The month of March is when Trinidad’s dry season, at first so welcome, becomes fierce, turns the vegetation yellow, and parches the earth. Every year, the community of Fondes Amandes — in a corner of the St Ann’s valley in the Northern Range, not far above Port of Spain — would see dry-season bush fires reduce more and more of their forested surroundings to burned grass and charred tree stumps. So they turned to an age-old custom of “lending a hand” to neighbours, to reclaim and revive the forest and river.
Now, instead of the feared start of the fire season, March has become the month of Gayap, the most important event in the year for members of an award-winning community project in Fondes Amandes. There they get together not only to plant trees and prepare the land to withstand fires, but also to teach others, especially young people, to do the same, and learn to value and protect their natural environment.
The word “gayap” is derived from the indigenous Karinya (Carib) word “kayapa” — a term which describes the tradition of people getting together to complete a huge task, like clearing land, building a structure, or planting and reaping. In return, the family would provide food and drink, and there would be some kind of music, usually drumming. All of these elements have remained true for the Fondes Amandes community. And through their annual dry-season Gayap, the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project (FACRP) has transformed their area from a denuded, dusty hillside to one where tall trees flourish, fruit trees and flowering plants grow, and more wildlife returns each year — owls, smaller birds, snakes, agouti, and even an ocelot have been seen in recent years. And not since 1997 has a bush fire broached the system of fire traces and quick community action that FACRP have developed over the years to protect the watershed.
The Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project was started in 1982 by Tacuma Jaramogi and his wife Akilah. The couple set up a system to fight bush fires around their Fondes Amandes home, and also an agri-business project that included the planting of forest and fruit trees, and gathering of seeds and other natural materials for use in craft. Tragically, Tacuma died in 1989. But Akilah carried on their dream, and is now the managing director of this vibrant project, and an advocate for sustainable living.
As FACRP evolved, so did the annual Gayap. At first it was about re-introducing green to a withering landscape. Now, with tree cover that cools the land, a well-established system of fire traces for the dry season, and check dams to slow the flow of water in the rainy season, it has become more than a reforestation and agri-business project. Preventing forest fires does not only protect the natural environment and human habitation in the area. It is also an important part of preserving freshwater ecosystems and supporting biodiversity of plant and animal life.
And the Gayap has become an important opportunity to provide an outdoor, hands-on learning space for students, from primary to tertiary level. FACRP is now a resource centre for several schools, including the College of Science, Technology, and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTAATT). Akilah Jaramogi sees their efforts as more than a community initiative, but rather a national service: providing a living classroom for students and teachers, and a model of how to care for the environment.
This year’s Gayap — which runs from 8 to 10 March — has the theme “Disaster Awareness”, with a special focus on climate change. As Jaramogi says, climate change is a reality, and it makes sense to be prepared and ready, as far as possible. The residents of Fondes Amandes have witnessed a few years of increased rainfall in the area, in which the rainy season has encroached on the dry. And they have seen this change affect the quality and yield of the fruit trees: citrus, mangoes, and avocados have all been affected. “The temperature has become hotter and there has been a lot more rain in the dry season,” says Jaramogi, “so we are actually cooler and this has helped us keep the fires out.”
FACRP is currently funded by the Trinidad and Tobago government, though its Green Fund. Other partners include several state agencies: the Water and Sewerage Authority, the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Housing and the Environment, and the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management. Support also comes from the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) and the Global Water Partnership–Caribbean. And the project has won many awards, including the Humming Bird Medal national award in 2007, recognising FACRP’s national service in the sphere of environmental conservation. FACRP has also won the Green Leaf Award, Trinidad and Tobago’s highest environmental honour, and was named by CANARI as a model for community forestry throughout the Caribbean.
Jaramogi says one of the reasons for the longevity and success of FACRP is the involvement of the community. “In spite of all our challenges, we are able to keep on going because we are community-based. Most of the members are from right here, and there is a sense of ownership — pride in our natural environment. That is what also attracts our supporters to continue to keep up their relationship with Fondes Amandes.
“With or without funding, they come out to deal with what has to be done.”