Prior to the 1990s, a formal structure to facilitate visitor viewing of nesting leatherback turtles on our beaches was non-existent. Back then, the annual turtle nesting population in north-east Trinidad averaged 100; the Wildlife Division yet had an uphill challenge of regular beach patrols to dissuade poachers who preyed on female turtles to extract their flippers and who harvested eggs from nests.
After some beaches gained protection, the Wildlife Division initiated an experiment with villagers from the Matura community, to engage them in turtle conservation efforts. Initially a voluntary service, the later introduction of mandatory guides during the nesting season meant that locals were able to earn a stipend for their conservation work, while sharing and building their own local knowledge.
The activity gave rise to the now well-known Nature Seekers group, a vibrant, community-based organisation which has since expanded its activities to nature tours and ecotourism projects that earn a livelihood for some community members. A key result of the initiative—here and replicated at other nesting beaches in Trinidad and Tobago —is that the annual turtle nesting population now averages about 6000, the largest in the Caribbean region.
To encourage support for the management of protected areas, an exploration of potential livelihood opportunities that link to management needs is a worthwhile activity. In 2017, under the current “Improving Forest and Protected Area Management in Trinidad and Tobago” project, a Livelihood Assessment Study was undertaken in communities surrounding the Matura National Park Environmentally Sensitive Area and seasonally protected beaches of Rincon, Matura and Fishing Pond.
People’s engagement with a protected area
The research, commissioned in response to requests of community groups in the area, investigated how community people are engaging with the forest and coastal zone; how many are earning livelihoods from the area’s natural assets; and lastly, what livelihoods are feasible and can be promoted within the local population, in support of sustainable management of this protected area.
The study yielded some important findings. Natural resources play an important part in livelihoods of people in these communities, where only 51 per cent of adults have permanent employment. Some interactions with the area’s natural assets are for cultural and recreational purposes and traditional practices. Communities are also concerned about resource overexploitation and the incidence of wildlife poaching.
Interestingly, the communities with active environmental NGOs tended to have livelihoods connected with ecotourism and natural resource management, whereas communities with no such group were dependent on extractive uses of the forest. The study noted that protected area employment reduced extractive resource use dependency; however, conservation employment was often project-based and visitor dependent, requiring additional support for long-term sustainability.
Exploring livelihood and management opportunities
Some 25,000-plus persons visit the area during the annual turtle nesting season and locals are interested in developing or diversifying livelihoods, to improve their living status. There is potential for enhancement of existing ecotourism opportunities, development of forest trails and nature tours to explore the natural biodiversity of the Matura National Park. Income earning can expand through provision of support services such as bed and breakfast facilities, sale of handicraft, local produce and cuisine, enhancement of heritage museums, visitor centres and ecological research assistant opportunities.
The direction for community economic development is better guided by this type of research, which explores the natural asset base, developmental needs and management priorities to harmonise socio-economic expansion with natural resource conservation. The up-to-date and relevant research data can guide investment for development of local, sustainable livelihoods. This study will be replicated in five other protected areas in 2018, to improve the way our forest and protected areas are valued and managed.
• Improving Forest and Protected Area Management in Trinidad and Tobago is a four-year project being implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for the TT Government.
Funding was provided by the government, FAO/UN, the EU and the GEF. For more information, visit http://eppd-tt.blogspot.com/p/gef-improving-forest-and-protected-areas.html. To learn more about our local forest and protected areas, visit: https://protectedareastt.org.tt/