Quarrying In T&T – Part 2
The Asa Wright Fiasco
Last week, a quarry in the foothills of the Arima valley in Trinidad called the Scott quarry, started an expansion project within their quarry. This expansion resulted in the quarry activities becoming visible, as well as audible from the Asa Wright Nature Centre.
For those of you who don’t know the Asa Wright Nature Centre, it is one of the leading destinations visited by birdwatchers, worldwide. Historically it has boasted one of the highest numbers of bird species in the world.
Officially incorporated as an NGO in 1967, the centre, which takes its name from it’s previous owner, Mrs. Asa Wright, has provided an ideal setting for scientists and tourists alike to view and study the behaviour of well over 200 species of bird, as well as a staggering variety of other forest mammals, reptiles and insects.
When the founders of the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) formed their Not-for-Profit Trust back in 1967, its stated purpose, in addition to scientific study and recreational bird watching, was to…
“protect part of the Arima Valley in a natural state and to create a conservation and study area for the protection of wildlife and for the enjoyment of all.” (http://asawright.org/about-the-centre/)
It was one of the first nature centers to be established in the Caribbean.
For some time now, I have been investigating the quarrying industry in T&T, and I have in fact even toured the quarries surrounding both the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) and it’s ‘satellite’ center, The William Beebe Tropical Research Station, affectionately called SIMLA.
SIMLA was founded by renowned American Naturalist William Beebe in 1949 before he donated the estate in 1950, to the New York Zoological Society for the sum of one dollar. William Beebe is considered to be one of the founders of the field of ecology, and was one of the early 20th century’s advocates of conservation.
SIMLA is situated lower down in the Arima valley and is now smack bang in the middle of at least three quarries at the last count.
Mr. Peter O’Connor works at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, and has for some time now been talking to whoever will listen; about the effects the area’s quarries are having on both AWNC and SIMLA.
About 6 months ago, I toured the SIMLA estate for the first time, guided by Mr. O’Connor and another gentleman called Mr. Hernandez who works at the station. As we set off from the main building set in lush tropical forest, we were completely surrounded by a wondrous variety of forest birds from hummingbirds to the Trinidad Motmot (Momotus momota), I was in awe at the raw beauty of the place. I could see at once, why this isolated valley tucked off the beaten path would have appealed to William Beebe and all those that have visited and studied there over the years.
After about 10 minutes easy walk into the forest along a narrow, but well-beaten path, we arrived at a dilapidated structure that was constructed of upright columns with the wire mesh strung between them now rusted and bent. My guides explained to me that this was where William Beebe himself had conducted the experiments that had proved beyond a doubt that bats flew so well in the dark due to their use of echolocation, or sonar.
We continued walking for about another 30 minutes or so, through forest so thick that at times it was impassable without the use of a ‘machete’. Quite often we had to pause while Mr. Hernandez tried to locate the path.
This was due to it seemingly having been ‘re-possessed’ by the forest.
We pressed on until eventually we were confronted with a steep slope in front of us that headed upwards for roughly 500 yards at a 40 – 50 degree angle.
The forest that had been growing for centuries on this slope appeared to have recently been flattened as if a miniature hurricane had passed over it and headed straight up the face of the slope. Strewn all about over the forest floor were huge limestone boulders. These weren’t the ordinary ‘weathered’ boulders you might encounter in the bush, these looked ‘fresh’. They looked as though they had recently arrived.
Tracing a line from the boulders to the top of the ridge above we could see that the forest had been crushed flat in strips that defined the path that these boulders had taken having been flung over the ridge either by an explosion, or by irresponsible excavation techniques.
I’m fairly fit, and consider myself to be surefooted on rough terrain, but this slope presented a real challenge due to the number and size of the boulders deposited on the hillside.
We persevered, and were ‘rewarded’ at the top with a view of the edge of the Scott quarry. The National Quarries Company Ltd owns the Scott quarry, but it is operated by Sunway Quarry Industries Caribbean Ltd having been awarded the contract via a highly controversial tender process back in 2008. The Scott quarry is situated on the boundary with SIMLA.
