Thursday, January 26, 2017

It Takes a Village...

Do we wish to secure sustainability in tourism? Sustainability ought to come from the practice that allows operators and employees to enjoy fair and equitable living standards; in so doing attract an appropriate market for the sector; and develop the capacity for growth in the exchange; with no negative impact on the natural environment. Wild Tobago looks at one example of sustainability in the industry in Tobago. What are the lessons to be learned from the Kariwak Village?
(This was first published in Tobago Newsday on Thursday 26th January 2017)

The iconic ajoupa surrounded by gardens, constantly cared for over 30 years.

In 1981, an advertising agency was given an interesting challenge. Design a logo for a new hotel in Tobago, that would not be called a hotel. Its name would be a tribute to indigenous peoples of these islands, people who were driven off centuries before, by those who came in fabled caravels. The indigenous people – so we had been told – were either Caribs or Arawaks, the former fierce and warring, the latter meek and peaceful. To settle the debate – were Tobago’s indigenes fierce or peaceful? – without long discourse or evidence that would prove our accepted history of the original inhabitants a complete fiction, developer Allan Clovis had settled on the name Kariwak, and his hotel would be a village.

Allan and his wife Cynthia had been teachers in indigenous schools in the Canadian arctic; and in 1976 in the biting Canadian cold, the idea of a hospitality business in tropical Tobago was their dream coming true. And so the vision for Kariwak Village as a place on a green island offering simple accommodation for restful comfort and energizing food was born.  The quest for natural materials in construction – native woods, raw logs, thatch – and organic rooms grew to an oasis for hearty nourishing meals from fresh produce. Today, 35 years since the opening in 1982, Kariwak is a centre for relaxation and comfort, in walking distance from the Crown Point airport.

The Kariwak signature cottage

In the beginning, everything was a work in progress. The nine cabanas – each with two rooms – encircling the pool were bare of vegetation. Aircraft thundered on the airport runway some hundred yards beyond the fence. In time, and with care, trees, shrubs, fruiting and flowering plants buffered the perimeter and cocooned the cabins. When six rooms were added, so were more trees and the village green which features a long house with hammocks and the waterfall spa. With the trees came the birds; hummingbirds buzz around the feeders; big-eyed thrushes nest in the soursop. You can request a catalogue of the botanical garden that the village has nurtured; and be amazed by the variety and abundance on one five acre plot on a well-developed section of the island.

As it must have been in indigenous communities in these tropical islands, food is centre and focus of this village. From that first weekend in April 1982, Cynthia knew that the success of their hospitality on this slight undistinguished strip of land next to the airport would be in their meals, and she took charge of this important factor. From a concentration on fresh and nourishing meals, she has built and expanded an oeuvre worthy of any chef in any fine restaurant anywhere in the world. The proof of this is in her cookbook, Cooking Kariwak Style. These are the recipes and meals that she perfected in the Kariwak Village kitchen over 30 years; here distilled for home use by visitors who come from every part of the world. The Kariwak bakes its own bread, makes its own yogurt, its own spice tea; blends its own rum punch, its own ice creams. The flavours of meals at Kariwak are distinctive and memorable, with signature sauces from herbs in its own garden.

Kariwak lunches: once voted "best value for money" in all of Tobago

When the Dalai Lama visited Trinidad and Tobago in the 1990s, Kariwak Village welcomed him to bless the Ajoupa, the high-ceilinged thatched round house in the garden used for yoga, tai chi and meditation practice; for story telling and community gatherings. The unconventional non-hotel took the opportunity to expand its name: Kariwak Village holistic centre. With perseverance and tenacity to the vision of a place of health and wellbeing, Kariwak Village is now linked with practices that include meditation and massage, helping to grow these service industries in Tobago.

Cool, polished floor for meditation, yoga, relaxation
 Kariwak Village supports a core staff of about 30 persons. Skills and professionalism were hard-won, patiently cultivated by Cynthia and Allan, and in time the handful of persons who have been with them since the beginning. Kariwak has changed organically over the years, updated the look of the rooms, the uniforms, the shape of the garden, the offerings. They invested in the ozone treatment plant so that all water in its taps is pure and potable; and soaking in the Kariwak pool is as refreshing as a dip in the ocean.

It supports returning visitors from every part of the world; as well as a large and appreciative sector of the national population. You are likely to see Tobagonians assembling for breakfast or lunch meetings; celebrating special occasions at dinner; and Trinidadians escaping Carnival; as you are to meet families from any other continent.

