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baby leatherback turtle
In Trinidad and Tobago, a range of local community groups used to find reliable government funding for their sea turtle protection efforts through the country’s Green Fund. The Green Fund itself is financed by a 0.03 percent tax on private business income in the country. Photo by Buiten-Beeld/Alamy Stock Photo

Trinidad and Tobago’s Sea Turtle Protectors Drop Off as Funding Withers

Beach communities in Trinidad and Tobago devote months of the year to protecting leatherback sea turtles. But with government money drying up, they’re not sure how much longer they can do it.

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by Jade Prévost-Manuel

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Crouching on Trinidad and Tobago’s Las Cuevas beach, Arlene Williams slips a hand into a hole in the sand, her arm disappearing up to the elbow. Pulling it back, she reveals a delicate creature—a baby leatherback sea turtle. Williams lifts the turtle out and sets it on the cool night sand, then reaches in for another. One by one, she liberates five turtle hatchlings—weak but alive—from their nest. Then she lifts out six hatchling corpses.

Trapped at the very bottom of their nest under coarse compacted sand, the five surviving baby turtles, Williams says, would have suffocated and died without human intervention—like their less-fortunate siblings. “If I’m not here to do it, no one will,” she says.

Williams has been patrolling Las Cuevas for over 10 years, saving the baby turtles she can and otherwise collecting data to estimate the nesting leatherback population and track the turtles’ movements. It’s a humble effort. More accurately, it’s a severely diminished one. Until several years ago, Williams—the president of the Las Cuevas Eco Friendly Association—had a whole team.

Between 2013 and 2016, the association, with more than a dozen members, was paid up to US $145 a night during Trinidad’s leatherback nesting season to patrol the beach. The money came from the Turtle Village Trust (TVT), an umbrella organization overseeing community-led sea turtle conservation and ecotourism efforts in Trinidad and Tobago. But the association hasn’t seen any of that money in years. Now, only Williams and her husband show up at the beach. The association’s other members can’t afford to spend their nights watching over turtles for free.

Trinidad and Tobago is home to the largest leatherback sea turtle breeding population in the Caribbean. The country’s nesting sites play a vital role in sustaining the world’s leatherback population. Having people on the beach deters poachers after leatherback meat and eggs. So after years of getting government money to protect the turtles, Williams and members of other community groups that manage these sites want to know why they are now expected to do that work for free.

“Yes, we love the turtles,” says Williams. “But how can the government ask people to volunteer? People have families to see about,” she says, adding: “This was a good job for most of us.”

Before 2006, the only turtle conservation groups in Trinidad and Tobago that received government funding were those managing the beaches with the highest leatherback populations in the country: Grande Riviere, Fishing Pond, and Matura. That money came from the Trinidad and Tobago Forestry Division. But when TVT was founded in 2006, the organization made funding available for managing Trinidad’s less studied beaches, including Las Cuevas.

Turtle Village Trust got a big portion of its money, in turn, from Trinidad’s federally funded Green Fund. Initiated in 2000, the Green Fund is the primary way the Trinidad and Tobago government funds local environmental projects and conservation efforts. But for nearly four years, TVT has found itself cut off from the Green Fund, says Allan Bachan, TVT’s executive director. That’s even though the Green Fund has nearly $1.5-billion in its coffers.

The problem, according to Kevin Muhammad, a conservationist based in Grande Riviere, is that the Green Fund itself is understaffed and mismanaged. He says the pandemic made the situation worse—the Green Fund built up a backlog of applications that has yet to be cleared. But even before the emergence of COVID-19, local news outlets were reporting that only eight of the fund’s 24 staff positions were filled. All this has made it difficult for TVT to get money to pay community groups.

Bachan says the wait is hurting turtles and community groups. In 2018, he says, TVT applied to the Green Fund for money to study the effects of climate change on leatherback nesting sites. Five years later, the project is still in the decision queue.

“Given the fact that you have billions and billions of [Trinidad and Tobago] dollars in green funding in the fund itself, why is it not going out?” he says. “What is guiding the ceiling of how much goes out every year?”

When reached for comment, Petal Howell, program coordinator for Trinidad and Tobago’s Green Fund, confirmed by email that turtle protection falls within the fund’s scope. She says turtle protection programs have been funded in the past and that “eligible organizations have the opportunity to apply for funding to continue their work relating to turtle conservation on a project basis, any time they wish to do so.”

Yet without money flowing in from the Green Fund, TVT’s Trinidad and Tobago–wide turtle protection efforts are relying on grant money and sponsorships from the oil and gas industry. There’s a lot less to go around, and protection efforts have withered. Today, only the teams watching the country’s three most populous nesting sites—the ones funded by the forestry division—still get government money.

Las Cuevas is not one of them.

To make up the shortfall and help finance her efforts, Williams runs turtle watching tours for tourists. Yet the money that Williams and her husband get from tours, she says, goes to maintaining the scientific equipment they use to collect data on Trinidad and Tobago’s leatherback turtle population—data they pass to TVT and on to the government.

To keep things running, Williams says she has had to ask friends to donate batteries to power the GPS unit for mapping turtle nest locations, the scanners for identifying returning turtles, and the headlamps she and her husband wear to work at night. She estimates that throughout the six-month turtle nesting season she spends about $22 a night—a sizable amount in a country which in 2009 had an average annual household income of $16,000. Williams puts the tips she gets from tourists toward the cost of a babysitter for her son and the gas she burns each night to drive to the beach.

This year, the Trinidad and Tobago government recognized Williams’s efforts by making her and some 400 other people honorary game wardens. Williams says the title gives her the power to arrest people for tampering with wildlife—dangerous work given that drugs have long moved from South America into Trinidad by way of Las Cuevas.

“We have to volunteer risking our lives then, just to make sure [people] aren’t harming the turtles,” she says of her newly anointed powers.

Globally, leatherbacks are in decline. The old stipend communities got from the Green Fund might not have been a fortune, but it was enough to benefit both the communities and turtles that call these beaches home. Instead, Williams now says she’s considering packing it in.

“We may go one more year, we may not,” Williams says as she watches one of her rescued hatchlings crawl toward a breaking wave. “But if we weren’t here protecting these turtles, I don’t think we would get any laying on this beach.”

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Cite this Article:

Cite this Article: Jade Prévost-Manuel “Trinidad and Tobago’s Sea Turtle Protectors Drop Off as Funding Withers,” Hakai Magazine, Oct 13, 2023, accessed June 15th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/news/trinidad-and-tobagos-sea-turtle-protectors-drop-off-as-funding-withers/.


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