and Tobago’s organic agricultural movement. As panic about food supplies in the region started in March with the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the closing of borders, Gillian Goddard, one of the founders of T&T’s Alliance of Rural Communities, remained calm and collected. Although the country is notoriously dependent on food imports, ARC’s transformative Caribbean network — they also work with communities in St Lucia and Guyana — has been spreading an appreciation for environmentalism and social equity in ways that are as organic and vitalising as the produce they sell. And the crisis of COVID-19 could be a golden (or green) opportunity to cultivate the right kind of culture — one based on indigenous peoples’ respect for the land.

Over the last seven years, ARC has grown to include more than a hundred members from communities all over Trinidad. It started with an initiative to produce chocolate from the world-acclaimed Trinitario cocoa beans for which the island is famous. Goddard, who had been producing her own brand of gourmet chocolate under the brand SunEaters Organics, wanted to share her skills with traditional cocoa-growing communities. The distinctive brand of dark chocolate is now available in fifty locations across the Caribbean and North America, and online. The northeast Trinidad coastal village of Grande Rivière, famous for its giant leatherback turtles, can now boast of its own beautifully packaged drinking chocolate. The Northern Range villages of Biche and Cushe are branded big and bold on the wrappers of their own dark chocolate bars. ARC also does tastings and public demonstrations of chocolate making, as well as catering at farmers’ markets and expos.

But it goes beyond chocolate. By pooling their skills and resources, ARC is also able to deliver boxes of fresh, delicious organic produce from participating communities — with items such as coconuts, bananas, ground provisions like cassava, yam, and dasheen, string beans, ochro, button and Portobello mushroom, lemons, citrus like grapefruit and portugals, plantain, pumpkin, callaloo leaf, and herbs.

Much like the forest, which teaches us so much about life and how to innovate and collaborate, ARC does many other things: they build community capacity and prepare villages for natural disasters, develop transformational replicable systems (including online), and improve resilience in isolated areas. For deliveries, they use a hybrid vehicle, and all containers are returnable or home compostable (some produce comes wrapped in leaves, rather than plastic). The forest philosophy that guides ARC is based on observation of the natural world and how it functions and thrives — by being flexible, adaptable, and interdependent. Young people in the communities learn the many skills of their elders. There is no limit set on what the collective can do, so it continues to expand and generate new ways of creating synergies. As demand dictates, ARC’s in-house guides offer tours of their communities, taking visitors on hikes to waterfalls and rivers so they can experience and appreciate the fauna and flora that make each community so vibrant and unique. The idea is to build on members’ existing skills and resources, while exchanging and transferring them so that the whole collective is stronger.

Goddard is also keen to raise awareness of the extreme trauma suffered by the majority of Caribbean citizens — historically and in the present. Emotional literacy and mutual respect are key components of ARC’s teachings. “So we talk a lot about equality, racism, classism, sexism, and colonialism,” she explains, “all of these traumas that we have to heal from as a society. Returning to a land-based way of life will help us — and the land — to heal.”

ARC is not alone in its quest to produce and promote Trinidad’s fine cocoa. The Montserrat Cocoa Farmers Co-operative Society is a farmer-owned and -run entity whose primary goal is helping to revitalise the local cocoa industry and improve the quality of life for farmers through a higher bean price. The co-op began in 2009, when five farmers from the Gran Couva area in central Trinidad came together to revive the cocoa farms in the Montserrat Hills district. The first step was to consistently increase the quality of their beans and production levels. By 2010, the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers Co-operative Society Limited was formed, and forty-eight farmers (both large and small) now contribute to the pool of excellent cocoa. Their central processing facility is in San Antonio, one of the many estates that contribute to the blend of cocoa grown exclusively in the Montserrat region. In 2016, the co-op became the first organisation in the English-speaking Caribbean to receive certification from Rainforest Alliance — an international NGO that certifies sustainable goods and services. The Montserrat Farmers’ products now include chocolate, pure cocoa butter, cocoa nibs, cocoa powder, and drinking chocolate. Its annual Cocoa Food Festival, which usually takes place in July, showcases all manner of chocolate delights — including cocoa chow (beans and pulp with lashings of pepper, salt, garlic, and other seasonings). 

And just as ARC extends its reach across the rural Caribbean, another T&T agricultural initiative is bringing hope — and organic crops — to urban communities. The Sunbeam Foundation, of which Rhea King-Julien is director, launched its brand-new Food Production in Motion programme in January 2020, in an attempt to empower “concrete jungles” to become more sustainable. With funding from the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, the foundation ran community garden training for seven weeks with nearly a hundred adults — most from the east Trinidad town of Arima — and 150 students from the Malabar RC Primary School at the Malabar Phase 4 community centre, followed by a green market.

Each community garden aims to produce a full “Sunday lunch” on a lot of land (five thousand square feet). Crops include herbs such as chive, parsley, and celery, in a hydroponics system; either tilapia or cascadoo fish, raised in an aquaponics system; and vegetables such as kale, lettuce, pak choi, potatoes, eddoes, tomatoes, ochro, peppers, beans, and eggplant. The garden also includes raised grow-boxes with medicinal herbs popularly used within the community, like rosemary, thyme, mint, turmeric, and ginger. 

At the first green market on 7 March, community-grown, pesticide-free herbs from the hydroponic system were on offer. These monthly markets will generate additional income to cover annual garden operating costs, organisers hope, employing at least one person from the community and providing discounted produce to garden volunteers.

The Sunbeam Foundation has also done outreach in the communities of Aranguez and Chaguanas. Each garden established in 2020 will be matched with a primary school. The foundation has also teamed up with several local youth vocational training entities. Recently graduated university students provide competence-based training in food production, while allowing primary standard two and three students the opportunity to work with practising artists. One tangible output of this pairing of artists and students: mural designs on the grow-boxes at the community garden, which the children also painted at the green market.

After the garden opening in Malabar, the foundation set up a weekly volunteer roster to ensure production at the garden is continuous. Sunbeam has also made a larger commitment to the Arima community, through its grant funder, to establish three more gardens in 2020 at the Pinto, La Horquetta, and Carapo community centres — making the first urban community garden cluster in Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed the English-speaking Caribbean. It’s a model for communities working together to meet their basic need for nutritious food — permanently relevant, but more so at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic demands that we work together for survival.