In 1981, a logo was created, a simple mark to denote the identity of a Tobago hotel that would be more than a hotel.  The ensuing 30 years for Allan Clovis and Cynthia were not always easy. They raised two daughters here. They defended Tobago at the airport when the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament was invaded in the 1990 coup. They have stood through changes in fortune, personal and national. But through it all, they raised the Kariwak Village; imbuing that identity with meaning, creating a brand that is synonymous with the best of Tobago, a comfortable and comforting place from which the island may easily be explored.
     (All photos courtesy Ranji Ganase.)

Entrance to an oasis of calm and comfort in Tobago

Friday, January 20, 2017

When big fish "pee"...

Jahson Alemu, Marine Biologist, talks about coral reef health, and the important balance that some species contribute in unimagined ways. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday, 19th January 2017.

It’s relatively common knowledge that beautiful white sand beaches and reefs of tropical areas around the world exist largely thanks to parrotfish droppings. But fish urine is also important for maintaining a healthy reef.

Corals thrive in low nutrient environments and the conservation of these globally imperilled ecosystems is largely dependent on mitigating the effects of anthropogenic nutrient enrichment. A recent study published in Nature Communications provides a novel perspective on the connectivity between corals and reef fish, where reef fish act as suppliers of key nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) to corals. When fish urinate, they release phosphorus and nitrogen into the water (both of which are crucial to the survival and growth of coral reefs). Most of this is supplied by large, carnivorous fish such as groupers, snappers and barracudas. The authors argue that fish hold a large proportion, if not most, of the nutrients in a coral reef in their tissue, and they're also in charge of recycling them. If you take the big fish out, you're removing all of those nutrients from the ecosystem. The increasing scarcity of large, carnivorous fish on coral reefs today does not bode well for nutrient supply for our reefs. In fact large-bodied predatory fish have been estimated to account for less than 3% of total fish biomass in Tobago.

The removal of rare and endangered species of large fish like this Goliath grouper deprives our coral reefs of needed nutrients. This one was on sale at the Grange fish market, Tobago. Photo courtesy Jahson Alemu I

The study looked at links between fishing pressure and i) fish community structure; and ii) nutrient production over 143 species of fish at 110 sites across 43 Caribbean coral reefs ranging from no-fishing marine reserves to heavily fished reefs with few large predatory fish. While fishing did not have a significant effect on the number of species on the reefs, it did result in the significant reduction in the biomass of fish available on the reef, i.e. heavily fished sites supported very few large bodied predatory fish. Further, reefs with more large, predator fish had healthy levels of nutrients, while reefs depleted of large fish had nearly 50 percent fewer nutrients, including phosphorus and nitrogen, essential to coral survival. Simply put, the lead author of the paper states that “fish biomass in coral reefs is being reduced by fishing pressure. If biomass is shrinking, there are fewer fish to pee.”

Grouper and snapper are top predators that are important components of our reefs, our fisheries and part of our culinary heritage. Unfortunately, slow growth rates, late maturity, strong habitat dependence and susceptibility to coastal impacts make these fish particularly vulnerable to overfishing throughout the region. But restoring key fish populations (such as large bodied predators and parrotfish) and improving protection from overfishing and pollution could help the reefs recover and make them more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Already one possible approach for achieving this balance, called ecosystem based fisheries management (EBFM) is being encouraged throughout the region. Compared to traditional fisheries management that has focused on maximizing fisheries yields (MSY), EBFM focuses on dialogue among stakeholders and maintaining a healthy ecosystem to ensure long term productivity of the fisheries which are themselves an integral part of the ecosystem.

Talk to any fisher these days and you’ll hear the cry that fishing has become harder, and the fish they are catching are smaller and fewer. Basically, there are fewer and smaller large fish available (both to us as consumers and to the coral reefs as a source of nutrients and ecosystem balance) and the potential yield is decreasing. Moving forward, only by understanding and managing the effects of fishing as well as other impacts on the ecosystem can managers ensure sustainable use of coral reef fisheries.
A High-hat fish is placed in a plastic bag for half an hour during fieldwork in The Bahamas. Scientists measured the nutrient content in the water before and after to determine the fish’s nutrient output. Photo courtesy Jacob Allgeier/University of Washington

Alemu, I., Jahson, B. (2014). Fish assemblages on fringing reefs in the southern Caribbean: biodiversity, biomass and feeding types. Revista de BiologĂ­a Tropical, 62, 418-431.
Allgeier, J. E., Valdivia, A., Cox, C., & Layman, C. A. (2016). Fishing down nutrients on coral reefs. Nature communications, 7. (
Mumby, P. J., Hastings, A., & Edwards, H. J. (2007). Thresholds and the resilience of Caribbean coral reefs. Nature, 450(7166), 98-101.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Underwater Treasure in Tobago

