Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A hole in the ground

 Santa Cruz: a broad valley crowned by forested hills
I lived opposite a quarry in Santa Cruz most of my life. The valley was primarily agricultural, but has gradually given way to residential developments. When we moved to the seven acre strip in La Pastora in the late 1950s, it was as to an alien land, we who had been born and grew in the lanes and orderly squares of Belmont, Woodbrook, Diego Martin.

Our farmhouse was set back from the road but the blasts from the quarry still rattled the windows and shook the dishes, and on occasion widened a crack in a wall, or sent a rain of pebbles over the roof. We loathed the dust, the noise, the trucks tearing up the road. The community complained, but the quarry was as much a livelihood as our poultry farm, the beekeepers' hives or the gardeners crops. The owners of the quarry were a family that had owned most of the land on that side of the road extending up the hill. They were neighbours and whatever the aggravations, we didn't have to go far for materials to extend the house, to build pig pens or the hatchery. A pond was eventually dug at the base of the hill to catch the occasional rock slide and keep down the dust.

The trouble with quarrying is that you always end up with a hole in the ground. Continued excavation changes the shape of the landscape. It destroys uncountable plants and animals' homes. It chases the wildlife from the area. Julian Kenny wrote extensively about repairing the damage to Northern Range watersheds by a process of continuous re-forestation. Unfortunately, the ecosystems that are removed in one fell swoop by a quarry may take at least a generation if not several lifetimes to repair - as the Fondes Amandes Re-forestation group led by Akilah Jaramogi knows.

Santa Cruz quarry

Quarry in Arima-Blanchisseuse valley

That quarry was eventually closed. But there are at least three other quarries that still operate in Santa Cruz. Early in the mornings, traffic is edged off the road by large trucks careening around sharp corners, from Cutucupano Road, from La Sagesse, from Quarry Road. We may not remember that Laventille hill started as a quarry. And by the way, wherever there is now a Quarry street/ road, you can bet there used to be a quarry.

So if we must continue to quarry in order to build roads and structures, thereby hoping to improve Trinidad and Tobago to first world status, there has to be a highly developed sense of balance in the administration of our lands and resources. Governments and regulators must set some incontestable rules about industries that remove non-replenishable resources. For instance, all quarry operators ought to tend another piece of land - of equal acreage - where they conscientiously preserve the natural forest cover and propagate species - so at least when the "end of life" of the quarry arrives, there's a plan to grow it back. This ought to be an unequivocal condition to the granting of licenses, a point where the Ministry of Energy (which includes mining) and the Ministry of the Environment agree without compromise.

Unfortunately, as a people, we believe in an entitlement to use the resources anywhere we find them on our two islands. And considering that we have been drilling for and living off oil in Trinidad for over 100 years, and gas for the past two decades, we do have an enlarged appetite for the proceeds of "our natural resources." Scarce thought is spared for the depletion of mined resources, nor for the extermination of all the fragile forms dependent on the natural fabric that is finite on two small islands, and in the seas around.

Yes, mining and quarrying pollute our seas as much as they damage the rivers. There's hardly an un-muddied river in all of Trinidad, between the quarrying, the building and the dumping of rubbish.

There's faint hope in the growing numbers of Trinidadians who have - in their lifetimes - changed from being slayers of wildlife to saviours. Witness the protection of the leatherback and other sea turtles; the protection offered to a giant anaconda and snakes in general; the delivery of vulnerable and wounded wildlife to carers such as El Socorro Centre for Wildlife Conservation (ESCWC) and the Wildlife Orphanage and Rehabilitation Centre (WORC); and environmental advocates such as Asa Wright Nature Centre, Papa Bois, Trini Eco Warriors or the West Indian Wildlife Conservation Society. We need these to speak for the environment, and to encourage other groups. Let's encourage our youngsters to plant trees; to collect plastics for recycling and to pay attention to issues like climate change and water conservation. Then shame the adults into following their examples.

If a quarry is a hole in the ground, a grave for the natural environment, it seems to also be a place where we can bury our humanity. As bare and bold as the exposed rock faces, we grow accustomed to grit, to harshness, to noise. We become inured to the speed of exploitation. Greed, expediency, power and control become the norm and the good. We accept the lack of respect accorded those who dare to speak for the trees and animals and eco-systems, the meek and the weak.

Is it so easy to forget the relationships between forests and fresh air, fresh water? We look at the holes in the Aripo Savannahs that are wide and deep, and wonder at the prolonged abuse. There are gashes on cliffs across the Northern Range, from Diego Martin to Matura. Dust storms rise up daily on the hills in the Blanchisseuse-Arima valley. Perhaps we don't see these holes every day, but we need to know they are there.

Forested hills are a priceless feature of Santa Cruz living
It is time to think about restoring balance. Quarry operators must be mandated to invest in "end of life" proposals for their stone works. They need to partner with environment-conscious communities to  prepare for the restoration of forests, and repatriation of the species destroyed or chased when the first excavator gouged the land. In parallel with investments for re-forestation, propagation and protection of species, the acreages under quarries must be limited not expanded. We need to do these things now, before we find ourselves destitute as a species, between the rock and sea.

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