Green Pages

Leaving Our Mark

env-hist-developmentAn environmental history of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Story & Photos By Brian Riggs, Curator, National Environmental Centre

In 2001, the Turks & Caicos Islands Government signed an important and far reaching document. The Environmental Charter (see page 59) outlined TCI’s commitment to the environment and conservation efforts on behalf of all the people of our Islands. The very first guiding principle recognized that all people need a healthy environment in which to live and work, but also that it is the responsibility of all people to help maintain and sustain it.

The charter and this year’s extension of the visionary 2007 “Turks & Caicos Year of the Environment” as the “TCI Year of the Reef” are good indicators of our people’s will to preserve both our natural and cultural heritage far into the future. This article takes a look into the past to see how the journey got started.

The earliest days

The Turks & Caicos Islands were first inhabited over 1,200 years ago by Taino Indians from Hispaniola. They settled on almost every island and cay, spreading out to take advantage of the abundant natural resources they found here. The Tainos (or Lucayans as they later came to be called) settled on an archipelago that had never seen a human footprint in its half-million years in existence. Many islands had tropical forests much as today’s, but on a much grander scale. Rains were more frequent, so the trees were much larger and the forest canopy was many meters above where it is now. With no human intervention for agriculture or firewood collection, the earth was covered with the leafy detritus that had accumulated over centuries. Because of this, the ground held more water and it is probable that all the islands, including many of the larger cays, had sizable amounts of fresh water trapped in underwater lenses.

We know from archaeological research that the Islands once held large populations of animals that are now extinct. Indeed, these animals were hunted to extinction by the Tainos in the earliest years of their occupation. An unknown species of giant land tortoise, similar to the famous Galapagos tortoise, roamed our Islands and the southern Bahamas for millennia. But in the course of only 100 years, it was completely extirpated. At least six species of flightless birds were also hunted down quickly and disappeared from the archaeological record by 900 AD. The Lucayans fished heavily in the waters surrounding our Islands, but their unsophisticated technology (compared to ours) and their habit of spreading out their small population to cover large areas of shoreline, apparently did not affect the abundant underwater fauna in the same devastating way that they had on land. Inshore fish stocks and conch populations were undoubtedly affected though.

It is commonly thought that “primitive people,” the “Noble Savages” of the early philosophers, lived in harmony with their environments. Unfortunately that’s just not true. People are people and wherever they settle they leave a mark. They change their surroundings to accommodate themselves. Agriculture, hunting, gathering, cookfires, large scale fishing; all these endeavors change local environments. Sometimes the change is not as drastic as the complete extermination of species, but sometimes it is.

Colonial resources

By the early 1500s, with the arrival of the first waves of European adventurers and settlers the Lucayans themselves became an endangered species and they all but disappeared by 1530. While European settlements grew rapidly on the larger islands of the West Indies, small places, like our island group, were largely ignored and left empty by those early Spanish and French colonists.

Almost 200 years later, in the late 1600s, the Turks & Caicos Islands were finally inhabited again. The Turks Islands—Grand Turk and Salt Cay—were settled by the sea-going merchants of Bermuda. They came for the abundant natural salt deposits there and to make use of the Turks Islands’ strategic position on the busiest of sea lanes for the trans-Atlantic trade of the Spanish and French. The salt industry lasted almost 250 years, right up until the 1950s.

The Caicos Islands, on the other hand, were settled by agriculturalists. In the late 1700s, a century after the Bermudians had set up shop in the Turks Islands, American Loyalists, their properties confiscated by the new revolutionary government in the United States, were given land grants throughout the fertile Bahamas and the Caicos Islands to start their plantations again. The Loyalists brought their entire households including their slaves. Even though the slave plantation system lasted only about 25 years, the agricultural lifestyle remained. The Caicos Islands became the breadbasket for the entire country for the next two centuries.

These new colonists changed the landscape even more and at a much faster rate. On the Salt Islands of Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos, large trees were the first to go. Not so much to “stop the rain” as many local historians think, but because those earliest European colonists all cooked with charcoal, not wood. It takes ten pounds of wood to make only one pound of charcoal, so even a small population of a few hundred would use up an amazing amount of wood for charcoal burning alone.

Our first settlers were also boat-builders and carpenters. All the first boats and houses in the Turks & Caicos were made with local timber. Many blacksmiths were at work making iron fittings for these new houses and boats and for animal harnesses. They, too used a lot of charcoal. Usable wood supplies became so scarce by the early 1800s that our new government was sent a letter from the Bahamian government protesting the “poaching” of lumber  from the nearby island of Mayaguana, a Bahamian territory. Many Grand Turk houses from the 1860s onward were made from Canadian lumber, brought down as cargo to trade for the Islands’ abundant salt. There are still a few Canadian-cedar shingled roofs and sheds in Grand Turk and Salt Cay.

On the Caicos Islands, the plantation period lasted only a few decades, but drastic changes in the environment occurred there, too. While the plantations were being set up, there was no profit to be had from the agricultural crops that were being developed. To make up for that shortfall, Loyalist settlers harvested valuable hardwoods from the Caicos bush and exported them to Europe. Lignum vitae, mahogany, cassia, satinwood, and logwood were used extensively in the burgeoning manufacturing processes of the new Industrial Revolution and quite valuable as export products. They were much sought after for shipbuilding, furniture making, textile dying and medicines. Remaining Georgian mahogany furniture was made almost exclusively of mahogany from the Bahamian archipelago, and is very valuable.

This intensive resource harvesting left huge gaps in the ecologies of our dry tropical forests. Many endemic and migratory bird species relied on these trees and plants for food or nesting sites. We may never know what species were displaced by the logging. The seas around the TCI were home to several mammal species that also disappeared during the Colonial period. Manatees and monk seals existed in Bahamian archipelagic waters right up until the turn of the 20th century, but are now “functionally,” if not literally extinct.

Modern times

Rapid population growth of the past decade and the ensuing development has brought about many more changes. Previously uninhabited islands are now teeming with workers and potential clients for the homes and resorts they are building.

The Turks & Caicos Islands are at a new crossroads. Our country, still considered one of the most environmentally aware and ecologically pristine in the Caribbean, is developing swiftly.

The Turks & Caicos are still a treasure house of biological diversity. Many of our plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. Fortunately for us, many of the most important and sensitive areas of our country have been included within a National Park system that is the envy of our neighbors. The 33 National Parks, Reserves, Sanctuaries and Areas of Historical Interest contain a wealth of natural, historical and spiritual treasures that can sustain our country for generations to come. It is our collective responsibility to preserve them.

The excesses of the past were not based on ignoble or dishonorable motives. For the times, they were the only methods to get ahead. But today, our people are much more sensitive to their environment and the wealth of natural treasures that it contains. Profits and livelihoods are easily made by gently exploiting the environment for its beauty and uniqueness. This is the goal of what is called “eco-tourism.” The need for squandering and extractive processes is over. New technologies and new attitudes can help us live within our environments the way we always assumed that our first visitors did. (As we now know, they did not.) But, starting today, we can!

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Gary James at Provo Pictures ( used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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