Photos by Rishi Ragoonath
Over the past 32 years, almost every part of Trinidad’s Northern Range has been set to burn by man, killing millions of trees, animals and destroying vital forest cover.
According to the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Northern Range has a land mass of 277,167.23 acres (112,165.6 hectares). This means the city of San Fernando can fit some 58 times into the Northern Range, while the city of Port-of-Spain can fit almost 94 times.
A document provided by Forestry shows that every year there are hundreds of forest fires and thousands of acres are destroyed. Between 1987 and 2018, a total of 276,758.027 acres (112,473 hectares) were burnt, all in fires started by man.
The Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture continues to replant and tries to preserve the existing forest cover, but the task becomes more and more difficult because of climate challenges as increasingly high temperatures in the dry season cause fires to burn for longer and increased rainfall in the wet season washes away soil that is vital for regrowth.
In this fifth instalment of the Guardian Media series on the effects of global warming and climate change on the local ecosystem, our news team visited different areas along the Northern Range, facilitated by the Forestry Division.
Global warming is the heating up of the earth’s atmosphere caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change refers to the changes in weather and the environment caused by global warming.
Trees store carbon dioxide (CO2) in their leaves and stems and use it to grow. Because of their long life spans, trees are essential for carbon sequestration. The forest floor and soil also stores CO2 with trees that keep carbon in their roots.
Conservator of Forests Denny Dipchansingh said over the years agricultural fires that got out of control were the primary cause of the forest destruction.
"Man is the number one perpetrator—the whole scenario with lightning striking and glass bottles magnifying the sun’s rays and starting fires simply does not apply here. All forest fires in this country are started by man, and the majority of it is either negligence, agricultural fires 'getting away', squatting or slash and burn," Dipchansingh said.
When it is not agricultural fires, there are "firebugs" who set the forest on fire and run off.
"A few years ago, there was a man who lit small pieces of candles and ran off, so by the time the candle burn down, and we spotted the flames in one area, he would be gone. When we go to put out that fire, we would see smoke from another area, and we rush across, and he is gone again, and we have another fire to put out. That went on for some time, but we never caught him."
In 2016 one man was arrested and charged for setting a fire in the Northern Range but the fine at that time was just a paltry $1,500 compared to the $20,000 fine that introduced in January 2019.
But Dipchansingh said a loophole in the law was the reason why only one person was charged. The law providing for the protection of state lands states that unless a person is caught in the act of setting a fire, they cannot be charged.
There are also squatters who fake house fires to collect compensation from the Ministry of Social Development.
"There are people who build small shacks in the forest, they fill the shacks with old, non-working appliances and set the bushes around the house on fire, then the house will catch and they will go to Social Development and claim for losses to get a grant. There have been instances where these people will stand up and try to prevent the rangers from putting out these fires because they know what they are trying to accomplish," he said.
And if the fires are not enough, there is also the constant issue of deforestation, most of which takes place in privately owned parcels of the Northern Range.
"There are people who will illegally cut down the trees for logging, and sometimes we can catch them but not always. Then there is the issue that a large part of the range is private land and you can’t stop someone from clearing their land, so we are losing forest cover that way as well," he added.
At Laurel Hill, Arouca, we stumbled upon hundreds of pine and other logs, cut and placed along a forest track.
Dipchansingh said the presence of the logs, especially the pine, raised a lot of questions in his mind because he was concerned that they were from state lands.
Only one side of the forested area was marked as state lands, according to a small sign on a pine tree and the other side was marked with larger sign warning trespassers.
Dipchansingh said the logs were supposed to be marked by a forest ranger, but after inspecting dozens, only a few were marked.
Later that evening, he told Guardian Media that the ranger responsible for marking those trees had stopped the process because he was concerned that the pine trees were cut from state land and he was giving the logger an opportunity to prove otherwise.
"Whoever would have cut the trees will have to show the ranger the stumps that were left behind to prove that it did not come from state lands. If they cannot show that evidence, the logs will be seized, and they will be charged," Dipchansingh said.
While still in the area, two youngsters drawn by the convoy of Forestry vehicles ran to the roadside to tell a ranger, "Them people cutting down alyuh trees in the back here!"
Although they were reporting that issue, the young boys were probably unaware that they too were encroaching on the forest as their home stands among the pines.
