Treasure Island

In Longreads

The flares burn even brighter as night falls over the island of Trinidad’s Pointe-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, and from the oil refinery comes a strange chemical glow: half fire, half artificial light. Smokestacks shoot flames 50 feet into the sky; floodlights bathe pipes and massive holding tanks in pale shades of green and yellow; red lamps blink warnings to passing aircraft. At once monstrous and beautiful, the futuristic skyline smolders in the distance, its daily 165,000 barrels of oil as surely a part of the landscape as the two wooded ponds that make up the 60-acre wildfowl refuge here.

Less than an hour ago the upper pond cut a scene of perfect idyll. Peering into an aviary, I saw streaks of vibrant red flashing back and forth: the scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s national bird, which the refuge is breeding to release into the wild. A spectacled caiman surfaced to eye white-cheeked pintails and wild Muscovy ducks. Amid the flowering
lily pads, a striated heron plodded along, its motions even lazier than the caiman’s, and a wattled jacana stalked insects. In the background the squawks of blue-and-yellow macaws, nearly extinct on the island but being bred here, rose above the din of birdcalls. Anywhere else in the world this small paradise inside a 6,000-acre petrochemical complexa favorite stop for foreign birders, as well as local school groups would be regarded as an oddity. In Trinidad it is, perhaps, a metaphor.

This is a different kind of Caribbean island. Trinidad’s oil- and gas-driven economy has doubled in 7 years and quadrupled in 20, and that industrial wealth has dampened any push to develop industrial tourism. Beaches are unmarred by a rash of mega-resorts. The country’s finances are largely unconnected to the ebb and flow of cruise-ship traffic. Birders, not beachgoers, are catered to at Trinidad’s most famous lodge: the Northern Range’s Asa Wright Nature Centre, the grande dame of Caribbean ecolodges, which began funding its conservation projects with tourist dollars more than a decade before the term ecotourism was coined. Meanwhile, farther east in the Northern Range, one of the Caribbean’s last great wilderness areas remains intact—thanks not to enlightened management but to industrial booms that urbanized the populace and kept people out of the hills.

While a large underclass still exists in Trinidad—half the island gets by on $2 a day or less, despite a national per capita income ($7,780) that is in the region’s top five—most of the poverty is, for better or worse, in cities. Degradation from logging, poaching, and slash-and-burn farming is more localized. Meanwhile, petroleum, normally thought of as little more than a polluting industry, has in many ways been a boon to Trinidad’s natural environment.

Even without its oil and gas deposits, this southernmost of the Caribbean islands is an anomaly: a chunk of South America gone to sea, complete with its own extension of the Andean cordillera. Scientists say Trinidad separated from what is now Venezuela about 12,000 years ago, but a land link may have remained until 1,500 years ago. Only seven miles from the mainland, Trinidad has South American species and South American biodiversity: 430 species of birds, 97 mammals, 55 reptiles, 25 amphibians, and 617 butterflies crammed onto a Delaware-size island of 1,871 square miles. No other Caribbean island, including Trinidad’s 116-square-mile adopted sister, Tobago, 22 miles to the north, can match its species richness. This is a fact that has long attracted naturalists, most notably the New York Zoological Society’s William Beebe, the pioneer of tropical ecology in the New World. In 1949 he founded the Simla research station in the Northern Range’s Arima Valley, just downhill from the estate of Icelandic eccentric Asa Wright. In 1967, concerned about the future of her land and its diverse wildlife, an ailing Wright called on a friend, renowned Audubon illustrator Don Eckelberry, to help protect the estate in perpetuity, setting the stage for the creation of the nature center that now bears her name.

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Early one morning I join a group of North American birders to follow Asa Wright guide Harold Diaz through the rainforest on the way to the Oilbird Cave, the nature center’s star attraction and the hideout of the island’s strangest species. “Imagine a former bodybuilder, like myself,” Diaz says, mocking his slim physique, “and he’s got a little lady in a choke hold. She’s screaming for help while vomiting. Dat’s de sound of an oilbird.” This, apparently, is why Amerindians had believed the birds’ shrieks came from departed souls. Diaz pauses, peers into the forest, and stops his dissertation to point out a black-throated mango hummingbird. “Hear dat chuckerin’ call?” he asks seconds later. “Dat’s the long-billed gnatwren. “A white hawk circles high above, framed by a gap in the canopy, and we pass huge ferns with deltas of orange spoors.

The cave turns out to be a gorge, its upper reaches melded into a kind of ceiling, a perfectly Utahan slot canyon but for the vines and ferns hanging from its walls. The colony inside fluctuates between 115 and 150 oilbirds, and from afar we can see two or three aloft at any one moment, hovering above their nests, making fairy turns while backlit against tan-gray walls. We enter two at a time to minimize the disturbance, wading through flowing water six inches deep for a glimpse of the nests.

