By Olivia Alexander-Leeder
Welcome to Trinidad and Tobago
Complex, beautiful, and delicate are three words that come to mind when describing the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, but “home” may best describe the islands for their nearly 1.3 million human inhabitants. The two southernmost islands of the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago host a biodiverse community in a lush tropical and equatorial micro-climate. The islands are home to many of the world’s most stunning and exotic species including the scarlet ibis, leatherback sea turtle, and mountain immortelle. Similarly, diversity is found in the islands’ vibrant multicultural history, with their African, Indian, Spanish, and South American roots.
The World Bank describes Trinidad and Tobago as a high-income economy, but the United Nations recognizes the republic as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) meaning the economy remains highly susceptible to natural disasters and climatic changes. The country is thoroughly industrialized as it continues to experience a large amount of economic success due to the exploitation of large natural gas and oil reserves. Blossoming tourism and waning agricultural exports trail as second and third economic contributors.
The dynamic topography of Trinidad and Tobago’s mountains and waterways accents the thriving economy and luxurious environment. High average rainfall has created four major river systems: the Caroni, Oropouche, and Navet rivers in Trinidad; and the Hillsborough river in Tobago. Of the nation’s rivers, the most significant is the Caroni in Trinidad.
The central position of waterways, specifically the Caroni River, in the geography, environment, and culture of Trinidad and Tobago makes it important that they are protected.
The Importance of the Caroni River
The Caroni River begins in the Northern Range near Valencia and stretches 40 kilometers westward through the northwestern region of Trinidad. The river meanders throughout Caroni county before emptying into the Gulf of Paria, beneath Port of Spain. Stunning mangrove channels accompany the river along its outflow through the Caroni Swamp, which is a protected habitat for the aforementioned scarlet ibis.
In addition to being an important hub for flora and fauna in Trinidad, the Caroni River contributes to the country’s largest dam, the Caroni-Arena. The Caroni-Arena Dam provides drinking water via the Caroni Water Treatment Plant and is a resource relied upon by the central portion of the island. Culturally, the Caroni River has a rich history as it made possible the first European settlement, San Jose de Oruna, and later served as the major shipping thoroughfare across the island. Today, the Caroni River serves as a spiritual site for Hindu cremation ceremonies, and has commercial and recreational uses.
Ecologically, the Caroni River -- predominantly the outlet at the Caroni Swamp -- has always been a hotspot for the island’s biodiversity. With land types ranging from mudflats to mangrove marshes, there are ample opportunities for life to thrive along the Caroni banks. Recently, conservationists and researchers have taken great interest in the ecological composition of the Caroni River. Conservation and research projects have produced valuable knowledge about the diversity of species along the Caroni River, a list that includes Black Mangrove trees, Silky Anteaters, Blue Land Crabs, and Crab-eating Raccoons -- to name only a handful. The wealth of the Caroni River and its ecosystems is a resource for the life, economy, and culture of Trinidad and Tobago.
Threats to the Caroni River
Man-made pollution and degradation is the most immediate threat to the modern Caroni River. While the river is also susceptible to tropical storms and climate change, anthropogenic degradation is exerting a negative effect on the natural flow, biodiversity, and ecosystem services of the Caroni River and Swamp. Degradative effects of land-use changes can be seen in most waterways in the Caroni River Basin. Specifically, point-source pollution as a result of land-use change is seen in the channels of the river basin and has greatly affected the Caroni River, including the Caroni Water Treatment Plant, in the recent past.
Mining for oil and natural gas in Trinidad and Tobago has led to land-use changes such as vegetation clearing and open-pit mining. Specifically, mining activity has changed the landscape surrounding Valencia, at the headwaters of the Caroni River. The conversion of the land has led to siltation of the Caroni tributaries and petroleum hydrocarbon pollution of the Caroni River. In February 2015, petroleum hydrocarbons were detected in the water at the Caroni Water Treatment Plant, affecting the drinking water leaving the plant. While the issue was addressed quickly by the Emergency Response and Investigations (ERI) team, it shed light on the effects of pollution in the Caroni River and served as a call to action for water conservation.
Pollution doesn’t only stem from industrial activities in Trinidad and Tobago. Many sources of pollution in the Caroni River Basin come from municipal sources. Trash and litter that flows downstream from surrounding channels is highly visible along the Caroni River banks and in the Caroni Swamp. The magnitude of the trash disposal issue in the river is highlighted by the fact that chemical pollution is the only environmental abuse that has a policy-designated punishment in the form of fines. Loose trash, methane clouds, and smoke from trash fires are three pollutant types that affect the Caroni River and are sourced to Beetham Landfill. The proximity of Beetham Landfill located north of the Caroni River and within the protected wetland area, indicates a significant pollution threat as there is no system to protect the wetland from the emissions of the landfill.