A sheer pinnacle of rock roughly 150 feet tall and about 100 foot around stood directly before of us. It jutted straight upward, toward the sky. It was while we were getting to grips with the scale of the quarry’s expansion that we heard the blast.
Let me first say that I am by no means claiming to be an expert in any environmental field of study, indeed, I like to think of myself as a motivated lay-observer and rookie cameraperson.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that deep forest creatures are unusually sensitive to changes in their surroundings, and that the ear-splitting sound of dynamite in a rain-forested valley is going to upset things a lot.
Mr. O’Connor and Mr. Hernandez began explaining to me how they suspected that the quarry operators had crossed their boundary and were extracting limestone from with SIMLA’s estate.
That visit was one of the most ‘eye-opening’ incidents I have come across in my visits to quarries across T&T. If the industry’s lobby is powerful enough and influential enough to fly in the face of one of the most respected environmental and conservation institutions in the country, then what is the likelihood that the industry could be reined in?
I have visited Mr. O’Connor on at least a half dozen other occasions since my tour of the SIMLA estate. Often, while sitting on the veranda of the Asa Wright Centre, our meeting would pause as the sound of dynamite rang out through the valley. We would sit and watch as the dust cloud rose from behind the ridge where the blast had taken place, and each time someone would comment that the effects of the area’s quarries were becoming impossible to ignore. If we only knew…
I first heard about the ‘visible’ expansion sometime around the 12th or 13th of March 2012.
Immediately, there was a huge public outcry for the authorities to step in and put a stop to these latest expansion activities, and because of the deluge of negative public perceptions expressed over the expansion, the minister of energy Mr. Kevin Ramnarine, sent down a directive effectively halting the expansion of the part of Scott Quarry that faces the Asa Wright Nature Centre.
By doing so, the government authorities that are responsible for monitoring and enforcing our environmental protection laws have effectively halted a public relations nightmare. I say this because for as long as the Scott quarry was allowed to continue quarrying the ridge facing the Asa Wright Nature Centre, the attention of the public collective would have remained focussed on the quarrying industry, bringing unwanted pressure on the authorities to regulate the entire industry.
This move by the minister of energy amounts to a master stroke in damage control techniques, and sadly, the much more serious issue of the combined impacts of our nation’s quarries is not getting the type of attention it requires.
Already, public interest in the state of the quarrying industry in T&T has begun to wane as alternate issues compete for their attention.
As a person who spends a large amount of time and energy visiting and filming in quarries all over Trinidad, I can attest to the fact that there is a very pressing need for increased government presence in the sector.
From Toco to Manuel Congo, to Arima and Maracas valley, quarries scar the face of our nation as businesses and private citizens scramble to exploit the limestone and gravel that is used in government infrastructure development projects as well as the local construction industry.
Our nation’s leaders seem to be oblivious to the scale of the damage being caused as a direct result of lax monitoring and regulation of the industry despite the fact that every time they travel overseas or cross country on an air-guard plane or chopper, they must see the evidence. Valencia is the area that all aircraft departing Piarco International Airport must overfly on their path out to sea. It looks like a mud hole from the air, as the photograph by Stephen Broadbridge shows below.
So, it is now up to us, those members of society that are seriously concerned as to the state of affairs in our nation’s wild spaces, to remain vigilant and keep the pressure on those individuals and agencies that would bend or even outright disregard the few rules we have in place to protect our remaining wildlife and sensitive areas.
The quarrying community in T&T controls an extremely lucrative resource that earns billions of dollars each year. As a result they wield immense power and influence which some claim is used to ‘grease the wheels’ of the system.
Some claim that illegal activities, including unlicensed and unregulated quarrying, as well as the outright theft of what could turn out to be millions of dollars of government revenue in the form of aggregate and lumber is taking place daily here and it seems that there is little to no effort being expended to get things under control.
The EarthWise Team pledges to continue investigating this and all other serious environmental damage cases affecting Trinidad & Tobago.
Person who feel that we can help them should contact us at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 369-0151/724-8824
Written by: Kyle De Lima
Filed under: Featured