RADHICA DE SILVA
Right in the middle of the expansive Gordineau swamp lies five islands which are unknown to many and which remain under-explored. They are part of the hydrological and ecological make-up of the Oropouche Wetlands.
Sitting on top of 7,835 acres of swamp, the islands are officially named in a 1990 Lands and Survey map taken from the Ministry of Works. Moses Island seems to be the largest comprising 24 acres, while Alexis Island is less than four acres. There is Ginger Island where large amounts of ginger once grew during the pre-Independence era and Avocat Island. The other island named Madhoo has been split in half by the New Cut Channel, a man-made river which was dug by the Eric Williams government in 1962, as a means of draining the Oropouche Basin.
Ronald Binda who has worked with international tourist groups for decades said whenever anyone hears of "Five Islands", they think of the Bocas Islands which lie in the Bocas del Dragón (Dragons' Mouth) in west Trinidad.
"Very few know about our Five Islands right here in the swamp. It's a treasure that could be developed and shared with the rest of the world," he said.
Guardian Media's intrepid team took a journey by boat to see Five Islands ourselves. Leaving from the Sudama Teerath site at Pluck Road, Woodland, the team went down the New Cut Channel. With Captain Kimraj Ramlochan at the helm, the team passed a public cemetery where the indentured immigrants once buried their dead. Binda said the cemetery dates back to 1897 and is situated on a five-acre parcel of land. His family's plot of land, given to them in lieu of a return passage to India, stands on the opposite side of the cemetery.
"Long ago, people used to use canoes and bring their dead relatives to be buried at the cemetery," Binda said. Saying the cemetery could be a historical site, Binda noted that burials ceased after 1962 when the construction of the New Cut Channel made the cemetery inaccessible.
He said over 100 acres of prime agricultural lands were lost when the New Cut Channel was built. "My family lost over 30 acres. The river destroyed the arable lands in this area. What Williams should have done was to put a gate to block off the salt water from entering the arable lands but this did not happen and it led to the destruction of the Oropouche Lagoon," Binda said.
When the Guardian came upon the first island owned by an individual known only as Madhoo, coconut and mango trees peeped out of the swamp. Binda explained that 40 years ago, people planted short crops on the island.
"There were lots of animals there. This private 21-acre island surrounded by rivers and mangroves could become a tourist site if marketed properly," Binda said.
He recommended that bird watching facilities be set up on the islands. The swamp has several species of exotic birds including the crane hawk, the green-throated mango bird, the osprey hawk, white egrets, blue herons, and T&T's national bird the Scarlet Ibis.
It is also the breeding ground for 29 species of fish and numerous species of crustacean crabs, oysters, mammals, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. During the river tour, several caimans were seen basking in the shade of the mangroves.
Ginger Island was next and the smoke from a campfire on the island hovered overhead.
Binda said sometimes people camp on Ginger island.
"During Carnival and Easter, you cannot find a space there. People who are familiar with the swamp come here to cook and fish. They sometimes camp out for the weekend." Crops no longer grow on Ginger island because of the infiltration of salt water into the lands.
After a three-kilometre ride down the New Cut Channel, the St Johns River met the Gordineau River. This is believed to be the saltiest part of the swamp and it is here that the rare red mangroves grow abundantly.
Unlike other swamps in T&T, Binda said the Oropouche swamp had several hundred acres of the red mangrove which is under threat globally. The trees resembled a forest rather than a swamp when seen from afar.
"I believe the Oropouche swamp is the only swamp in T&T which has red mangroves. We are fortunate here that the trees have grown to be this tall," Binda said as we passed an expanse of the trees. Unlike the white mangroves, the trunks of the red mangrove trees were tall and stately. Some of the trees were over 30 feet. The trees have prop roots, which not only carry water and oxygen to the underground root network but also form a strong support system which allows the tree to stand in soft mud and shallow water.
After passing the expanse of mangroves along the heavily salty Gordineau River, Ramlochan showed us Moses Island, where there were lots of coconut and mango trees.
Binda said the five islands in the swamp had scope for tourism.
"I have travelled extensively around the world and I have seen places where islands like these have been marketed for eco-tourism. At a time when our country is facing challenges with foreign exchange, we can benefit greatly," Binda said.
The final stop was at the 14-gate pump house. Built in the 1920s, the sluice gates keep out the salt water from the Oropouche wetlands. It is controlled manually but often the worn gates break down. Only ten out of the 14 gates were functional. Binda said he was willing to take tourists on tours throughout the wetlands.
Wetlands a prime spot for tourism, no $$ for plan—councillor
Councillor for San Francique/Woodland Doodnath Mayrhoo said while the idea to promote the swamp islands for eco-tourism was a good one, the corporation did not have any money to execute the idea.
"As a corporation, we don't have funding for these types of projects. This will fall under the Tourism Ministry. We have nothing in place for the advancement of tourism on the wetlands. Only recently we decided there was scope for tourism but we have to put a proposal in place," Mayrhoo said.
He invited the Ministry of Tourism to come to the swamp and take a tour of the islands.
"If this plan is executed it will bring revenue to the community. Boat owners will be able to take people on tours. It will encourage employment because agriculture is totally dead in the Woodland area," Mayrhoo said.
He noted that unemployment ranged between 60 to 65 per cent in the San Francique and Woodland areas.
"There are no industries. The local contractors from 2015 to now have had no projects coming their way. Construction grounded to a halt and they are waiting for some kind of job to get by. If you go to the Sudama Teerath site you can see 15 to 20 youths sitting there idly. There is no work at all," Mayrhoo said.
He said the corporation was planning to set up a park at the Mosquito Creek cremation site on a vacant piece of land. "We intend to plant some trees and build a nice park there but we will look forward to the development of tourism in the wetlands as well," Mayrhoo added.
Efforts to contact Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell for comment were unsuccessful as calls to his cellular and Whatsapp messages went unanswered. He also did not respond to Facebook messages.
Anyone wanting to visit the swamp can contact Binda at 765-5100.