As more and more Trinis are holidaying in Tobago under lockdown, tourism operators are refurbishing property and investigating the potential in the latest gateway to opportunity – the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve (MAB) designation for Northeast Tobago.
Pat Ganase talked with Aljoscha Wothke a director and CEO of the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (ERIC) who took the lead in co-ordinating the application on behalf of the Tobago House of Assembly and Government. Here are Wothke’s thoughts on “the tool that MAB should be.”
Recognition of Tobago’s unique offerings
Trinidad and Tobago is proud to be the location of one of the recent Man and Biosphere Reserves designated in October 2020. Northeast Tobago is the largest site in the English-speaking Caribbean islands, some 83,488 ha with a marine area of 68,384 ha that is home to coral reefs and open ocean. The Northeast Tobago Biosphere Reserve is a largely intact Caribbean island ridge-to-ocean ecosystem that includes the world’s oldest protected tropical rainforest, the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, established in 1776.
Biosphere reserves are areas of natural and cultural heritage suitable for sustainable development, conservation and research; where society aims to be in harmony with the environment. In principle, the aim of an MAB is that sustainability and the economy are in synch to the benefit of communities. The biggest opportunity under covid19 lockdowns is time to improve our readiness.
Whether you are a teacher in a school, a student, a health professional, fisherman, hotel or restaurant operator, a private or public sector employee, MAB provides an ideal to which we can align and work collectively. This is a long-term opportunity with the possibility to attract back to Tobago, our best minds for innovation and technology and stop the brain drain.
A global brand
Northeast Tobago as a man and biosphere reserve is a unique identity that every Tobagonian can be proud of. It identifies us as who we are with what we have; all that is required of us is to efficiently manage natural resources for the well-being of communities and the environment.
First of all, this requires us to appreciate exactly what we are the curators/conservators of
– the forests, the coasts, the ocean. And to understand how our lives and livelihoods are enhanced by intact ecosystems. In a world that calls for resilience in the face of climate change – sea level rise, shifting agricultural productivity and global pandemics
– are we able to maintain and build on these assets? More importantly, are we able to take advantage of the opportunities that arise from healthy and flexible relationships with the environment?
Yes, the MAB brand is a unique selling proposition that can be used for all of Tobago. Not just for traditional tourism but for studies based on natural history, culture and historical sites. It should underpin the education system and form the basis of scientific research.
It links us to 714 biosphere regions in 129 countries around the world, some of which have been designated since 1971. We can align with some 80-plus locations in the World Network of Island and Coastal Biosphere Reserves, to which we might refer for experience and best practice.
Benefit for all TT
MAB is a country designation. The biosphere reserve is a precious site that belongs to a country. The government of TT (through the THA in collaboration with NGOs) piloted the nomination of the Northeast Tobago Biosphere Reserve. It is an unprecedented award for northeast Tobago but it is only an indicator of potential. The next two to three years will show whether our people and government understand and can rise to the challenge. TT must report to UNESCO on progress over the next five years.
Every man , woman or child in the street in Tobago, and Trinidad, must be able to articulate what MAB means. Of course, this should activate a public campaign so that people can say, oh yes, that’s about how we live with nature; how we conserve energy; how we reduce and recycle; how we protect our wildlife and preserve the forests, how we manage the reefs and what we are doing to secure fisheries and stocks.
We may not be there yet, but we can demonstrate that we are on the path: to improved water supply, efficient energy use, sustainable agriculture and fisheries practices, environmental awareness and performance.
We are due to receive funding from Spain, through UNESCO in Paris, to do a series of short videos in which ordinary Tobagonians will say “what MAB means to me.” These should be out on social media by May.
We hope that all of Tobago may come onboard with what MAB means. MAB is a tool that must be picked up; and anybody can pick it up.
Tourism beyond the beach
More birders. More divers. More visitors who appreciate the proximity of ocean and forest and coasts for exploration. More students for scientific research. There will be higher expectations of the 'brand' promise, and responsibility.
Tourism operators – even in the south of the island – should be preparing for when borders reopen. Most visitors to the biosphere reserve (birders, hikers, ocean and forest researchers) find accommodation in the south of the island. This is the opportunity for all operators to associate with a global brand.
Environmental research in Charlotteville
ERIC’s primary function has been ecosystem monitoring: reef health; shark monitoring; forest health (in abeyance since this is linked to ecotourism). But we have a number of projects in various stages.
We are replanting Staghorn corals which is an important species for coastal protection. We expect to plant 5,000 over 24 months. This is being funded by BHP.
We are part of Sustainable Seas Initiative: spreading awareness. We have engaged over 100 fishermen in discussions.
We have finalised a Sustainable Shark and Ray Management Plan that’s been reviewed by the relevant stakeholders; and includes recommendations for legal protected status through the new fisheries management bill.
Charlotteville yacht tourism
We are partnering with the Charlotteville Police Youth Club for a three-year programme to manage mooring buoys for visiting yachts, and offer tourism services. Charlotteville is a port of entry for visiting yachts; and we intend to offer mooring buoys at Pirates Bay (CEC approved for the location) instead of free anchorage. In the absence of regulation, moorings will be offered for safety and access to services. The participants will operate a social enterprise for services to yachts.
Most of Charlotteville is aware and onboard with the need to provide some structure for visiting yachts. Shell TT funded the jetty beautification project, the Yacht Tourism Enterprise, which includes capacity building in Charlotteville. We now need visiting yachts to prove the project.
ERIC was the recipient of the first Green Fund grant in Tobago for underwater monitoring of sea turtles as well as satellite tagging. The underwater monitoring will tell us more about the lives of male sea turtles; only the females come ashore to lay eggs. This is complementary to groups monitoring turtles on land.
We are creating alliances with other community and fisherfolk groups throughout the UNESCO MAB Reserve.
The people effect
It is hoped that UNESCO MAB will inspire young Tobagonians and light up their imaginations: that home is a place where they can contribute ideas and more efficient ways of doing business. Young Tobago will build the social capital for significant new enterprises. We also hope that the MAB effect might spill over to other protected areas such as, for instance, the Arima-Blanchisseuse valley home of the Asa Wright Nature Centre.