Green Pages

Simple Truths

Our actions taken now can have a ripple effect on the world.
Story, Photos and Illustrations By Liz Cunningham

Twenty years ago I flew into the Turks & Caicos Islands, arriving in a small, wind-blown airport. A newly certified scuba diver, I went to Providenciales’ Northwest Point and dove amongst the brilliantly colored reefs that fringe the ocean wall which plunges 7,000 feet to the sea floor. Weightless, in the violet-blue and turquoise green waters which teemed with life, I felt something deep inside me change.
When I got home I hovered like a bumble bee over a watercolor set under a glass counter at an art store. The clerk finally looked at me and said, “Do you want buy this or what?” I did, and at home dabbed colors for the sparkling turquoise seas I’d seen, the deep violet-indigo of the sea wall. Little did I know that I would look back 20 years later and realize that the Islands were the place that inspired me to paint.

Mangrove seedlingsAs if my heart were attached by a bungee cord, I returned to the country again and again. On each departure, I’d gaze out the airplane window and wonder what each wave of development would do to these beautiful islands. Finally, on one return trip, I vowed to become more involved in marine conservation efforts. So in June 2011, I returned for four weeks toting the tools of my trade — watercolors, cameras, digital recorders, scuba gear — to document conservation work and explore what truths these Islands had to offer to marine conservation efforts around the world.
At a time when it is easy to despair about the future for our marine environment, I was heartened by the pragmatic dedication of the conservationists I met. It is easy to be fatalistic, to think that no matter how much is done to protect the environment, our natural resources will inevitably be destroyed by the twin forces of overdevelopment and overpopulation. It is much harder to faithfully carve paths of action which really can preserve our natural resources. And that is so much of what I saw when observing the work of activists, marine biologists and the staff of the Department of Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR).
Of particular interest to me were mangroves because of the enormously important role they play in marine ecosystems. There are certain truths we all know and one of them is that life needs a place to take hold. Along with coral reefs and sea grass meadows, mangroves are a key place where the life of the sea “takes hold.” Their labyrinthine, maze-like roots provide that essential shelter for newly hatched fish. None of this really hit home for me until I snorkeled a few feet below the surface in a mangrove in South Caicos with marine biologists from The School for Field Studies and saw thousands of brilliantly colored yellow and blue fish — juvenile damselfish and blue wrasses. The profusion of life was stunning.
TCI Turtle ProjectDECR Scientific Officer Bryan “Naqqi” Manco described to me how mangroves, in addition to providing nurseries for juvenile fish, literally “stitch the islands to seafloor” protecting them from erosion, especially damage from hurricanes. In addition, mangroves can be a key component of fighting global warming, since they store 50 times more carbon in their soil per hectare than tropical forests. In the lush shade of the arc-shaped portico of the Environmental Centre, DECR Scientific Officer Eric Salamanca showed me rows and rows of red mangrove seedlings planted in individual pots. Salamanca described the painstaking process through which each seedling is sprouted from a seed in water, then grown in a pot with soil and finally planted in a cylindrical hole drilled into the limestone. Salamanca described how he was able to raise the seedlings using fresh water, simplifying the process greatly. Later that day we drove to a site where over 1,000 mangrove seedlings had been planted in Frenchman’s Creek Nature Reserve.
Marsha Pardee, marine biologist and founder of Adopt-A-Mangrove, showed me a site where mangroves were planted where they have never been grown before. On a brisk windy morning we paddled out to Star Island, an abandoned man-made island project in the Princess Alexandra National Park where she spearheaded the effort to grow and plant nearly 500 seedlings. Marsha and I split up on the island, each with a slate in hand, to count and assess the health of the seedlings.
Curator of the Environmental Centre Lormeka Williams described how the smallest fish in a catch used to be a foot long, and now as fish populations shrink, the smallest are bait-sized “sprat.” And she described how the plummeting fish populations are incrementally proportional to the destruction of coral reefs, sea grass meadows, and, yes, mangroves. “I believe we were put here as stewards of this land, we were put here to take care of it,” Lormeka told me. “And as we have grown as a civilization we have lost that purpose. I grew up with fishermen. And I’ve seen the changes. I remember when my father would come home from lobster season the first night and we’d have a basket of lobster. When they fished they never took small ones. They preferred to leave them, so they could grow into big ones.”
