Empty chemical bottles are seen discarded in an abandoned garden following the reaping of crops where it reported by farmers have been cutting down the forest reserve at Brasso Gerado

Nestled in the vastness of the forests of central Trinidad, lies the village of Brasso Venado. Its untouched natural beauty offers visitors a glimpse of a T&T some fear may soon be lost. Uninhibited, trees like cedar, mahogany, pine among others grow to their full potential across seemingly unending plains, while animals roam free. Well, at least, that’s how things once were, villagers said.

The piercing howls of the red howler monkey are now being drowned out by the roars of bulldozers uprooting trees. While the songs of birds are muffled by the hums of brush cutters.

Underneath the Doppler Weather Station, a silent storm is brewing in the Basin Hill Reserve and Central Range Game Sanctuary and no authority is acting.

Given the extent of deforestation, estimated at millions of dollars, and other illegal activities in the reserve, it cannot be that the authorities do not know, villagers said.

As the group of villagers speaks to Guardian Media, a few of them fidgeted nervously. They alleged that forest rangers and even some members of the Couva-Tabaquite-Talparo Regional Corporation are complicit.

“These people are not easy,” one of them said, “I don’t want any trouble.”

A list of the last names of alleged wrongdoers was provided by villagers, some of them are well-known businessmen.

“The frightening thing is, it is alleged that excavators and bulldozers are owned by an individual who is a forest ranger,” a villager claimed.

‘Forest Reserves important to the welfare and development of our people’

In March of 1970, then conservator of forests B S Ramdial delivered a speech about the importance of Forest Reserves and Game Sanctuaries in T&T

“Land reservation for our forests and game is as important to the welfare and development of our people as is food and clothing. These areas are responsible for our water, as well as for our agriculture and therefore help to sustain us,” he said passionately.

Fifty years later, widespread deforestation is taking place across the country, including on protected state land in Brasso Venado.

It’s been going on there for upwards of 12 years.

“It’s almost about 150-to-200 acres of the Forest Reserve that have disappeared on the Mamoral side and the other side. The people who are doing these things are wealthy people who already have everything. These excavators have been working up here for months,” said one villager.

While villagers said they can understand small parcels of land being used to plant crops or to construct humble homes, the extent of work is wreaking havoc.

“They are deforesting for agriculture. Long ago, they would slash and burn. Now, they are using machines that take the roots out of the ground. So as the rainy season starts the very dry soil gets like sludge, causing erosion,” said a villager.

When Guardian Media visited the village, we were taken to three different sites of deforestation. The areas were extensive, encompassing many acres.

One was located not far from the Doppler Weather Station. From its height, one could see several other sites. It was clear that the areas were being used for agricultural purpose. Close to all three sites, there were signs of land slippage.

UWI Professor of Tropical Island Ecology John Agard confirmed that deforestation can cause extensive erosion, “Trees put down roots and the roots also prevent the soils from washing away. So when you cut down trees and stuff, it has an effect on the environment.

“We are in a season in Trinidad…the beginning of the rainy season and there’s an expectation that there’ll be a lot of floods, so we could lose quite a lot of soil from deforestation areas that are quite critical.”

Prof Agard is one of the lead authors of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 4th and 5th assessment.

Awong: I’m not supporting any illegal activities

Chairman of the Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Regional Corporation Henry Awong said he was aware that people are cultivating areas that could be located in Forest Reserves.

However, he said, there’s nothing he can do about it because regional corporations have no jurisdiction over forests. The only protected areas that regional corporations have jurisdiction over are heritage parks.

“That has been going on for decades and I’m sure the Forestry Division is aware of it,” he said.

Asked to respond to claims by some villagers that members of the corporation were involved in or are aware of the illegal activity, Awong said, “I’m not supporting any illegal activities. However, in that area there are no job opportunities for villagers and that may result in persons choosing to carry out such activities. So, there’s a socio-economic issue to be addressed in many rural areas.”

The fines under the State Lands Act

Under the State Lands Act, T&T’s 36 Forest Reserves are legally protected.

The reserves according to the act were established to manage timber resources by imposing restrictions and fines, as well as to regulate the extraction of certain types of timber species.

According to Section 18 of the Forests Act, every forest officer, rural constable and police officer is authorised to prevent forest offences.

Section 8 states, in part, that any person who fells, cuts, injures a tree by fire or causes any damage by negligence in felling or cutting any tree, or enters a prohibited area is liable to a fine of $20,000 if the act was committed in a Forest Reserve or on state lands.

These acts are only exempted with permission from the agriculture minister, or through written permission from a forest officer authorised by the minister.

A special bulk timber removal permit is required to remove timber from state land and must be stamped by the conservator.

Contravening this section will result in a fine of $10,000 on summary conviction.

In contrast to the quantity of the fine, people removing trees from the reserve are paying approximately $3,000 to $5,000 per day to rent an excavator.

“Thirty years ago, if you cut a tree in the reserve, you wouldn’t know where the rangers were coming from. Now, you don’t even see them patrolling through the area,” said one of the villagers.

“It is affecting everyone who lives here and doesn’t do these things. We depend on the forest for life,” said another villager.

Villagers contact 3 agencies, but nothing is being done

In an attempt to have work stopped, villagers contacted three agencies: the Environmental Management Agency; the Forestry Division of the Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Ministry; as well as the Couva-Tabaquite-Talparo Regional Corporation.

“These things needed looking into a long time now, but nobody is doing so. The Forestry Division came and met the excavator here. They just came in, looked around and nothing was done,” a villager said.

As acknowledged in the 2011 National Protected Areas Policy, the administrative framework for the management of Protected Areas is “complex”. These complex institutional arrangements make Protected Areas, PA, management very challenging, it adds.

There are no fewer than 12 government agencies with legal mandates for managing and designating protected areas.

Among them is the Environmental Management Authority.

It is responsible for designating and coordinating the management of environmentally-sensitive areas by coordinating with designated management authorities like the Forestry Division.

Under the Conservation of Wildlife Act, and Forests Act, the Forestry Division is responsible for managing wildlife sanctuaries, Forest Reserves and designated prohibited areas. Among its mandates is to ensure that physical development is done in a manner that does not damage or degrade the environment, including environmentally-sensitive areas.

Under the State Lands Act, the commissioner of state lands has jurisdiction over all state lands and has the authority to designate other agencies to manage state land under the act.

Despite these mandates and numerous reports made, no authority is addressing deforestation in Brasso Venado, nor the consequences of such activities.

According to Prof Agard, the protection of forests is essential for the survival and future of the country’s environment.

He laments that “more and more we are hearing about forest areas that were protected being de-reserved and trees being cut down, and houses being built little by little. Quarries being established in areas that were protected since colonial times. Little by little, year by year, there are declines in forest cover.”

Questions to the conservator

Guardian Media sent the following questions to conservator Denny Dipchandsingh on June 17.

*Was permission granted for any clearing of trees in the Central Range Forest Reserve or on any state land in the Brasso Venado area?

*Are you aware of deforestation taking place there?

*Are there any plans afoot to investigate and seek to put an end to deforestation?

*How much of a concern is deforestation across the country?

Dipchandsingh acknowledged receipt of the questions, saying copies were sent to the communication unit and the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries.

He said he would likely have responses early this week.

Continuing tomorrow