IN THE sun-speckled courtyard of a small hotel in Barbados a lifetime ago, I was making a sport of plucking snails off the compound walls and plants.
As a young child on holiday (not by myself), I eschewed the lure of other children my age squealing with excitement in the nearby hotel pool. The variegated splendour of the snails' shells and their inability to escape my clutches were irresistible.
I distinctly recall that the mouths of the snails' shells were, in some cases, razor-sharp. After a solid morning of non-scientific inquiry with those little molluscs, my fingertips were thoroughly lacerated.
Those snails bore a striking resemblance to the menace devouring gardens and farmlands across Trinidad and Tobago today – the giant African snail – a dangerous garden terrorist.
Recently farmers complained bitterly about the snail plague. Felicity farmers are saying many of them have abandoned their cultivation as losses are mounting and the snail invasion has exploded beyond their capacity to contain it.
According to word on the streets/fields, farmers have scaled back planting of melongene, tomato, bodi, okra, lettuce and pak choi. In a country with a famously limited range of fresh produce, that's almost everything.
The Ministry of Agriculture has taken on its customary “hands-off” approach. Swarms of locusts in Moruga and elsewhere? Act of God, or at least Moses. African snails? Here's a leaflet.
The ministry's answer to the billowing hazard is a wholly inadequate education campaign. The African snail in TT is a threat to both food security and human health. This creature, which multiplies like flies, is a carrier of the rat lungworm parasite known to cause lethal parasitic meningitis in humans. Active in the cool of night, it lays waste to a wide variety of plants. The giant African snail lays up to 100 eggs per month and can live for more than eight years.
Apart from economic losses buffeting farmers, consumers are having to pay more for produce because of scarcity. Additionally, there have been reports online of snails turning up in people's weekly grocery haul. Chadon beni laced with those deadly stowaways is more serious than the average Trini is perhaps aware of. None of these facts seem to sufficiently exercise the overpaid paperweights in the Ministry of Agriculture.
Had the Government aggressively tackled the problem before it assumed biblical proportions, the scourge might never have got out of hand. Trust the authorities to move even more slowly than the subject of their concerns.
In line with our true character, the snail infestation was largely ignored until it became too big to be ignored. The ministry's position, however, is that the spread is so comprehensive the only option is to ignore it even harder; it's now up to you, good citizens.
Contrast the response of local authorities with what's happening in Florida, where they are facing their third battle with these exotic invaders. The African snail is devastating crops, spreading disease, and eating people's houses in that southern US state. Yes, eating homes. The mollusc feeds on stucco to extract calcium for shell manufacture.
The Florida Department of Agriculture has a 50-man task force established to repel the third wave. These anti-snail commandos collect and destroy them as well as distribute snail bait. The authorities in the US recognise the grave threat this invasive species poses to human health and Florida's billion-dollar agriculture industry. They recognise that it will be a long fight, but the cost of doing nothing is too great.
In TT there's a smattering of public education on how homeowners and farmers can control the infestation. However, if one household mounts an offensive against the slimy intruders but the house next door does nothing, the problem persists. This is precisely why a co-ordinated approach is required. Apart from a snail hotline, the Ministry of Agriculture must dispatch eradication squads to neighbourhoods and fields for search-and-destroy missions.
The MOA (currently DOA) should be hiring on a temporary basis trained personnel to mount a fight against ongoing infestations. This approach to public health is not unprecedented. The vector control department of the Ministry of Health used to (not sure if it still does) send officers house to house checking for containers filled with water that encourage mosquito breeding; some would be armed with spray cans.
The Government has no problem borrowing money to pay public servants to throw their hands up and say they can't do anything. Finding resources to confront a potential ecological nightmare, however, produces no political dividends.