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From turtles to Timbuktu

Sunday, July 15, 2012
An excavator at a standstill at the Grande Riviere site where turtle eggs were destroyed. Inset: Leatherback hatchlings. Photos: Marcus Gonzales

Arthur Snell
British High Commissioner


The desecration of historic shrines in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu in Mali has caused outrage across the world, sparking memories of the Taliban’s vandalistic destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001. In both cases, the destruction of precious cultural heritage has caused the world to sit up and take action. But should we care more about cultural heritage than human suffering?


Mali, like Afghanistan, is one of the world’s poorest countries. There have been allegations of war crimes and mistreatment of the population of Timbuktu. The current instability in the region around Timbuktu risks causing famine that could threaten the lives of 15 million across the Sahel, according to some estimates. Which might be more important than the fate of the historic shrines—a point I make cautiously having had the great privilege to visit some of the historic desert cities of the Sahara.


And this makes me think of turtles in Trinidad. Why? Because a recent river diversion operation in the village of Grande Riviere resulting in probably hundreds, maybe thousands of rare leatherback turtle hatchlings being crushed by a bulldozer, has given this country a rare moment of international coverage—of the sort it could probably do without.


The leatherback turtle is an example of the cruelty of nature: some estimate that one in a thousand hatchlings survive to adulthood. So perhaps we should be more concerned about the residents of Grande Riviere rather than these poor turtles. Grande Riviere is one of very few places in Trinidad that has a genuine eco-tourism industry that employs locals.



As Piero Guerrini, manager of a hotel that brings visitors and their money to this remote area has pointed out, the work to divert the river was “done too late and it was done in the wrong way,” after months of him and others trying to get action. With delicious understatement, the CEO of the Environmental Management Authority commented, “instructions to the excavator operators were not closely followed.” Given the value to this country, in tourism terms, of the nesting ground, it is hard to understand why.


However, is this the most important thing happening right now in Trinidad and Tobago? And is the fate of the turtles the most important issue? Possibly not. Trinbagonians care most about crime, in particular the murder rate which appears to be on the rise after three years of decline. With that issue comes a heated public debate on law enforcement.


Ordinary Trinbagonians that I talk to worry about the quality of public services: for example, even though the GDP per capita ranks this country similar to Portugal and Poland, infant mortality here is similar to that of North Korea and Zimbabwe.
International attention, even of the negative sort, can be good for any country to help it focus its efforts.



The pressure of hosting the Olympics has forced my country to improve its public transport. I’m sure that next time excavators tackle Grande Riviere more care will be taken. But it would also be good if the world’s media paid attention to some of the bigger issues facing this country and its people.


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