The oilbirds look like raptors—rich brown with hooked beaks, fingered wings, and bodies 18 inches long—but they act more like bats. They’re the only nocturnal fruit-eating avian species in the world, and they use sonar to find their way into the caves and through the forest. Oilbirds are named for their plump young, which at 70 days old weigh 50 percent more than adults and in past centuries were rendered into cooking and lamp oil by the people of Venezuela. (Ironically, the name has nothing to do with Trinidad’s abundant petroleum.) While oilbirds are found in northern South America and even elsewhere in Trinidad, the Asa Wright colony is the most celebrated.

Twenty-four miles from Trinidad’s capital, Port-of-Spain, and up a winding, landslide-prone road, Asa Wright is beset by occasional power outages, the kind that envelop you in a blanket of darkness and jungle noises: crickets and blowing wind, bird songs, and rustling heliconia leaves. In the mornings guests and guides gather on the veranda of the stately, two-level former plantation house to gaze over the densely forested Arima Valley and spot birdlife—trogons, honeycreepers, tufted coquettes, scaled pigeons, squirrel cuckoos—flying nearly at eye level. The rainforest canopy soars up to 150 feet, and tropical plants in the garden are forever flowering. For a swim, guests walk to a deep pool in a free-flowing stream. To visit the Oilbird Cave, the center requires a stay of three days, a code that keeps crowds from harming the birds and secures Asa Wright’s role as Trinidad’s top nature-tourism destination. Birders often visit other sites on day trips; few are more than three hours away. The center is now the biggest employer in the Arima Valley, supporting some 90 locals year-round, and it’s run almost entirely on ecotourist dollars.

Roughly one-third of the upper valley, more than 700 acres, is owned, managed, or otherwise protected by Asa Wright: proof that ecotourism works, at least locally. But for Trinidad as a whole, it’s not a panacea. Ecotourism is most effective in a relative vacuum, when tourists and their dollars make up so much of an economy that protecting the environment is simply good business. But the richer the island’s business and political leaders get from oil and gas—75 percent of the United States’ natural-gas imports now come from Trinidad—the less incentive there seems to be for them to protect the Northern Range and other pockets of biodiversity. Those stuck on the other side of the income gap are left with few alternatives to exploiting the country’s natural resources. Bearing
the proof are the mountains to the west of the Arima Valley, toward Port-of-Spain, which are now riddled with roads and threatened by urban sprawl, fires, and illegal logging.

So far, at least, little of this destruction has spread to the mountains and unblemished coastline on the other side of the valley. Here the Northern Range rises abruptly to its peak, 3,085-foot Cerro del Aripo, then extends eastward into a blank spot nearly the size of Tobago: no villages, no roads. The forest is unbroken all the way to the sparsely populated Toco region at the island’s northeast tip. “It’s an area as wild and remote as any other in the Caribbean,” says Howard Nelson, Asa Wright’s ponytailed conservation director, who led a comprehensive scientific survey of the area’s Madamas Valley in 2003. “It’s the last frontier, the best forest I’ve seen in the country.”

Unfortunately, it’s also protected by little more than the fact that the population has been drawn elsewhere, thus keeping slash-and-burn farming and other pressures to a minimum. Since 1987 various well-funded initiatives to protect this wilderness as a national park—and to create a national-park system in general—have been thwarted by squabbles over which government body should run the parks. At the highest levels there seems to be little political will to overcome what should be minor hurdles. “Trinidad needs a Teddy Roosevelt,” Nelson says.

Instead, Prime Minister Patrick Manning proposed in October 2004 that coffers brimming with oil and gas money be used to build an eco roadway through the wilderness. Officially, the idea is to better connect Toco to the rest of the country. But the increased access for squatters, poachers, and loggers would be a death knell for the virgin forest. And it’s widely rumored that the roadway is a guarantee of big profits for the well-connected developers who’ve bought parcels between its proposed path and the Caribbean Sea. With speculations like these and beaches
like the ones on the spectacular northeast coast, Trinidad could see the ugly rush of hotel building it has so long avoided. Locals, who successfully battled a Goliath of a port project for Toco town in 2000, are ready for another battle. “The road won’t happen,” says Michael Als of the Toco Foundation. “When we need them, we’ll find 100,000
signatures against it in a matter of months.”

There is hope in the stories of two other crucial ecosystems—the freshwater Nariva Swamp in eastern Trinidad and the west’s Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary—that were also threatened by development. Nariva, one of the largest wetlands in the Caribbean, is home to manatees, anacondas, and, after a reintroduction program, blue-and-yellow macaws. Illegal rice farmers had taken over large parts of the swamp, but in the early 1990s a handful of environmentalists helped convince the government to kick the farmers out. In 2002 a new threat arose when the Canadian company Talisman discovered an apparent oil deposit below Nariva. While some manner of exploration still seems likely, Trinis, as the islanders are called, were surprised the next year when the Environmental Management Authority stood up to big oil, denying Talisman the clearance to use underground explosives for seismic testing.

