One of the structures left behind by illegal land developers in Wallerfield.

While the sight of the flattened forest and the sounds of displaced birds tell their own tales, squatters at Antigua Road in Wallerfield also have a story to tell.

Seeking a new beginning, more than 20 families, at varying times, moved to the area to live and plant.

While they live there illegally, their presence may have, ironically, saved part of a nearby forest reserve.

In December 2020, a group of men began clearing a tract of state land in Wallerfield, starting from Silica Sands Road and stretching to Antigua Road.

When Guardian Media visited the site, on May 14th, we met barren expanses of dirt and destruction covering many acres.

The hollowed trunks of a few uprooted trees remained, but the vast majority of trees were removed, likely fetching a good price as timber.

“I know what the habitat used to look like. My children cried when these trees started to move. My children cried with what they did. It was painful,” one resident lamented.

“What caught everyone off guard and what we didn’t know is that they started from the back. Remember, all here was trees….so, when they were at the back nobody knew until they reached in front of us here. One evening, I came and saw a light (from the compound of a nearby construction company)…then, I realised something was wrong,” said another resident, Michael.

The next day, the group of men, with trucks, bulldozers, excavators and backhoes, began clearing the land behind his home.

When confronted, the men claimed they were police officers working with the Land Settlement Agency.

While the TTPS acknowledged receiving a report of an illegal land clearance in the area, it said it was not aware of the involvement of any of its officers.

The leader of the group identified himself as a defence force member, claiming he was from the nearby Cumuto base.

He even showed residents a badge to support his claim.

Guardian Media sent questions to the TTDF, asking if it was aware of any links between an officer and the illegal clearing, but didn’t receive a response in time.

However, according to information Guardian Media gathered, an employee from a nearby construction company was also allegedly part of the group, even allegedly using company equipment.

Our investigations, with the help of senior insiders at the LSA and other state agencies, discovered that the group cleared more than 20 acres of forest reserve land to develop and sell them as lots.

This venture would have likely made them millions.

“We realised they started to bulldoze all over and then, they started to tell people that they had to pay to get their lands backfilled…So, the people asked them, why do we have to pay for something you’ll are doing? They said if you don’t pay, you will have to move,” Michael, who has lived in the area for three years, recalled.

At least two families paid the men $2,000 under the belief that the group was part of the Land Settlement Agency and were members of the defence force and TTPS, as they claimed.

Most of the other families, however, refused to comply.

“They made it plain and straight that I’m living in a board house and what they would do to me and not do to me, and I let them know, plain and straight, there are only two things they could do to me and I’m not scared. It’s either your family lives without a father, or my family does…You are threatening my wife when I am not at home,” a resident said.

Two or three days later though, personnel from the Land Settlement Agency, the Office of the Commissioner of State Lands, the Environmental Management Authority, the Ministry of Planning and Development, as well as the Police Service came to inspect the area.

Coincidentally, or not, according to residents, the group of men suddenly stopped work and removed all machinery from the site the day before the visit.

An LSA-led investigation confirmed that more than 20 acres of land were cleared.

There were 23 incomplete structures present, along with three registered electrical poles.

T&TEC said the poles were not officially commissioned.

LSA investigations also revealed that people identifying themselves as officers of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service, and Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force were involved.

While no trespassing signs were erected, residents and some officials fear those responsible will return to finish what they started.

There are also concerns that they are willing to do whatever is necessary to get the project done.

Under Section 8 of the Forests Act, any person who fells or cuts any tree or timber, without a permit, is liable to a fine of $20,000, if it takes place in a reserve or on state land.

Under section 4 of the Trespass Act, a person is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $50,000 and 10 years imprisonment, if they are found guilty of trespass on state lands or forest reserves.

But, there have long been suggestions that agencies tasked with protecting reserves and state lands have insufficient resources to offer adequate protection.

There are 36 reserves, covering approximately 294,000 acres.

Yet, last year, Conservator of Forests Denny Dipchansingh claimed there were more than 60 vacancies for foresters and another 40 vacancies for game wardens.

Those vacancies remain.