This week, Wild Tobago looks at the contemporary quest for ancient treasure in Rockley Bay, where 20 seventeenth century ships went to the bottom  in the 1677 battle between the French and Dutch. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday 12th January 2017    
Fort King George: a park built upon the remains of the British fort that overlooks Rockley Bay and the Scarborough Harbour, photo courtesy Pat Ganase

In the 300 years after Columbus came in 1498, Tobago changed hands over 30 times among European nations. These do not account for the skirmishes with Amerindian tribes that had fought over the beautiful isle for centuries before; or the rout of any remaining natives by the superior ships and weaponry of the Europeans. In 1814, the island was ceded to the British, and in 1889 made a ward of Trinidad. While these are the ties that bind, it is clear to many Tobagonians, Trinidadians and visitors from the world over, that the islands are different, with characteristics and challenges that may be complementary but distinct. Tobago 1677, the film, is the layered story – a contemporary quest about an ancient event -of one such encounter.

When Rick Haupt and Sylvia Krueger came to Tobago in 2004, at the invitation of Kevin Kenny, to look for shipwrecks, they were charmed by both islands: Trinidad with its intense rainforest environment and even more intense cultural commingling; but it was Tobago with its relaxed lifestyle whose oceanic wonders fascinated them. The principals and crew of Oceans Discovery have been exploring underwater environments since the 1990s, recording their discoveries for education, conservation and entertainment. (See the website

During six years in Trinidad and Tobago, they brought together a team of historians and archaeologists with agencies such as the Ministry of National Security, the Tobago House of Assembly, the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, oil and gas exploration companies, to the singular vision of exposing a small era of history from the seventeenth century. Specifically, they focused on the battle which sent 20 ships to the bottom in Scarborough Harbour; and which they speculate are still there today. Tobago 1677 was completed with investments from international companies. It is hoped that it may provide impetus and inspiration for others to explore Tobago, its marine environment, its unique place in Caribbean history, and also its potential as a location in the film industry. 

The story is told principally by an officer in the Dutch army and one of the few survivors of the 1677 Ash Wednesday encounter, Captain van Donegan.

Up to that time, there had been various attempts by Spaniards, Courlanders, French, British and Dutch to settle the island. The rise and fall of nations in Europe, across the Atlantic, would determine the fate of this island in the south Caribbean. In 1674, the island was given back to the Dutch by the peace accord of Westminster. In February 1677, the Dutch were rebuilding the fort overlooking Rudklyp baai (now Rockley bay location of the Scarborough harbor) under the command of Vice Admiral Binckes. But the French were hot on their heels in the on-going war between France (under Louis XIV) and Holland (under William of Orange).

In the previous 15 years, in the reign of Louis XIV, the French fleet had been entirely renewed. Fifteen ships under Count d’Estrees, Marshal of France, had set out across the Atlantic in 1673. On February 21, 1677, the fleet comprising 14 vessels and a force of 4000 men sailed into a bay (likely Hillsborough) some four or five kilometres east of Rudklyp. It would be too risky to sail into Rudklyp where the Dutch fleet was anchored, and under the surveillance of the star-shaped Dutch fort.

The French commander of the land forces planned to take an army overland to the fort. Preparing for a battle on land, the Dutch sent their women, children, elderly and infirm to a boat in the bay for safety. The Sphera Mundi offered safety in cramped quarters away from where the battle was expected.

As the Dutch prepared to engage the French on land, the French sailed into the bay, engaging the Dutch fleet at close quarters. The sea battle was fierce and fatal. Ships were engulfed in fire: the Sphera Mundi in flames, women and children falling into the water their hair and clothing alight, screaming. By the end of the battle, both sides had suffered terrible losses. Captain van Donegan was taken prisoner by the French. The Dutch fleet was reduced to three ships. The French sailed to Grenada. Some 20 vessels had been sunk to the bottom of Rudklyp baai. Here they remain, covered by the silt and sands turned over daily by the ferries between Trinidad and Tobago.

This ended the Dutch attempts to take Tobago. It was the first time the French were successful in the Caribbean. In August 1678, Tobago was ceded to the French by the first of the Treaties of Nijmegen (immortalized in the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the Place des Victoires in Paris).

