A Measure of Trust

ntlthseBy Kathy Borsuk
Photos Courtesy The National Trust

Executive Director Ethlyn Gibbs-Williams laughs when she recalls that in the early days, one of the misconceptions people had about the National Trust was that it was a place to borrow money. Yet while not technically a bank, the Turks & Caicos National Trust does perform similar functions . . . its currency being the country’s natural heritage, history and culture, and its benefactors being both present and future generations. As development makes a “run on the bank,” it becomes ever more important that the very elements that shape and define the essence of “Turks & Caicos” not be “spent” in the process, leaving a country bankrupt of its very soul.

From its far-sighted formation a decade ago through years of growing pains, the National Trust has come a long way, blossoming into a protective and effective organization with a number of major projects to its credit and many more new and ongoing every year. This new column, “A Measure of Trust,” will highlight in each issue a specific National Trust accomplishment, with this first feature providing background and overview.

How Did the National Trust Get Started?

The Turks & Caicos National Trust was launched in January, 1993 after passage of the National Trust Ordinance 1992 by the TCI Government. A prime mover behind its formation was Patricia Bradley, wife of former TCI Governor Michael Bradley. As an ornithologist, Ms. Bradley recognized that “The Turks & Caicos environment is unique and one of the least altered natural environments in the Caribbean. You have to get in first and protect the valuable resources in order to have control over development.” Oswald Williams, the first chairman, believed that “Preservation plans had to be set in place before the growth of tourism and the increase in development impacted any further on the physical and cultural environment.” How wise they were!

Who is in Charge?

The National Trust was established as a membership-based, non-governmental organization. It is governed by an elected Council which includes representatives from all of TCI’s inhabited islands and three government-appointed members. The current chairman is Michael Taylor.

The National Trust was originally led by a director recruited from abroad with a strong background in environmental non-profit organizations. However, there was available on-island someone who had focused her career along a similar course and in 1996, Ethlyn Gibbs-Williams took over the leadership role. A native of Middle Caicos, Ethlyn had long been involved in the country’s environmental progress and, she says, “I love my country and I wanted to work where I could make a difference.”
She recalls that initially, it wasn’t an easy row to hoe. “I had to work hard to gain the respect of both the government and members of the community. They weren’t used to having a young woman in a management role who was offering suggestions that were’nt always what they wanted to hear.”

A fervent believer in the National Trust’s mission, Ethlyn persevered and slowly, over the years, things began to turn around. Ethlyn explains, “Now most people associate the Trust with protection of the environment and we have earned a great deal of recognition and respect that was not previously there. This is largely the result of our staff’s extensive involvement with the community to raise public awareness of the need to protect our rich natural and cultural assets.”

ntstfOver the last six years, the staff has grown from one to seven, and the offices have moved from tiny quarters to a larger space in Butterfield Square. Although it is obvious that Trust employees are a tightly knit group whose tasks often overlap, Executive Director Ethlyn Gibbs-Williams plans basic strategy and retains responsibility for representing the National Trust to the government’s Executive Council and other interested groups. Executive Officer Colette Robinson focuses on public relations, marketing and membership, while Public Information Officer Gigi Williams concentrates on environmental education by working closely with the schools, youth groups, hotels and tour and dive operators. Providing valuable support to all is Administrative Assistant Jovett Harvey. Allan-Ray Smith serves as Heritage Sites Supervisor, maintaining and monitoring the areas now managed by the Trust. He, in turn, supervises Little Water Cay Warden Bruce Garland and Conservation Officer Bryan Manco, who was originally involved in the Darwin Project.

What are the Trust’s Major Tasks?

The Trust’s primary task is to preserve areas of cultural, historic or natural significance, with the power to hold property in perpetuity for the people of the TCI. At the same time, it is expected to act as an advisory and support agency to government on conservation issues.
For each major project, steps were taken to identify, investigate, classify and protect the site, with interpretive trails, signs and literature produced as necessary. The Trust currently owns property in Providenciales and North Caicos and is actively working to acquire other sites of environmental and historic importance. It holds land leases on Bird Rock Point, Little Water Cay, Little Ambergris Cay and Fish Cay and is awaiting government approval of leases on Cheshire Hall and Wade’s Green.

Another top priority is making sure the public is educated about the importance of the Trust’s work, especially the nation’s young people. Programs included the development of “Our Land, Our Sea, Our People,” a complete curriculum for primary schools to teach about the natural environment. The Trust also produces a popular environmental magazine, Eco Echoes, with games, stories and articles geared to children aged 4 to 12. The current focus is on recruiting Junior Members via a presentation to school leaders and students.

An important role of the National Trust is to build and strengthen cooperative relationships between related organizations, both in the Islands and abroad, to ensure that efforts are complementary and not duplicated. While this has not always been easy, Cynthia Astwood, TCI Chief Secretary, stated in the Trust’s 2002 Annual Report, “I am heartened by the ever-growing collaborative efforts between the National Trust and the TCI Tourist Board, the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources, the Education Department, the Turks & Caicos National Museum, the government, individual and corporate sponsors, local and overseas partners and other supporters and volunteers.”

International partners often assist by providing grants or loaning support staff for specific Trust programs. For instance, the RARE Centre for Tropical Conservation funded the Trust’s public education campaign on the Rock Iguana and the English National Trust recently sent a conservation/restoration expert to assist in the preservation of Cheshire Hall.

lfwngFinally, effective conservation depends on accurate information about the ecosystems concerned. The Trust’s Darwin Initiative Project in Middle Caicos, which began in September, 1999, is a major monitoring and management project for the Ramsar wetlands in North, Middle and East Caicos. This initiative is part of the Trust’s extensive program with the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. Bryan Manco coordinated work of the many visiting scientists, besides carrying out his own fieldwork. The goal is to identify the flora and fauna present in the vast wetlands system to have a benchmark against which to measure future changes.