However, according to the Dipchansingh, ‘despite resource challenges,’ the Forestry Division has increased patrols outside of normal working hours to prevent further encroachment.

He said the division has received assistance from both the TTPS and Praedial Larceny Squad on patrols.

According to Acting Commissioner of State Lands Bhanmatie Seecharan, in a written response, officers from her office discovered the Antigua Road site during a routine joint patrol on April 14th, 2021.

Trespassing signs were then placed, she said, in an attempt to discourage those responsible.

“The Office of the COSL is very cognizant and deeply concerned about developments at the new Forest Reserve and will continue to explore all legal options available in order to manage the ongoing situation,” the Acting Commissioner of State Lands said.

A Clear Issue

In the last 20 years, Trinidad and Tobago lost more than 56,000 acres of tree cover, according to the online forest monitoring and alert system, Global Forest Watch.

To put that into perspective, that’s enough trees to fill an area the size of Port-of-Spain 18 times and the Queen’s Park Savannah 215 times.

The World Resources Institute’s online platform added that in the year 2000 alone, more than 2,000 acres of tree cover was lost.

Local data on the issue is not only older but far more conservative.

According to an Environmental Management Authority report from 2013, forest cover was reducing at a rate of 0.31 per cent per year.

Studies since have been limited.

“Human impact has been the biggest impact in Trinidad and Tobago, and direct impact via land clearance via activities that are not sustainable like forest fires, forest clearings, slash and burn agriculture, changing of watershed ecosystems,” according to Planning and environmental management consultant Jalaludin Khan.

“Forests are ecosystems of both living and nonliving things. So, if you affect one thing, you affect the next thing. So, things like bees and butterflies and pollinators, we wouldn’t have pollination and continuation of certain types of species and plants,” he said.

Under the cover and distraction offered by the pandemic, an increasing number of illegal operations are targeting state lands and forest reserves in search of a payday at nature’s expense.

“Indeed, there has been an increase during the initial ‘Lockdown’ last year (2020), as deforestation reports increased,” confirmed Conservator of Forests Denny Dipchansingh in a written response.

“With increased patrols by the Forestry Division, State Land Officers, Praedial Larceny and the TTPS, several of the offenders were removed from the sites and some were also subsequently charged under the Forests Act,” Dipchansingh added.

The Acting Commissioner of State Lands Bhanmatie Seecharan also confirmed an increase, saying, “Indeed, there has been an increase during the pandemic.”

Like Dipchansingh, Seecharan claimed that a more robust approach has been put in place to evict and prosecute people guilty of illegally clearing and occupying state lands.

“For the year 2020, 507 Quit notices were served. At present, in 2021, the Land Management Division have issued 425 Quit Notices,” she added.

In February, a group of Cedros residents protested for the state to take action against a businessman who cleared multiple acres of the Chatham Forest Reserve to set up private farms.

There have also been reports of clearings in the Northern Range, Central Range Reserve, Ecclesville, Brasso Venado, as well as the areas in and around the Aripo Savannas.

According to Khan, the country’s approach to nature needs to shift from a human-centred approach to an ecocentric approach.

“Nature is not just for human beings’ benefit. We have to be capable of understanding that our forests provide many resources. From direct, functional things like food, bio-medicine from plants, to indirectly controlling ecosystem impact and to creating a sustainable environment for us to live,” Khan said.

He believed the forest management system is in a crisis because while there is a forest policy, it hasn’t been implemented in law and through administrative systems.

“It is political will, not only by the politician but by the people – that we will preserve and conserve our forests in a sustainable way…From the mountains being impacted to the middle areas, where settlements are being flooded, to urban environments where we are losing trees as part of our social fabric and our connection to nature,” the award-winning sustainable development consultant said.

While the Forestry Division replants a minimum of 247 acres of trees per year – equivalent to around 4,942 acres since 2001 – Khan believed a potential fix goes well beyond replanting trees.

It also requires, he said, creating and sustaining ecosystems to bring back the trees, the birds, the insects and the soils from the areas affected.

“The biggest gap we have in our protected areas system is we do not have a law of national parks. Secondly, we do not have a national park authority with human resources and financing to implement it,” Khan said.