Residents of Grande Riviere are living in fear that their homes and businesses may soon be submerged under the sea.
The small, close-knit community says buildings on the coastline are in danger of being flooded by seawater if the Grande Riviere river is not re-routed. The river, which usually runs in a southerly direction, is now flowing west. As a result it has overflowed its banks and is eroding the beach. Piero Guerrini, owner of Mt Plaisir Estate Hotel, says his building is under threat from the eroding coastline. Placing the blame squarely at the feet of the authorities, Guerrini is calling for the Government to move quickly to address the problem before it’s too late.
He said although he had contacted various officials, his calls for help had so far fallen on deaf ears. The T&T Guardian visited the area and witnessed the natural disaster first-hand. Guerrini said it is the second time in the last 15 years the river has changed its course, and the solution is a simple one. “All we really need is an excavator to re-route the river. This will take one day to do. I don’t know why the authorities are taking so long to move,” he lamented. He said the problem started in December last year after heavy rains and a landslide in Sans Souci which damaged 15 houses and 20 fishing vessels and killed a 67-year-old man. Afterwards, Works Minister Jack Warner toured the area and said the Grande Riviere River should be re-routed—but it never was.
For residents, the problem is twofold. The river, which has now eroded most of the beach, is also threatening leatherback turtle nesting. Grande Riviere Beach is an important nesting site for the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle. Between March and August, scores of visitors, both local and foreign, flock to the picturesque beach to witness the turtles lay their eggs. “Grande Riviere has the highest density of leatherback turtles in the world,” said Guerrini. But a vast area of sand where they lay their eggs has already been washed away. The overflowing river has destroyed many nests, and there are fewer hatchlings for the season. That, warns Guerrini, may spell disaster for the entire village. “This is a major source of income for the community. The craftsmen, the people selling food, all benefit.” Guerrini said about 200 of the 400 villagers directly benefit from ecotourism—a major element of which is the leatherback turtle season. Guerrini said in the past as many as 500 turtles came out on the beach in one night to lay their eggs. “We have people coming to Grande Riviere from over 100 countries every year and most of them stay in establishments like this,” he said.
An Italian photojournalist, Guerrini first visited Trinidad 19 years ago for two weeks and fell in love with the country.
“We look out for each other here. What we have here is beautiful and we should treasure it,” he said, pointing toward the beach. “We have no crime here. We are a family. “You know people have a saying that areas like ours are behind God’s back? Well, that’s exactly how we feel. We are the forgotten part of Trinidad and it’s not a good feeling at all.” Len Peters, chairman of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guide Association, is also concerned. He contacted the regional corporation and the Office of Disaster Management and Preparedness to report the disaster, but has been getting the runaround.
The situation is quickly getting worse.
“The river comes down very violently. It will continue to flood because of the rain and it will continue to move westward and erode the bay,” he said. “It’s hurting everything, as Guerrini said. If we aren’t able to conduct tours, the levels of revenue will certainly diminish. Most of the people employed are single mothers. How will they make a living?” Peters also warned that the turtles will not go anywhere else to lay their eggs. “This means that turtles will have a smaller area to lay eggs and there will be a clustering of them in the same area.” He added, “No other community in Trinidad, outside of Carnival, brings in upwards of 30,000 tourists because of the turtles. The leatherback turtles give Trinidad an international appeal.
“This is an environmental travesty.”
Tour guides have had to create an alternative route for visitors to get to the beach to see the turtles. “Right now, this hotel may soon fall into the river. It’s threatening people’s safety,” Peters said, pointing to the front of the hotel. “The coconut and almond trees are the only things keeping the front of that building up. The trees are good at soil retention, so right now they are like the guardians of this hotel.” Guerrini said he had to close some of his rooms and cancel bookings, as it was no longer safe.He said he has lost about $25,000 thus far. Proprietor of Le Grand Almandier Amanda James also believes the authorities should move quickly to rectify the situation. “All here used to be an entire beach front,” she said, pointing to the beach at the front of her ten-room establishment. Living in Grande Riviere for the last 26 years, James said she anticipated a reduction in visitors if the problem continued. “Before, it was very convenient, because they could have come out at the beach front to view the turtles. But we have no beach front any more.”
Councillor for Toco/Fishing Pond Terry Rondon appealed to the Government to put politics aside and deal with the issue.
Rondon said he had reported the problem to the chairman of the Sangre Grande Regional Corporation, Keshwar Maharaj, who has been working to help. “Guerrini met with my chairman, who called the Ministry of Tourism and reported what was happening. An excavator was promised to re-route the river. There was also dialogue between the ministries of Works and Tourism and the corporation for a week.” Rondon said a day later, an official of the Tourism Ministry contacted Maharaj to say the excavator was too big to enter Grande Riviere. “I am so upset. I don’t know who to turn to again. I did my part. I did my best. Went though the right channels…I’m very disappointed and I’m appealing to the authorities for help,” he said.
Rondon noted that many turtle eggs have already been destroyed and young turtles were being washed away. “The authorities are failing me. The type of bureaucracy I have to be going through is ridiculous. It’s sad to see a man (Guerrini) business going down the drain. It’s very sad. “We are the only tourist destination on the northeast coast, and we have to suffer like this? What is the reason?” Rondon said every time the villagers called the authorities, “They saying they coming tomorrow.” Rondon said for the residents of Grande Riviere, tomorrow may be too late. When the T&T Guardian contacted Guerrini again on Friday, he said part of the hotel’s verandah had fallen into the river and the Ministry of Works official had promised to send an excavator to re-route the river and assured that work would start soon.