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Time to protect our real treasures

Friends of Asa Wright reach out to citizens, corporate sponsors...
Sunday, June 8, 2014
A copper-rumped hummingbird from Asa Wright. PHOTO Courtesy Asa Wright web site

As a small resort nestled in the Arima Valley rainforest, the Asa Wright Nature Centre and Lodge has certainly earned some admiring world attention. For decades, avid international birdwatchers have trekked here to experience one of Trinidad's treasures; some come year after year. From hummingbirds, hawks and oilbirds, to the beauty of waterfalls, mountain streams and lush tropical rainforest, it’s one of T&T’s special places. Armadillos, agouti, iguanas, tegu lizards and 29 species of bats live here, as well as the outstanding bird life for which the centre is famous.


The centre, founded in 1967, is itself a reclaimed cocoa, coffee and citrus plantation, formerly known as Spring Hill Estate, now focused on conservation and eco-tourism. Seven miles north of Arima, it is an excellent natural history destination for students of tropical ecology, birdwatchers, tourists and citizens who want to escape city life and breathe in some of the rainforest beauty that forms part of our natural heritage. The centre also generates jobs for local communities, and is an excellent example of sustainable ecotourism. Last week, the centre invited citizens and corporate sponsors to join the new Friends of Asa Wright group, launched on Wednesday at The Normandie. The Friends group aims to raise much-needed funding for continued protection of its almost 1,500 acres of protected land, and for expanded outreach and educational programmes—which, so far, have been largely funded by income from foreign visitors to the lodge. 
It’s about time that we start recognising the value our own treasures, and start funding their protection ourselves. This was one of the main messages from last Wednesday’s launch of the Friends of Asa Wright, stated by Dr Judith Gobin,  chair of the centre’s board, as well as by Prof John Agard, head of UWI’s Life Sciences department, who spoke at the launch.


The fight against illegal quarrying
Gobin outlined the many educational and outreach programmes of the centre, including the Valley Schools Outreach Programme which reaches students in 27 schools in the Arima area, educating young citizens about the value of their own rainforest riches. This programme is entirely funded, so far, by income earned from foreign visitors to the lodge, she said. Gobin reminded the audience of workshops and valuable scientific research ongoing at the William Beebe Tropical Research Station at Simla, part of Asa Wright. She stressed the need to protect and conserve Northern Range forests, as the audience was greeted with slides of piles of cascading rubble from destroyed habitat nearby—the result of continued quarrying on the part of four area quarries, which has stripped bare many areas in the forest and destroyed valuable parts of our ecosystems—and the animal and plant life dependent on them.


“We want to work towards removing these challenges with Government,” she said: “We are inviting you to become our save our Eden, our crown jewel.” The tragedy and short-sightedness of such forest destruction was highlighted by Agard. While full of praise for the State’s good intentions in preventing ecological destruction, he noted that ideals of the “new green economy” are falling way short of action. He emphasised that no one can talk about sustainable development while totally ignoring the real, economic value of the many crucial environmental services which underlie all our economic activity. 


Take the environment into account

“The Government talks about 'growth poles”.....We seem to only associate value with things we pay money for,” he said, while asking the question: “If we despoil the environment, what are we leaving?” Agard argued that we need more ecotourism and nature reserves such as Asa Wright, to not only generate foreign exchange through ecotourism, but to also provide employment, and to serve as valuable, unique centres of our own home-grown excellence and spiritual wellbeing. He said we are so busy accounting for the wealth from oil and gas money, we fail to see the wealth from our own natural environment. He urged stakeholders to include environmental assets and services as part of their national accounting process. He commented that accounting systems that only value such indicators as the Gross Domestic product are in effect a form of false accounting. And he strongly argued for the preservation of valuable environmental spaces, which in the long term, he said, would yield return visitors, and a far greater, longer lasting and more diverse value than the one-time monetary value obtained from destroying such spaces forever.

“Culture,” in biology, refers to the growing of living matter in “a specially prepared nutrient broth,” said Agard last Wednesday. He used the idea of biological culture as a metaphor for T&T culture, in its broadest sense: “In a [biological ] culture, you can get things to grow in petri dishes in agar gel... Depending on the vitamins, minerals and other can grow good things, but you can also grow bad things. We have to seed our culture with the kinds of values that will allow us to have the society we so desire.”


WHAT: Friends of Asa Wright (online applications accepted)
WHY: To help fund and protect the wildlife sanctuary, the nature centre, and outreach programmes
MEMBERSHIP TYPES: Student ($100), Individual ($300), Family ($1,000), Corporate ($10,000)
WILDLIFE: Species include 97 native mammals, 400 birds, 55 reptiles, 25 amphibians, and 617 butterflies, as well as over 2,200 species of flowering plants.


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