They were not the only family to seek shelter among the trees. One ranger said most squatters were genuine cases of people who could not afford to live anywhere else. These people, he said, built their homes in the forest but tried as much as possible not to cut down the trees or disturb the forest beyond what they had already done. They also served as lookouts for other illegal activities taking place in forested areas.
How deforestation contributes to flooding
The Conservator of Forests said that deforestation not only lessens the ability of the forests to sequester or sink carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, it also contributes greatly to flooding.
"The forest is designed to save water—the whole system from the leaves that break up rainfall, allowing it to be more easily absorbed into the soil for water infiltration—if you have no trees present, you have massive water runoff and everything just comes washing down and results in more flooding," Dipchansingh said.
When forest fires gut large areas of the forest, in addition to destroying trees, grass and other vegetation are wiped out. When the rains come, the water gushes down the hillsides freely, that water ends up in the rivers, streams, and other watercourses and contributes greatly to perennial flooding.
"The whole purpose of the watershed is to help assist in storing some of that water—that is the role of trees and vegetation—but with no trees, you have no roots, no water entering the natural aquifers and you have a gush of water coming down that ends up in the flatlands and going straight down into the city, into people’s homes and businesses with nothing to stop it."
The gushing waters present another problem, they take the nutrient-rich soil away from the forest.
"Going with that water is the soil with all the nutrients which makes it difficult for the forest cover to regrow on its own."
Forest fires between 1987-2018
1987 : 502 fires, 21,420 hectares burnt
1988: 583 fires, 5,945 hectares burnt
1989: 146 fires, 970 hectares burnt
1990: 234 fires, 1,100 hectares burnt
1991: 229 fires, 680 hectares burnt
1992: 431 fires, 2,710 hectares burnt
1993: 228 fires, 1,570 hectares burnt
1994: 256 fires, 2,600 hectares burnt
1995: 516 fires, 7,745 hectares burnt
1996: 178 fires, 2,664 hectares burnt
1997: 156 fires, 446 hectares burnt
1998: 764 fires, 10,289 hectares burnt
1999: 167 fires, 988 hectares burnt
2000: 91 fires, 927 hectares burnt
2001: 464 fires, 5,309 hectares burnt
2002: 62 fires, 273 hectares burnt
2003: 347 fires, 4,723 hectares burnt
2004: 136 fires, 1,493 hectares burnt
2005: 270 fires, 1,696 hectares burnt
2006: 210 fires, 1,245 hectares burnt
2007: 452 fires, 3,566 hectares burnt
2008: 226 fires, 1,534 hectares burnt
2009: 133 fires, 544 hectares burnt
2010: 754 fires, 12,477 hectares burnt
2011: 42 fires, 101 hectares burnt
2012: 58 fires, 205 hectares burnt
2013: 533 fires, 2,786 hectares burnt
2014: 310 fires, 2,342 hectares burnt
2015: 497 fires, 3,367 hectares burnt
2016: 467 fires, 4,195 hectares burnt
2017: 498 fires, 4,734 hectares burnt
2018: 218 fires, 1,829 hectares burnt
Protecting and preserving forests
According to the Greenpeace, the world’s largest non-government, non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting and preserving the environment, ending deforestation is the quickest and most cost-effective way of curbing global warming.
"Ending deforestation is our best chance to conserve wildlife and defend the rights of forest communities. On top of that, it’s one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to curb global warming. That’s why we’re campaigning for a deforestation-free future," Greenpeace stated.
The United States Department of Agriculture, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science lists four ways in which forests can be managed to ensure they keep sequestering CO2.
1- Avoiding deforestation – Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change. Maintaining current forestland is crucial for avoiding additional inputs of CO2in the atmosphere and for ensuring the ability of the forests to continue sequestering carbon. For example, deforestation, particularly that in the tropics, is responsible for approximately 20 per cent of human-caused CO2 emissions.
2- Afforestation – Forestlands sequester CO2 in larger quantities and for longer periods of time than many other land uses. Converting agricultural, developed, or degraded land to the forest can dramatically increase the amount of carbon sequestered.
3- Reforestation – Reestablishing trees on the previous forestland is a specific type of management. By maintaining areas as forest, trees with continue to sequester carbon.
4- Forest management – Slight changes in forest management practices can improve the ability of forests to store carbon while still providing other benefits. Extending the time between harvests, encouraging fast-growing species, and fertilisation are a few examples of management techniques that could be used to improve forest carbon sequestration.