As I journeyed through the Islands and spoke with people, I was struck by how many times certain realities that have global scope were “writ big” in TCI, as if because of the small size of this island nation the volume on certain issues was exponentially turned up. For instance, because the Islands lie so low above sea level, global warming would have an alarmingly dramatic effect. DECR Scientific Officer Marlon Hibbert reported that the highest sea surface temperatures ever recorded in TCI were from 1998 through 2005 and that the worst cases of coral bleaching occurred during two of these years. And he added that “the incidence and intensity of tropical cyclones (hurricanes) are being fueled by higher temperatures.”
On a global scale, climate change is making it slowly to the front burner of policy making. Former President Bill Clinton recently remarked that the impact of climate change “was enough to choke a horse, one of the two or three biggest challenges in the world.” And yet in TCI, as in every nation around the globe, the gap between science and public opinion is huge. “The only time we think about global warming is during hurricane season or some kind of extreme event,” Lormeka Williams told me. “Otherwise, no one really thinks about it. That’s why we’re trying to develop a climate-change policy. Right now to most everyone it’s still just a fantasy, a myth, something that scientists made up.”
On the flip side, the impact of positive change is highly apparent. For instance the “eat local” movement has the potential to reduce the now huge percentage of food flown or shipped in. While in North Caicos I met Courtney Missick, who is successfully farming several acres of land and selling produce locally. And it’s not just our position in the food web that’s so key, but the waste disposal web, as well. Because the Islands are so small, this issue is all the more evident. DECR Director Wesley Clerveaux described why the coastal waters “feel” so wonderful, and that equation is plain and simple scientific fact: the water quality is excellent. Development came late to the Turks & Caicos Islands.
“Thank God, we’re late bloomers,” Clerveaux said, “From the water quality standpoint, compared to Jamaica or Miami Beach, you can’t find anything better. In Jamaica for example, the Montego Bay Beach has coliform bacteria, which are from the sewage treatment plant. In Miami Beach, likewise, you have a lot of sewage being discharged. The problem is central sewage systems. When they break down, they have no choice but to discharge raw sewage into the central harbor. But TCI has a decentralized system in which sewage is not dumped into the ocean. Every major hotel has its own sewage treatment facility; we do regular monitoring and we advocate that they use the gray water for irrigation. The risk of direct discharge is not there.”
What Clerveaux tells me hits especially close to home. I grew up along the Hudson River in New York. Forty years ago it was so rife with untreated sewage and cancer-causing PCBs, that you wouldn’t have dared take a swim in it. Today, the water quality is much improved. But just this morning as I write this, The New York Times reports that because of a fire at a sewage treatment plant, millions of gallons of raw sewage are being released into the Hudson River.
But much work still lies ahead. A broad-based sustainable waste management plan for TCI has yet to be executed. The head of the Environmental Club, Stacie Steensland, took me to visit the dump on Provo, where garbage — plastic, metal, paper and rubber — is still burned. Haitian refugees live at the dump, meeting the trucks when they arrive. Amidst air thick with stench and smoke and dust, they pick through the new refuse, searching for food. I reminded myself that places like this are a hard-bitten truth that plague almost every nation in the world. But it made it no less disturbing. And its close proximity to sleekly serene five-star resorts made it even more gut-wrenching.
While Stacie turned her car around on the narrow dirt road, I took photographs. It was a 360º panorama of debris, punctuated by hills of burning garbage and patches of charred and blackened metal. But Stacie is hardly the grim reaper: she’s all about solutions. Along with getting the Environmental Club off the ground she helps out with local garbage clean-ups such as those sponsored by the Turks & Caicos Hotel & Tourism Association (TCHTA) and captains a local running club, the TCI Rubbish Runners, who pick up garbage six days a week on their morning jogs. She is constantly in touch with new initiatives on the Islands, such as encouraging Islanders to use cloth shopping totes instead of plastic bags. We visit a local café called Green Bean that uses TCI Waste Disposal for their residential and commercial trash pick-up, including recycling services. They recycle glass into a paving aggregate and sort aluminum, cardboard and plastic to be shipped to the United States for recycling. The big hitch is that individuals and businesses must pay for the service, it’s not provided by the government.
