At Palmiste National Park, in San Fernando, efforts are underway to develop an arboretum.
Defined as an area populated with a collection of plants, shrubs and trees, an arboretum is mainly used for scientific research.
Leading the efforts at the park is the Palmiste Historical Society. The society’s public relations officer, Kelsie Lewis, shared how the society is bringing the project to life.
“Since 2019 we have been trying to improve the park by recording the number of trees, types of trees and also introducing different species of trees.
"We would like to turn this park into an arboretum so, in future, it could be used for research and science,” she told Business Day.
Apart from handling the society’s public relations, Lewis, who has a degree in environmental management and tropical landscaping from UWI St Augustine, is assisting with landscaping efforts.
To develop the arboretum, the society must meet a series of international requirements. The society’s first task is to accurately identify all the species of trees and plants at the park.
So far, over 200 species of trees and plants have been identified, including ornamental plants (immortelles and pouis), fruit trees (mangoes, almonds, guavas, and pistachios) and hardwood trees (mahogany, Spanish cedar and samaan).
But creating an arboretum doesn’t stop at identifying trees. The society must work to increase the park’s scientific research value.
To do this, it's creating a mini-cocoa and coffee estate at the park.
“We’ll mostly use the harvests for display, but we did contact UWI’s Cocoa Research Centre. They may want to research how the tree grows and how the cocoa comes out.”
Since June, 125 coffee trees and 28 cocoa trees have been planted.
More than just recreation
With planning for the mini-estate starting last September, Lewis explained the significance behind the decision.
Palmiste National Park has not always been a park. It has a long history. During the 1800s, under successive owners, the land was a sugar plantation. That changed in the early 1900s when Sir Norman Lamont bought the plantation and began planting cocoa. At that time, Lamont saw cocoa as a more lucrative venture for the estate.
Lamont was a former governor of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (now UWI) and a member of TT’s board of agriculture. His family also owned the Canaan Estate in Tobago and Cedar Grove Estate in Naparima. This new venture brings the park full circle.
“We just want to help keep our history alive. Also, a lot of young people may not know about traditions like dancing the cocoa. We hope to have a small cocoa house here as well to show and display that part of our history,” Lewis said.
The society is receiving assistance to establish the mini-cocoa and coffee estates. Apart from volunteers, who helped plant the cocoa and coffee trees, official partners in the project include the National Reforestation and Watershed Rehabilitation Programme Unit of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Cocoa Development Company.
“We worked with the Forestry Division’s reafforestation project. That’s where we got the coffee trees, from because they had over 400.”
A coffee variety known as robusta, one of 21 varieties found in TT, has been planted at the park. The donated cocoa trees planted at the park are from Trinidad Selected Hybrid (TSH919, TSH1188 and the TSH 1380).
Cocoa and coffee trees can take a while to flower and fruit, so it may take up to five years before the society can reap their bounty.
In October, during the second National Cocoa Awards, Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon said TT’s cocoa farmers generated approximately $18 million in exports between 2018 and 2019. This year alone, up to August, Gopee-Scoon said cocoa products had generated at least $4.6 million in revenue.
Cocoa’s financial value underscores the importance of growing more cocoa and investing in more research.
Preservation history isn't cheap
Funding the arboretum project is a mammoth task.
Lewis estimates the project will cost the society at least $95,000. The cost covers acquiring drones to survey the park, GPS units to map it properly, tree signs and specialists to examine tree health/identify trees.
For now, the society is relying on self-funding, volunteers, and donations. But more financial support is welcome. The society is hoping to secure grants from the Green Fund and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme.
“We are also looking at international grants as well. We are looking for support and people support because our history is valuable. Even though we are a historical society, we are also doing good stuff for the environment as well. History and the environment are very important things. We should also try to improve on those things.”
With applications already submitted, the society is hopeful about funding.
Security is another challenge. Recently, the society has observed a spate of thefts: newly installed tree identification signs and planted trees have been stolen.
“We tried contacting people who live nearby to see if they had video footage and they didn’t have any. We are considering placing security cameras in the park.
“To do so, we will need more infrastructure and an arborist to remove tree branches that may hinder visibility.”
If the society receives grant funding, improving security will be part of the budget. While the police occasionally patrol the area, Lewis says the problem persists. It is also impossible to expect the police to act as private security for the park.
For now, the society is moving forward with its plans despite the challenges. Apart from the mini-cocoa and coffee estate, the society has planted new trees in the park. Among the new additions are medicinal trees (moringa and neem), palms (date palms and foxtail palms), hardwood trees (black locusts and Oliviere White) and pines (casuarina pine and Caribbean pine).
The society also hopes to carbon-date trees at the park, using the data to ascertain how much carbon is stored in them. Green areas like parks can help remove carbon from the atmosphere and provide improved air quality.
This information can help further the importance of preserving parks, like Palmiste National Park, especially in the face of climate change.
For this effort, the society hopes to secure the help of experts from UWI.
On Sunday, the Palmiste Historical Society did its first cleanup of the newly planted cocoa and coffee trees. Weeds that had grown around the seedlings were removed.
Lewis also couldn’t help but point out the park also has a special silk cotton tree – a species known for its spiritual significance.
“People write letters and mail it to the tree. I’ve heard stories where people saw dolls and candles at the bottom of the tree.”
The Agriculture Ministry’s horticultural division is running a competition in which people can nominate a tree for its uniqueness. The society is hoping its silk cotton tree will be the champion.
Anyone interested in supporting the Palmiste Historical Society can contact it on Facebook, follow it on Instagram @palmistehistories or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The society also welcomes new members.