How is the National Trust Funded?

Funding for the National Trust comes from a variety of sources. Administrative expenses are largely covered by major corporate benefactors and corporate and individual supporters and donors; some government support; a portion of the Conservation Fund (a 1% tax on accommodations collected from visitors); fees from the Little Water Cay Nature Trail; and sales of merchandise specific to each Trust project. The projects themselves are primarily funded through grant money gleaned from a number of different organizations. In all, spending must be carefully balanced by “deposits,” and fund-raising–tied in to overall public awareness–remains an important Trust activity.

What are Some of the Trust’s Current Projects?

The Trust is currently involved in a number of different projects around the Islands, many of which will be covered in more detail in future installments of this column:

*In South Caicos, the Trust is engaged in a joint project with the School for Field Studies to study and enhance the Boiling Hole, designated an Area of Historic Interest for its vital role in the island’s salt works. The project includes installing interpretive signs with information about the salt works, aquatic birds, mangroves, the endemic heather plant, sheepshead minnows and other marine species. The Trust is also establishing a training program about the site for local tour guides and is completing a scientific investigation of the birds and fish that inhabit the Boiling Hole and adjacent salinas.

*At the Cheshire Hall Loyalist plantation site on Providenciales, a British Government grant is helping fund an eight-step rescue strategy for the ruins, which are being adversely affected by surrounding commercial development. This involves adding a more visual interpretation with sketches of how the site may have looked when operational. Because of its central location, the Trust’s long-term plans for Cheshire Hall entail the development of a major cultural tourism facility. Government has agreed to give the Trust a 99-year lease on the site.

*The Wade’s Green plantation in North Caicos is in its second phase of preservation and development, with plant identification signage added, along with a thatched gazebo and viewing tower. A field has been planted with foods typically grown on the site, such as corn, peas and potatoes. The site is being regularly maintained and plans are to have a guide conduct scheduled tours. Visitors will be charged an admission fee and receive a souvenir button.

*A shed and third boardwalk will be added to Little Water Cay, which continues to serve as a major Turks & Caicos tourist attraction and primary Trust money raiser.

Basket Weaving Workshop*For the last two years, the Trust, in tandem with the Coastal Resources Management Project, holds an Environmental Summer Camp for children. It covers a variety of topics including wetlands, culture, protected areas, plants and birds, with discussion sessions, slide shows and activities such as basket weaving and boat building workshops. Campers take field trips to sites such as Cheshire Hall, Sapodilla Hill and Little Water Cay and a day trip to Middle Caicos.

What Projects are Planned for the Future?

When asked about projects on the drawing board, Ethlyn has a long list ready at hand. She says, “We’re very excited about the Living Classroom program, where selected wetland areas on each island–such as Village Pond on Middle Caicos and Cheshire Hall Creek on Providenciales–will be equipped with viewing blinds and interpretive signs for birdwatching. In Middle Caicos, we’ve leased the old school in Bambarra and will be renovating it into an interpretive center for the results of the Darwin project. We also plan a trail with plant identification at Haulover Plantation in Middle Caicos and will be reopening the trail at Bird Rock Point in Providenciales.”

Most of the Trust’s future programs are tailored to the needs of the community and both Ethlyn and Colette say ideas for new projects often come from simply listening to people whom they meet, or are natural progressions from projects in progress. For instance, although the Darwin project started as a conservation management program, it was so well received by the people of Middle Caicos that it eventually branched out into providing opportunities for small business development there. The Trust conducted two workshops in Middle Caicos for persons interested in conservation management and eco-tourism.

Some future projects spring directly from the threats of progress. Proposed development on Big Ambergris Cay means that some of its large population of the endangered rock iguana must be relocated. Because the iguana populations of Big and Little Ambergris Cays have been separate for many years, it is essential for biodiversity reasons that populations not be mingled. As such, the Trust has focused its attention on safeguarding the 18,000 iguanas living in Little Ambergris Cay and was recently granted a 99-year lease on the property. Work is also underway to develop a conservation management plan for Water Cay and Little Water Cay, which may include the separation of the two (currently joined by a sandbar) to eliminate potential predators such as cats and dogs from getting to the protected area.

duckThe extensive caverns in Conch Bar Caves National Park are an important ecological area, as well. Research done by bat specialists found that the caves contained at least four species of bats, and are home to a unique cave-dwelling shrimp. The national park also includes Village Pond, an important wetland for viewing birds, including flamingos, and a confirmed breeding site for the endangered West Indian Whistling Duck. The consensus among Middle Caicos residents is that the park needs supervised protection and that the Trust is the proper organization to do this. The Trust is currently awaiting government ratification of this conclusion.

It’s obvious that there’s never a lack of potential projects, nor areas to be protected and Ethlyn projects a sense of urgency about her work. She says, “In 1997, we identified an extensive list of areas important to protect for future generations via the National Trust’s right to declare land inalienable forever. We keep revising this list with suggestions from the community, places they feel have special relevance to their heritage. Unfortunately, only about 2% of the land has actually been turned over to the Trust. The rest is still Crown Land and has the potential to be developed. Part of my job is to continually lobby government that it is in the best interest of all for the land to be granted to the Trust. I often feel that if we are not more aggressive in this pursuit, there will be nothing left for the generations to come.”

For more information, contact The National Trust at tcnattrust@tciway.tc or visit www.tcimall.tc/nationaltrust.

1 Comment

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Jason Whiting
Jan 4, 2012 13:06

Trying to get in touch with Allen-Ray Smith, an old buddy of mine who used to work on Pine Cay. Can you pass me his email address?


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