Additional degradation of the Caroni River stems from non-point pollution such as sewage and agricultural runoff. Fertilizers used in agricultural practices and untreated sewage from areas outside sewered areas wash into the Caroni River either directly or via connecting tributaries. Sewage and agricultural runoff is rich in nutrients and cause eutrophication of waterways, the effects of which are low dissolved oxygen and greater bacterial or algal blooms. Eutrophication in rivers and connecting tributaries has potentially catastrophic effects on wildlife and can greatly affect the naturally-occurring biodiversity. Unhelpful to runoff mitigation efforts is the pervasiveness of deforestation. The demand for arable land, urban sprawl, and road construction has initiated a cascade of deforestation, soil erosion, and watershed degradation. The ill-effects of deforestation are wide-spread and observed in ecosystem death, habitat fragmentation, and biodiversity loss.
The topography of the Caroni River Basin has changed rapidly since the 1920’s due to development and agriculture. Rice cultivation along the banks of the Caroni River and modification of the Caroni Swamp for urban construction has greatly changed the natural flow of the river and the ecosystem services that it provides. Notably, the reduction in vegetation cover integrity throughout all of Trinidad, including the Northwestern Range, has led to increased incidence of flooding and habitat fragmentation in the Caroni River Basin. Flooding and degraded land surrounding contributing tributaries to the Caroni River also increase sedimentation rate. Higher amounts of sediment can take a toll on drinking water prices and availability by stressing the filtration equipment at the Caroni Water Treatment Plant, leading to the need for frequent repairs.
Current Protections of the Caroni River
There are laws in Trinidad and Tobago to protect the nation’s water resources. Two government bodies, outlined in the Environmental Management Act of 1995, oversee environmental affairs: the Environmental Commission and the Environmental Management Authority. Together, the two governing bodies can regulate emissions permits and dispense consequences for violations, powers which are checked by parliament and the prime minister). Both the Environmental Commission and the Environmental Management Authority represent regulation and enforcement of water protection — but do not necessarily represent rights for waterways or aquatic ecosystems. The view of waterways as property illustrates the general mentality of environmental value defined solely in terms of human use.
In addition to the Environmental Management Act, there are three acts that impact waterway protection and conservation in Trinidad and Tobago: the Water and Sewerage Act (1980), the Waterworks and Water Conservation Act (1980), and the Public Health Act (1950). The four acts provide guidelines for water management and pollution prevention as a part of the maintenance of overall environmental health. Namely, the Water and Sewerage Act and the Public Health Act, specifically prevent waterway pollution. Accountability and consequences for waterway pollution is either designated by the Environmental Commission or included in written policy, as is the case with the Water and Sewerage Act. There have been attempts to prevent offenses such as pesticide/chemical runoff, illegal dumping of waste, and dangerous petroleum extraction. There is a regulated permitting and licensing process, but the measures have no real teeth. There is no minimum punishment required by law; all punishments are subject to the discretion of either the Parliament or the Environmental Commission.
Earth Law as a Method to Evolve River Protection
What if rivers had their own legal rights? How might this affect the conservation of the Caroni River?
River rights designations are a growing global movement. The Whanganui River in New Zealand gained legal status as an entity in March of 2017, setting a powerful example for the rest of the world. The Atrato River in Columbia and the Vilcabamba River in Ecuador have similar legal protections as entities. The policy precedent set by these three rivers are important for the recognition of rights for other rivers, including the Caroni River, and serve as examples for the global community.
Towards establishing legal rights for all rivers worldwide, Earth Law Center has led an initiative to create a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers. This document was drafted by civil society leaders worldwide to establish the basic rights to which all rivers are entitled. These rights include, at minimum,
The right to flow;
The right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem;
The right to be free from pollution;
The right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers;
The right to native biodiversity;
The right to rehabilitation and restoration.
However, these rights do not restrict use or enjoyment of the rivers and surrounding tributaries for recreation or municipal utilization. In fact, the rights of rivers paradigm encourages the full realization of human environmental rights, including the right to clean water within our waterways.
Considering ecosystems as entities to be respected and protected for their intrinsic value will foster an identifiable system of sustainable use and preservation. With a new era of legal considerations outlined in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers, a future of responsible water usage, ecosystem health, and continued enjoyment is possible for the Caroni River and other beloved rivers around the world.
It remains to be seen when the rights of rivers will catch on in Trinidad and Tobago and many other countries worldwide. Earth Law Center is working tirelessly to present this new environmental paradigm to lawmakers, civil society leaders, and local communities with the goal of helping establish a new blueprint of environmental law – one based in the rights of nature – that allows humans and nature to thrive together in harmony.