In the 1970s the brackish Caroni Swamp, roosting site of thousands of scarlet ibis, was beset by poachers who hunted the birds for their meat, considered a delicacy, and sold their feathers for carnival costumes and hats. A petroleum barge regularly passed through the swamp to reach an inland plant.

But on today’s trip from Asa Wright with a boatload of birders, I see only mangroves, tree-climbing crabs, boas, anteaters—and the otherwordly homecoming of the scarlet ibis. The first ones appear at twilight, swooping low over our heads, making a beeline for a mangrove island already dotted with white egrets. Then come two more, then a dozen, then nearly a hundred. The birds arrive in dramatic bursts, perfectly spaced so we gasp anew just as it seems the display is over. We sit transfixed as the island turns from green to crimson until our boat pulls away. Ibis meat is still coveted, selling for $5 a pound or more, and poachers still come, but there are two new guard boats to chase them off, 13 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. The petroleum barge—successfully protested—is long gone. Between May and September thousands of ibis now nest in these mangroves again, and thousands
more fly in every evening to roost, brightening the swamp with a display of avian fireworks.

Photo by BasL
Caroni Swamp ©BasL

From Asa Wright the existing route to Toco wraps the long way around the Northern Range, offering 360-degree glimpses of mountains, valleys, and coastlines. I arrange a ride with Italian hotelier Piero Guerrini, a former photojournalist who discovered the region while on assignment in 1993. He was so taken with it that he dropped his continent-hopping career to start an ecolodge. For years his lodge, in the village of Grande Riviere, was the only one on this part of the North Coast, and he was the area’s only foreigner. Just before the rough Atlantic coastline
appears on our right, its short, golden-sand beaches bookended by 50-foot cliffs, Guerrini points out the village of Matura, where a local organization called the Nature Seekers, aided by ecotourist money and Earthwatch volunteers, pays locals to guard the nesting leatherback sea turtles their parents once slaughtered. Grande Riviere has a similar program and also supports thousands of nesting leatherbacks, making Trinidad home to the second largest nesting colony in the world. The turtles start coming in late March, just as the birding season typically winds down, and stay until the height of the rains in August.

At Toco town, where the road takes a 90-degree turn to the west, the Atlantic is replaced by the Caribbean: greener and more translucent, with dark rocks jutting out of the water at oblong angles. The new port proposed for Toco in 2000 was billed as a ferry link to Tobago, but it would also have included extensive facilities for trawlers, cruise ships, and oil companies eager to exploit a major deposit newly discovered offshore. Locals weren’t fooled. Forty homes would have been destroyed and an ecosystem threatened by spills and sudden industrialization. Protesters, organized almost overnight under the banner of SAD, or Stakeholders Against Destruction for Toco, trailed visiting officials and descended on Port-of-Spain (with Guerrini quietly providing transport). The government was taken by complete surprise, especially after the citizens of this supposed backwater, led by former farm laborer Stephen McClatchie, submitted an alternative, community-based sustainable-development plan for Toco that far outclassed the original. The port project was soon scuttled, and the new plan—involving ecotourism and a variety
of initiatives for small business—is being put into action.

Ten miles along the coast, past the port site, the truck rumbles onto Grande Riviere’s main drag, a street flanked by a couple dozen sleepy, low-slung buildings. Guerrini’s beachside hotel, Mt. Plaisir Estate, is a pleasurably named former boardinghouse, modest but beautiful, with hammocks, balconies, and open-air rooms just feet from the water. Next door is an eco-guides’ co-op on land Guerrini donated. Locals lead boat trips and treks to inland waterfalls, and help birders find the area’s flock of turkeylike Trinidad piping guans, or pawi, an endemic, highly endangered species. A large, social bird that once ran in flocks 50 strong, the pawi is usually seen very early in the
morning on the lower branches of treesand, writes ornithologist Richard French, is notably indifferent to gunfire. But poaching is more in check here than in other parts of Trinidad. Providing proof are the thousands of leatherbacks that arrive every spring on Grande Riviere’s half-mile-long beach. Bolstered by tourism—three small inns have followed Guerrini’s lead—pride in the surrounding paradise is intense.

Villagers realize Toco and the Northern Range are special within the patchwork of industry and nature that is Trinidad. When I visit Stephen McClatchie on my last day, he points out that the ports, roads, and oil rigs elsewhere on the island may be precisely what will keep ports, roads, and oil rigs forever away from here. “People from the rest of the island can come to this side and let their hair down,” he says. “They can have a nice fresh river bath, go into the forest to look at the birds, and refuel. That’s what we’re all fighting for.”

First published in Audubon Magazine.

Cover photo by Marc Aberdeen.

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McKenzie Funk
National Magazine Award finalist McKenzie Funk is a founding member of Deca and the author of Windfall, named a book of the year by The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Salon, and Amazon and the winner of a 2015 PEN Literary Award. Mac's writing appears in Harper's, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, and The New York Times Magazine. An Open Society Fellow, he speaks five languages and is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and sons.