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In weary tones, Akilah Jaramogi tells me how the thieves broke in to her Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project and points out the route they used to make off with the expensive equipment that she assumes will be sold for drugs.
The NGO, which has been serving the community of St Ann’s, Port-of-Spain, since the 1980s, has now been burgled twice in three years, and while Jaramogi, who founded the project with her late husband, is putting on a brave face along with her staff, it is a body blow to an organisation which survives on minimal government grants and employs 25 people within the community.
All the computers were stolen, in an apparently pre-planned robbery in the early hours of January 31, as well as a flat screen television used for educational presentations for schoolchildren and forestry equipment for planting trees and preventing forest fires. In all, $30,000 worth of property was taken, but the most valuable thing, Jaramogi feels, is the information stored on the computers. Years of hard work on various projects has been lost, only some of which was backed up to an external hard drive.
“We lock up the building as much as we can, but we like living in an eco-style, we don’t want to be living in jail,” she says when asked if they operate a system of trust at the project’s base camp, a beautifully constructed wooden eco-lodge at the foot of a hill in St Ann’s.
It would indeed be a shame if burglar proofing had been installed. It would change the whole aura of this organic, extremely peaceful environment. Breeze blows through the gaps in the wooden beams and under the eaves of the galvanised steel roof. It’s a world away from the air-conditioned windowless office blocks downtown.
Above us, the trail winds up into the hills where the herb garden, plant nursery and a theatre for performances nestle into their environment. If you carry on to the top, Cowin Collett tells me during a tour, you would reach the Lady Chancellor Estate and then Maraval. He has worked for Jaramogi for 14 years, straight from school.
Some of Collett’s co-workers were crying and angry on the morning the theft was discovered. At first they wondered whether it was an inside job—a member of staff didn’t turn up to work the following day, arousing suspicion, but he appeared the next day and was just as shocked as the other employees that somebody would choose to steal from an independent community project.
The only lead Jaramogi was able to give the police was a small silver or white car she spotted parked near the thatched-roof shelter with a light on inside. She feels the thieves were watching, hidden in the bush. “I smelt a cigarette. I have a nose for fire,” she says. “If a fire is burning way over in the Beetham or Lady Young or Maraval, I can smell it. I could smell a cigarette.”
Jaramogi’s “fire nose”
Her “fire nose,” as she calls it, is essential in her job. The reforestation project’s aim is to prevent forest fires in the dry season, to replant trees where fires have destroyed them and to educate the community. It’s a vital job the NGO does, not only to reduce the number of forest fires but to reduce flooding. When hillsides are burnt and bare from fallen trees, soil erosion takes place and dead logs, leaves, silt or branches clutter the waterways, creating flood risks.
Jaramogi, a Rastafarian since the late 1970s and a descendent of the Merikins in south Trinidad, is deeply in tune with nature. In the 1980s she and husband Tacuma began planting fruit trees and herb bushes in St Ann’s. The site was designated a fire climax zone. “Each year the vegetation during the dry season would be brown and dry and fires would start from the bottom of the hill, which was a dump site.
“A lot of the deciduous trees are bare, bamboo grasses shed their leaves, there’s leaf litter on the ground and people light fires or hunters go smoking out animals. You get wildfires or slash-and-burn farmers who want to plant marijuana or agriculture, and it just burns up everything and spreads and destroys,” she says.
The project almost never got off the ground. WASA sent them an eviction notice informing them they were on State land and had to remove their crops. Eden Shand, the then St Ann’s MP, visited the site and was blown away by the work they were doing. He duly declared it worthy of government support. “He got the environmental agencies together and we mobilised the community,” says Jaramogi. And that’s how the project really took off.
When her husband died in 1994, Jaramogi continued the work. It was 1999 when the project became a registered NGO and 2000 when she received her first official government grant allowing her to pay employees rather than relying on volunteers and donors.
Who steals from a community-based NGO?
As to why criminals would target her organisation, Jaramogi says, “The place is so…beyond complex right now, so rigid and insecure.” She means T&T as a whole, not Fondes Amandes, which is usually an oasis of calm. “And when someone comes and takes what it is yours and when you try to talk about it, you feel you shouldn’t say anything, that’s the level of lawlessness and uncaring.” She’s referring to a story in the papers about a witness in a criminal case who had been threatened and killed to prevent her giving evidence.
We discuss the issue of unemployed youth, those who lime on the block, indifferent to working for a living, committing petty or serious crimes. “Trinidad always had a laid-back way of life. “If you feel to work, you work, especially in rural communities there’s always food around you can live off. You don’t have a lot of bills to pay, people survive for long periods without being gainfully employed.
“But now, with the American influence, they want the big sneakers, the fancy phone and the big-screen TV in the crib, but they don’t want to work for it so they steal and rob,” she says. We talk about CCTV and the fact that in capital cities like London you can’t move anywhere in public without being on film. In T&T it is easier to hide and disappear on and off the streets making police detection work that bit harder.
“The directions given to us by the police were we should get cameras—but, as an NGO, someone needs to pay for that. It’s not a business generating income and expensing costs. When we get a grant for x, y, z they give you that flat. “They tell you, ‘We can’t pay salaries just tools and equipment.’ We don’t ever have extra cash except when we have occasional private donors,” she says.
In this context, incidents like this theft can be crippling. Right now the staff have brought in their own laptops and an old desktop computer to work on. They are using pen and paper and the teaching session with children from the International School that morning had to be done with handclapping and singing in rapso style rather than an educational video shown on the stolen television. “I had them singing, ‘This is our earth we need to survive, let’s plant some trees and keep them alive,’” says Jaramogi, smiling.
The excited chatter of children fills the air outside. Blissfully unaware that any crime has been committed, they have enjoyed their morning, learning about their local environment in a place that will continue doing what it does, regardless of this callous and senseless crime.