Tobago as an eco destination

Yachts at anchor in Pirates Bay during the January 2020 season.  - Pat Ganase
Yachts at anchor in Pirates Bay during the January 2020 season. - Pat Ganase

Research and study are intrinsic to current eco -ourism trends; is Tobago ready? The Unesco Man and the Biosphere designation for Tobago’s northeast region presents an opportunity for all of TT to be forward-thinking. Pat Ganase reports on the first steps.

What’s in it for me?

Is this indeed the response of most Tobagonians when they are told that northeast Tobago has been designated by Unesco a Man and the Biosphere (MAB) region, a learning site in nature where research and science and innovation might result in nature-based solutions to improve human lives?

Aljoscha Wothke, key technical expert on the government’s application to the Unesco MAB governors, said, “Tobago is beginning to understand. This is the best tool currently available for economic development. There are many international organisations looking at northeast Tobago. I am very excited for the next steps which include management plans, all aspects of training including governance, financing and integrating community actions. We have a three-four year window and if we can progress at speed, we can build to last for a long time.”

Faraaz Abdool, birder and environmentalist, moved to Tobago because he believes in Tobago’s potential as a model of sustainability.

“The designation is a most fitting honour not only for Tobago, but for the entire country. The wild north eastern end of Tobago is a place of jaw-dropping beauty. Man and the Biosphere increases the visibility of our country as an eco-tourism destination,” Abdool said.

One of the reefs at Pirates Bay. - The Maritime Ocean Collection

It’s hard to imagine an island more idyllic, more health-giving, a place to be within nature in the sea or the rainforest. Tobago was granted the MAB designation in October 2020 based on the area that includes and surrounds the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, which has been protected since 1776 to secure the tree cover that guarantees rainfall over Tobago. The region covers 83,488 hectares on land, 68,384 hectares of ocean; countless species of flora and fauna, including many on the endangered list and some only found on Tobago. Critical and necessary to the conservation and development of the area are the 10,000 residents in villages encircling the site from Moriah to Belle Garden. What’s in it for them?

The health of the Biosphere’s support systems directly affects the health of the population; it must be managed, maintained, kept pristine by those who live here, conscious, caring, knowledgeable people. Not all are construction projects. They include basics like clean water, electricity from renewable sources, and extend to relevant education and access to funds, in the immediate context of climate change and conservation. Here are some initial steps.

Yachting tourism at Charlotteville

For decades, sailors cruising the Caribbean have found a safe haven in Man o' War Bay in northeast Tobago. In the calm and pristine Pirates Bay, they drop anchor and stay for weeks, coming ashore for supplies, fresh vegetables, newly baked bread, cold beers and just-caught fish. In order to protect the reefs at Pirates Bay, visiting yachts will be offered specific mooring sites.

Planting and managing the moorings in safe spots among the reefs in Pirates Bay is a project of the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville (Eric). These moorings should be available by July. Here’s how it will work: visiting sailors can access and book a mooring on a website. When visiting yachts register with TT Customs, they may be referred to Eric to be assigned a mooring. A part of the revenue from the rentals will go to the Charlotteville Police Youth Club to assist the vulnerable members in the community; the club will also offer yachting tourism products as their social enterprise: catering and other services (ground transport, laundry, tours, etc)

Village tourism

Heritage and culture in Tobago villages are to be preserved, not only in annual festivals but in the history that can be told at the many ruins of great houses, watermills and processing sites. Tobago was the belle of the West Indies because she was beautiful and economically productive: sugar cane, cocoa and, at one time the bread basket of Trinidad. The Tobago Historical Society has been documenting sites so that the past informs the present. The Castara Tourism Development Association has created a comprehensive product that involves all providers: accommodation, rainforest tours, bread, yoga, beach fetes, fishing and reef diving.

Laughing gulls mob the seine for the catch at Man o' War Bay, Charlotteville. -

Preserving bountiful life in the ocean and in the rainforest

As human populations grow, the “leave it alone” approach to sustaining natural ecosystems may no longer be viable. Managing what and where we fish, or what we grow and use from agricultural plots at the edge of the forest are important. In recent years, the beauty and degradation of coral reefs around Tobago are highlighted via online tools such as Underwater Earth and the Maritime Ocean Collection. Divers report on the proliferation of the invasive lionfish on the reefs eating juveniles of native species; some have taken to fishing lionfish and encouraging consumers to enjoy the delicacy. Artisanal fishermen from Charlotteville and Roxborough now go further afield to find the schools of wahoo, mahimahi (dolphin), albacore or flying fish that used to be abundant in territorial waters. Knowing what is there – in the rainforest as in the seas – is the key to protecting and managing future stocks. This is the education that Tobago needs.

Specialised education

In many villages within the Tobago MAB, schools are located on or near the beach. Think of Speyside, Castara, Parlatuvier. How many graduates learn to swim, fish or become marine biologists? How many young foresters are botanists or birders or keep detailed records of species? Where are the last stands of indigo found – the crop which was heavily planted for export from Tobago? Where are the best lands for growing food, and what are the crops most needed from the biosphere?

Sustainable banking

Financial services are necessary for people who may wish to build homes or businesses within the tenets of the biosphere, sustainable, green, efficient and educational. What about a bank that offers funding for solar panels; innovative green business, sustainable farming and fishing practices, student loans for conservation and environmental studies?

And the arts

Steps into the purple economy (creative sector) are being taken to showcase the work of artists in the MAB area led by students from Speyside High School. The first initiative follows an art trail along the main road in north east Tobago exhibiting over 20 art pieces, some of which will depict popular snorkel and dive sites.

The unique Tobago biosphere will be an integrated ecosystem in which man plays his essential and productive role, safeguarding the home that he shares with all the creatures on land and in the sea. There is something here for everyone: farmer, fisher, creative, cook. It requires the support of all TT and collaboration among institutions, especially government. Tobagonians above all must aspire to shape their special space and preserve our nation’s unique Man and Biosphere Reserve.

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"Tobago as an eco destination"

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