But perhaps the greatest truth I experienced was one of the simplest: the truth that if we honor each other’s experience, we will be the better for it, and that this is key to our collective future. On my last full day in TCI I rose before sunrise. David Stone, co-founder of the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund, and I met Amdeep Sanghera, project officer for the Turks & Caicos Islands Turtle Project, to go turtle tagging. When we arrived at the shore a snorkel guide confidently pronounced, as if issuing a post-mortem, “You won’t find any turtles, they’ve all split.” Adjusting his mask Amdeep dryly said with a wry-eyed wink, “Well, shall we have a go at it?”
He quickly impressed us by chasing down a juvenile Hawksbill which swam so fast, I couldn’t imagine catching it. “When a turtle kicks into gear,” Amdeep later recounted, “it really takes off like Star Wars.” The turtle had already been tagged. Amdeep quickly took biometric measurements and then let a young boy who had been watching us release the turtle it into the ocean. Tag number WS-2774/WS-2754 was back at sea.
Amdeep told us about his work in South Caicos and the role that turtle hunting has played in the Islands since A.D. 600 when the first human settlers, native West Indians, arrived by northwesterly Antillean current flows from larger islands to the south. What impressed me most was that the key element for developing a plan for the sustainable management of turtle fisheries was to honor the age-old tradition of turtle hunting. The project holds the tradition in an equal place in the policy making process as the respect for the turtle’s intrinsic value and the measures needed prevent the possible extinction of the Islands’ nesting population.
But as a self-confessed “turtle hugger,” I initially found it hard to accept the eating of turtle meat and the idea of a “sustainable” harvest. Whenever I have encountered a turtle underwater, I found myself completely enchanted by their grace and gentleness. And two weeks before I had visited with Conch World Engineer Eiglys Trejo, who was raising seven baby Green sea turtles that Amdeep had found as weak and stranded stragglers in two recently hatched empty turtle nests six months before.
“He said, ‘Don’t name them because most of them will probably die in the first three months,’ but I did name them,” said Eiglys with a smile, “and they did survive.” All of them will be released when their shell measures at least 10 inches. Eiglys moved nimbly about the tank with a care that was at once the precision of an engineer and the attentiveness of a mother with two toddlers at home.
As they swam swiftly about in a five-foot deep circular tank, leaving small trails of concentric ripples, Eiglys described their different personalities, how they’ll occasionally scuffle with each other and one will defensively lay its front fins on its back. Their heads and fins were still slightly oversized, giving them a goofy look. But at the same time the interlocking plate-pattern of their shell and fin markings and tiny-beaked heads were already clearly defined as if they were full-grown turtles in miniature. Holding one of these six-inch long turtles in my hands, hearing their wheezy breath and feeling the quiver of their soft pearl-white bellies, I couldn’t imagine eating turtle meat.
But as I learned more from Amdeep about the tradition of turtle hunting, I began to appreciate more deeply the important cultural role turtle meat plays in the Islands, that the meat is gifted to various families when it is hunted and no part of the turtle goes to waste. It is hunted with great respect and skill. On my last day, Alizee Zimmerman, the daughter of an expatriate, told me how when her mother was in labor with her over two decades ago, she was brought turtle soup because it was one of the most nourishing and most culturally valued food that one could give a person.
“If you were to go into these Islands with a purely biological perspective,” Amdeep explained, “just finding out how many turtles are in the waters and how many are harvested and look to base your recommendations just on that data, you would fail because there are people involved here: fisherman, community members, families that have basically eaten turtles for generations. And to not to consult them . . . it’s not right basically, they’ve got a right to harvest and exploit their resources. So they need to be involved in management discussions.” The goal of the TCI Turtle Project is to make recommendations to the DECR for improved and practical management of the turtle fishery so that the turtle populations can benefit islanders and visitors for generations to come.
When I readied myself to leave after four weeks, I left with a full heart from having met so many dedicated and inspiring people and appreciating the simplest of truths all the more deeply: the ever-expanding truths of interconnection and the age-old truth that by honoring each other’s experience, as individuals and community members, we can build a stronger and better future together. And last, but not least, the truth that our actions matter, they make a difference, and we can never fully comprehend the ripple effect they have throughout the world. a

Liz Cunningham is an American writer and illustrator living in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of Talking Politics: Choosing the President in the Television Age (Praeger).

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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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