Sunday, May 21, 2006

How to make a desert (Part II)

by Anne Hilton
Sunday Newsday
May 21 2006

As if Yale Professor Speth’s lecture on Tuesday, May 16 in the Central Bank Auditorium on Global Warming and Sea Level Rise (and what you, yes, you could do about them — see a forthcoming Environment Watch Column) wasn’t disquieting enough, come World Environment Day (June 6) the EMA and various other environmental bodies will be focussing on deserts which are steadily advancing on all fronts all over the world.

We took a brief look at this problem last week. To recap, the world’s great deserts are natural ie not made by man. Wildernesses of ice, of rock, shale and sand have been part of the world ecosystems since the beginnings of recorded time. Note I write “recorded time” because drawings on rock in these arid lands in Australia and the Sahara are evidence that once those vast stretches of land were man’s happy hunting grounds.

Today those deserts reach out to engulf more land – and man does little or nothing to stop them. People living on the fringes, desperate for fuel for cooking and fodder for their cattle, sheep and goats, cut down trees, let animals destroy the tender young shoots of plants that might keep back the sand or, in rocky areas, where leaf-fall traps blowing soil and rots to form a thin layer of topsoil.

In other places cattle ranchers burn hectares upon hectares of forest to create grazing land for beef cattle, destined to become burgers in the developed world (think about that when next you order a burger in a fast food restaurant). Timber companies in Indonesia and elsewhere plunder tropical forests for wood to make fine furniture for markets in the developed world.

Let’s not (at least for the moment) get in to land poisoned by wastes from industry – or may this is the time to ask what Alutrint intends doing with the wastes from their proposed aluminium smelter? (If it is indeed only “proposed” and not inevitable since the Nation Energy Company (is it?) cleared hectares upon hectares of land for the project without so much as a “by your leave” to the EMA or an Environmental Impact Assessment.)

We hear Alcoa is promising to ship wastes from their proposed smelter to their US facility (or a facility in the US) that treats those wastes so that they are no longer a threat to the environment or create a mini-desert like the Red Mud Lake in Jamaica.

Since Alutrint looks more and more like a “done deal” I’d very much like to know what Alutrint will do with their hazardous wastes – wouldn’t you?

There are no deserts, mini-or otherwise, in Trinidad and Tobago — as yet... however, give it time — but not, I hope, in my time.

One of the few advantages of being a Senior Citizen is that I won’t be around to weep and say “I told you so!”

Those who seek to destroy this country are still hard at work. We know, or we should know by now, that setting bush fires which strip the hills, especially the Northern Range, of protective tree cover in the dry season leads to flooding as night follows day.

Perhaps part of the problem may be the average age of the population of Trinidad and Tobago. Most of us never saw the Southern slopes of the Northern Range covered with trees from Chaguaramas to Valencia as it was when I first came to live in Trinidad 41 years ago. At that time there were no floods of filthy muddy water rushing through houses, wrecking household appliances, furniture and bedding, and goods in stores in downtown Port-of-Spain.

In those days the rains soaked into the spongy soil below the sheltering trees and trickled down to underground aquifers to provide WASA with water in the dry season. That water may not have reached many a voter – but it was there for the taking, and wells and aquifers filled up from underground springs every wet season. Today floodwaters pour down roads through houses, stores and whatever stands in their way in their headlong rush to the Gulf of Paria. I watched, in sorrow, dry season after dry season as more and more bush went up in smoke. How many now remember the dry season of — I think it was 1985? — when smoke from bush fires burning all over Trinidad forced Piarco to shut down. If I’m not mistaken, it was in the ’85, or maybe ’86 wet season that Port-of-Spain began to experience serious flooding and insurance companies raised the costs of flood insurance . . .

Seeing the flames, smoke and the “morning after” evidence of bush fires in this short dry season and the march of developers up those same hillsides I rage at the senseless destruction of a once beautiful landscape. We may not make a desert of sand with bush fires and housing developments (planned or otherwise) but, again, given time, we’re well on the way to turning the tops, the summits of the Southern slopes of the Northern Range into a wilderness of rock, stone and shale, with but a thin covering of razor grass in the wet season.

Seeds drifting on the wind may put down a tentative root or two in the stony ground but even if one or two plants have found a patch of soil in which to flourish and begin the natural process of regeneration, come the next dry season and a boy (it’s almost never a girl) or malicious men with matches and those plants are reduced to ash, along with the razor grass that makes such a satisfactory blaze when set alight .. .

And not far behind them come shacks and /or exclusive gated communities. That is how to make a wilderness in TT.


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