Tobago 1677 is a docudrama that has been made available on-line, and may be accessed by anyone interested in a small piece of history – in the war of European nations, and contemporary efforts to discover artifacts from that era – of Tobago. It also provided impetus for proposals by Oceans Discovery to benefit the people of Tobago.

If you go to the website,, you can read their proposal for a museum of the ocean uniquely suited to Tobago. Such a state-of-the-art educational and entertainment facility, designed by international architects and engineers, would revolutionise the tourism industry, making exploration, conservation and education about Tobago’s marine environment the source of a new economy. Is it not time to reach for a new vision of Tobago, to be the most beautiful that she can be, not just to all who love her, but all who live here.


Watch the film  Tobago 1677 here:

Saturday, January 7, 2017

One Reef at a Time, in Charlotteville

There’s hope for coral reefs when people are enlightened and educated. Jahson Alemu, marine biologist, has reason to believe that Charlotteville Tobago is a community taking charge of its offshore environment, and can show the way. 
Underwater flowers born out of rock and sand, rebirthing themselves a million times over, coral reefs have evolved into some of the most resilient and productive ecosystems on earth. Covering just a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of the earth's surface and less than two percent of the ocean bottom, they are important sources of food security, storm protection, livelihoods and medicine to a conservative estimate of 500 million people on earth. But, I’d be lying to you if I told you that coral reefs have it easy. 
Ever expanding demands for these resources coupled with warming oceans over the last century have resulted in unprecedented levels of coral reef losses, well beyond their ability to recover. The situation is very dire. And even in Tobago, many of our reefs are having difficulty recovering from past and current stressful events. Ultimately, an improvement in water quality (reducing nutrients, sediment and pollution entering the ocean) and reducing greenhouse emissions are necessary to safeguard the future of coral reefs. But, instead of nursing feelings of despair, and giving up…
I am optimistic
The reef system in and around Charlotteville (Speyside too but we’ll save that for another article) is one of the bright spots of reef resilience for Tobago. Imagine, expansive reef flats and slopes, overhangs and walls, canyons and tunnels, covered in massive brain corals and peppered with colourful sponges, sea rods, sea fans and sea plumes. Hovering over the reefs, interspaced between corals and within every crack and crevice are a kaleidoscope of fish and invertebrates, charismatic species such as turtles, rays, eels and sharks that provide good marketing opportunities for eco-tourism. Also taking advantage of this rich environment is the lionfish, an alien invasive species and the newest threat to Caribbean coral reefs, which has taken a stronghold in Charlotteville. But don’t worry, local divers and fishers are on the hunt for lionfish as part of efforts to protect the reef. If you’re lucky you might even get lionfish on the menu at some restaurants.
Charlotteville the fishing village, photo courtesy Ron Tiah
Charlotteville is a small fishing village on the north-east of Tobago, with a rich cultural heritage and unique identity that I hope continues with future generations. Much of the reef resilience observed here is as a result of the attitudes of its people. A long history of local engagement in resource management, sparse urban development, relatively sustainable fishing, limited coastal pollution and remote access all contribute to better quality marine resources. On the downside, a burgeoning yacht tourism industry in this calm and sheltered bay has resulted in increased incidence of anchor damage on reefs (another threat to coral reefs). Can this type of community-based self-regulating model be applied or adapted elsewhere in Tobago? I think so and attempts have been made in the past. It can work. Will it be easy? Likely not. 
Looking across Man-o-War Bay, Charlotteville, photo courtesy Pat Ganase
Such a process requires continuous dialogue among many different stakeholders until common ground can be agreed upon, before change can be effected. Fortunately, community based groups such as Environmental Research Institute of Charlotteville (ERIC), the North East Sea Turtles (NEST), Environment Tobago (ET) and the Buccoo Reef Trust (BRT) have been working with and as part of the community to build local capacity for marine resource management and adaptation to climate change impacts. 
The results of these efforts has been the identification of hotspots of biodiversity for priority conservation, the temporary installation of mooring buoy system, coral reef monitoring programmes, coral nursery start-ups, turtle tagging and monitoring programmes, lionfish culling and first aid training, but most importantly an engaged community. The process has been slow, and agents of change within the community have been few. And if my doctoral research is any indication of the group mind, it’s not that people don’t care about the environment, or aren’t knowledgeable about its importance or their role in conserving it, but more pressing social needs (being employed, providing food to families, poverty alleviation) take priority over environmental concerns. Perhaps, in Charlotteville the blueprint for change has been found.

I am optimistic. 
Charlotteville is also learning the value of conserving its coral reefs, photo courtesy Ron Tiah