Environmental Education & the Forestry Division – The early days…

A reflection by Paul Butler.  Paul was Conservation Advisor to the then Forestry Division in Saint Lucia between 1978 to 1988 who initially came to Saint Lucia to work on conservation of the endangered St. Lucia Amazon, known locally as ‘Jacquot’.  Supported by the staff of the Forestry Division under the leadership of Gabriel ‘Coco’ Charles, Paul managed to drive home the urgent need to save ‘Jacqout’ through powerful messaging that became deeply engrained in the psyche of the island population for decades to come.

In the late 1970’s the Saint Lucia Forestry Division was housed in a tiny office downstairs in the Ministry of Agriculture building in Castries. Its Forestry Supervisor, Gabriel Charles, had an even smaller back office. Upstairs was the Fisheries Division and next door was Consumer Price Control (a department of the Ministry of Trade).  Forestry Staff were considered by much of the public to be simply Policemen of the Forest.  Legislation was outdated, (The Wild Bird Protection Ordinance dated back to 1885); public knowledge and concern about the environment was virtually non-existent and island endemics like the Saint Lucia Parrot were in perilous decline. Environmentalists could be counted on one hand with people like Gabriel Charles, Robert Devaux, Gregor Williams, Jo Rickards, Maria Grech, and Jim Sparks being at the forefront. At the time the Forestry Division’s principal mandate was to manage the island’s Central Forest Reserve, to harvest timber and reforest with non-native species like Blue Mahoe, Caribbean Pine and Honduras Mahogany.

By the late 1970’s Gabriel Charles was determined to expand the Division’s mandate and to launch an environmental education campaign. This he did with his staff including Michael Bobb, Michael ‘Jahba’ Andrew, Alexander Forde, Winston Desir, Adams Toussaint, Peter Vidal, Sonny Felix, Felix James, Lawrence Antoine, Noel Theodore, Robert Gregg, Vincent ‘Style’ Ernest, Gloria Motley, Patrick ‘Ima’ Charles and many others. I had the privilege of joining the division in 1978 as its Conservation Advisor, after having spent six weeks on the island back in 1977 as part of a North East London Polytechnic research expedition studying the Saint Lucia Parrot (Jacquot) and making recommendations for its conservation. The World Wildlife Fund also joined forces to assist with conservation of the parrot in those days.

The objective of the outreach campaign was to build an island wide awareness of the forest and its importance not just for timber but also as a habitat for wildlife and a source of water. Water that was critical not only for domestic use but for agriculture too — including for the banana industry which was then in its heyday. Indeed, it was the banana industry that was partially responsible for the rampant deforestation that was occurring at the time as small-scale farmers cleared the steep slopes of the interior to plant “green gold”. Forest clearing resulted in rivers drying during the dry season and floods in the wet. Siltation carried valuable topsoil away and exacerbated the reduced water flow. There was no major water storage reservoir to meet the island’s needs, so the forest’s role in water regulation was critical.

Jacquot would become the voice of the outreach program which resulted in a new-found pride in the environment and the declaration of the parrot as Saint Lucia’s National Bird. Subsequently a public vote was held to select the National Tree (Calabash) and Flower (Rose and Marguerite). The education campaign was multi-faceted and targeted kids, the wider public and decision makers. It included posters, billboards, bumper stickers and radio programs; as well as school visits complete with costumes and puppets. Religious leaders and musicians were brought in to assist – Frank Norville, a famous national folk singer wrote a catchy song (Amazona versicolor, de National Bird of Saint Lucia) that was taught to children across the island. US Peace Corps volunteers like David Whitman and other overseas volunteers like Charlene Easton provided support. The latter helping with a comic known as “Jacquot”.

Watch Frank Norville sing the ‘Amazona versicolor‘ song, in an excerpt from the film Caribbean Cool Part1 Part 2 with Lou Gossett Jr., (1991) produced by the National Audubon Society

One of the main outreach tools utilized was a monthly publication called Bush Talk. This covered a different topic every month, from forests to wildlife, folklore to food, the island’s towns and cities to its rivers and climate. It ran for at least three years. Written by Maria Grech and illustrated by Alwyn St. Omer, Christopher Cox and others, it was sponsored by Ferrel ‘Bam’ Charles and Cornell “Baby” Charles of J.Q. Charles Ltd, a prominent local retail company. The four-page newssheet would appear monthly in the Voice Newspaper courtesy of Guy Meyers (now Saint Lucia’s Ambassador to the UK). Copies were also mailed out to schools around the island. If I recall, Angel & Gloria Motley, Diane Spencer and others helped to roll up and mail packages of Bush Talk.

The Jacquot Says… billboard that stood outside the Government Buildings was also a popular outreach tool. Depicting a “talking” parrot it dispensed monthly pronouncements to draw attention to the environment: “Help preserve a beautiful scene, Keep Saint Lucia nice and clean” and, “Water: For a clean and regular supply, On the Forest we must rely.” During one particularly volatile election when political slogans were dubbed everywhere, the Jacquot Says billboard remained unscathed until the very last minute.  Then, on the eve of the election someone added a minor amendment to the board’s message – for under the words “Jacquot Says…” they had very carefully pasted a piece of paper that read: “Vote UWP.”

As the 1980’s progressed new faces joined the Forestry Division and rallied to the conservation cause. Christopher Cox joined straight from school and his artistic talents were quickly brought to bear. He painted posters and his artwork adorned T-shirts that were sold to locals and tourists alike to raise money for our cause. Others like Christina Plante, Margaret Ishmael, Cassian Henry and Lyndon John guided tours through the forest bringing people and nature together for their mutual benefit, as well as also raising much needed funds; while Alleyne Regis and Anita James renewed the school’s program. Others like Donald Anthony, Monica Bodley, George Antoine and Mary Justin were focused in the north of the island where the construction of a mini zoo at Union (that housed several parrots – including two returned to the island from the Jersey Zoo in the UK) enabled local people to see and appreciate the beauty of their National Bird.

The outreach program was a success. The parrot became the National Bird, the Wild Bird Protection Ordinance was repealed and replaced with the Wildlife Protection Act. The Forest, Soil and Water Conservation Ordinance was overhauled increasing penalties and giving Forestry staff greater powers. The Forestry Division moved into new offices at Union and became a department, interest in working with it increased and it attracted new talent. Its staff were trained, and it became the recipient of major funding from the Canadian Government. After Gabriel’s retirement, leadership of the Department fell first to Brian James, then Michael Andrew, Michael Bobb, Adams Toussaint and now Alfred Prospere.

The methodology used in Saint Lucia to build pride in a nation’s natural patrimony has since been replicated in over 400 sites in more than 50 countries to much acclaim. Its origins were in the Caribbean in general and Saint Lucia in particular.

Gabriel and the staff of the Forestry Department are my personal heroes. They have left a legacy they can be proud of and one which today’s Forestry staff continue to build on. I remember the late 1970’s and early 1980’s (Note: I left Forestry in 1988 and the island in 2001) with an affection that will remain with me until I die.

Paul Butler, April 2020

Author’s note:  Forgive me if I may have omitted or forgotten someone, at my age that happens far too often. Please feel free to edit and amend this piece. It would be appreciated.

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