An Alluring Course for Trinidad's Wetlands

By Sletto, Bjorn | Americas (English Edition), October 1998 | Go to article overview

An Alluring Course for Trinidad's Wetlands


Sletto, Bjorn, Americas (English Edition)


A national park in the Nariva Swamp could stimulate ecotourism and improve life for villagers in Kernahan

The storm struck as I was walking home to Kernahan, late one evening last fall. A grey and dirty apron of water hung beneath billowing folds of dark blue clouds, far off in the Atlantic Ocean east of Trinidad. Then the coconut trees along the shore grew dim and hazy like photographs smudged by sticky fingerprints. A gust of strangely cool air struck my face. I could hear the roar of water striking the ocean, then the swishing of rain in the tall marsh grass, and finally the first, loud patters on the road and on my backpack.

Seconds later, I was in a world of water and wind and mud. The rainstorm was unlike anything I'd ever experienced, a simple force of nature far beyond the reach of rainjackets or umbrellas. Luckily, I had followed the advice of my Trinidadian friends and wrapped a large plastic sheet tight around my shoulders, hoping to protect my backpack bulging with the electronic equipment I used for my mapping project. There was no shelter around so I slogged on as the water coursed down the road in the growing darkness, my back hunched beneath the sheer weight of the rain.

Then, something made me look up. Just a few feet ahead on the road, a fifteen-foot mapipire, one of the largest and deadliest pit vipers in Trinidad, was slithering away from me. I stopped dead in my tracks. The snake raised its head, turned, and looked at me. A chill went down my spine. I stood transfixed in the pouring rain, returning the stare of the giant snake. Then the mapipire finally slid, foot by agonizing foot, into the tall grasses by the side of the road.

My walk in the driving rain that evening made me realize just how uncertain and difficult life could be, here on the swampy east coast of Trinidad. I had lived in the area a few weeks by then, researching the freshwater fishing and rice farming in Kernahan, a village of only about 270 people and a few dozen, unpainted stilt houses. But I had not appreciated the power, the almost supernatural presence, of the rain. For more than anything else, rain defines life in Kernahan during the wet season. Rainstorms shut down roads, drown farm fields, destroy papers and clothing, peel off roofs and lean-tos, give people flus and fungus. And as the swamp water deepens with each day of pouring rain, caimans, anacondas, and mapipires move closer to high ground, and to people's homes.

But life in Kernahan might soon become a little easier, or at least a little more secure. A conservation and ecotourism project, still in the early planning stages, is now promising to bring the services and conveniences long enjoyed by the rest of Trinidad. The key to this project is Kernahan's location. The village is situated on the outskirts of the Nariva Swamp, just a short walk from the Bush Bush Wildlife Sanctuary--potentially two of Trinidad's greatest tourist attractions.

During the past couple of years, the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Agriculture has been developing a new wetlands management policy to protect the fragile environment of the Nariva Swamp. Also in the planning stages is a national park that will encompass Bush Bush, the Nariva Swamp, and most of Kernahan's hunting and fishing grounds. When this park is instituted, a few years from now, the villagers might lose some of their fishing and hunting rights. But in return, Kernahan might also be transformed from a forgotten, obscure village into a haven for nature lovers from all countries.

"We are currently developing Trinidad and Tobago as an ecotourist destination," says Cliff Hamilton, tourism director at Trinidad and Tobago Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO). "This has made the Nariva Swamp very important for the country. We want to encourage people to experience this unique wetland."

The Nariva Swamp is, indeed, a special place, particularly in the West Indies. …

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