2996284

A few days ago, protests by Cedros residents drew attention to the clearing of acres of land near the Chatham Forest Reserve, reportedly by a businessman who is setting up a horse and cattle farm in the area.

The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) plans to send out a team to investigate the bulldozing and large-scale clearing of trees that has been continuing at a pace despite the concerns expressed by the residents.

Photographs and drone footage captured by a Guardian Media team show the considerable damage that has already been done with areas once filled with thick, lush greenery now reduced to wastelands.

There is no confirmation of whether that clearing of the forest was authorised but the activity fits into a disturbing pattern of deforestation, most man-made, that has stripped this country of large swathes of forest.

For decades there have been reports of T&T’s forests being bulldozed by unscrupulous quarry operators, miners, slash-and-burn farmers and squatters­—activity that has accelerated in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent months there have also been reports of squatter-farmers cutting down 25 hectares in the Ecclesville Windbelt Reserve in Rio Claro to plant crops. This destruction took place in an area designated to protect surrounding communities against storms and hurricanes.

There has also been the destruction of 300 hectares of forest reserve in Tableland and pre-COVID huge sections of the Valencia Reserve were destroyed by illegal quarrying.

These developments have caused a significant loss of biodiversity although the full extent is not known since there is no recent data on the country’s forest cover. An EMA report dated a decade ago shows a loss of 32 per cent forest cover at an annual rate of 0.31 per cent.

In the face of all this wanton destruction, there has been little or no intervention by the State.

The mandate of the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture is to sustainably manage the nation’s forests to ensure that they are abundant, ecologically healthy, biologically diverse and contribute to the well-being of all citizens. But the division is severely understaffed and virtually powerless to halt the rampant deforestation.

That means that unscrupulous land grabbers of all varieties can comfortably take their pick from the country’s 119,056.82 hectares of forest reserves, including the Matura National Park, which was declared an environmentally sensitive area in 2004, and Main Ridge Forest Reserve in Tobago, the oldest protected watershed in the western hemisphere.

Also facing severe threat are watershed areas in the Northern Range which are the most significant contributors to Trinidad’s freshwater supply and help to control flooding in low-lying areas in its foothills.

This is a matter that demands urgent intervention. Loss of forest cover has exacerbated soil erosion and flooding, contributing to most of the catastrophic rainy season disasters the country has experienced in recent years.

Extensive damage has already been inflicted, posing a threat to all citizens. Our disappearing forests are all that stand between us and a major climate disaster as they store massive amounts of carbon, help to purify our water, and air, and are barriers against major storms.

Urgent steps must be taken to halt the wanton assaults on T&T’s forests.