CHARLES KONG SOO
If not for COVID-19, Trinbagonian Len Peters, the first Commonwealth Points of Light recipient in 2018 would have been able to receive his history-making award in person from the late Queen Elizabeth II who passed away on September 8.
The turtle conservationist and chairman of the Grande Riviere Nature Tour Guides Association (GRNTGA) was bestowed the honour by the queen in recognition of his exceptional voluntary service in protecting endangered turtle species.
The Commonwealth Points of Light Awards celebrate inspirational acts of volunteering across the Commonwealth and help inspire others to make their own contribution to tackling some of the greatest social challenges of our time.
Due to worldwide COVID-19 restrictions at the time, the award ceremony was held online with Queen Elizabeth II celebrating and conversing with three winners of the Commonwealth Points of Light award, including Peters, Nikoletta Polydorou, a music teacher from Cyprus, and Ruy Santos from Mozambique on November 29, 2020.
Peters' award was shipped to the British High Commission in Port-of-Spain and a reception was held for him under the auspices of the then British high commissioner Tim Stew.
Speaking to the Sunday Guardian, Peters said ''If it wasn't for COVID-19 I would have met the queen in person at Windsor Castle. On her passing, you can tell how much she was loved by her people, family, world leaders and citizens from all around the world.
Pupils from the Grande Riviere Anglican Primary School collect turtle hatchlings from the Grande Riviere Beach.
"It was quite a historic event, for my part, I would have had an opportunity to have an audience with the longest-serving British monarch in my lifetime.
"The Points of Light award was a new award that the queen decided to do to coincide with the UK hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London in April 2018 to thank inspirational volunteers across the 54 Commonwealth nations for the difference they were making in their communities and beyond."
He said there were different categories, they would shortlist the finalists and the queen would personally select the winners, his submission was in the area of environmental protection.
Peters replied that T&T was the first country to receive the prestigious award which made it all the more significant.
He said there was a lot of pomp and ceremony at the British High Commission in T&T, entailing an online sit-down with the queen's staff at Windsor Castle.
Peters explained that they walked the recipients through the protocols involved, how they were to address the queen, and the time she was coming online.
She asked them to talk a little about what they did and congratulated them for their long service in their respective fields and to stay the course
During an interview with the British High Commissioner Harriet Cross who had just assumed office, she told him that it was quite an honour to meet the queen. She met the queen at the 2009 CHOGM in Trinidad, but not in her capacity as British High Commissioner.
He said that while he was watching a documentary about the queen on BBC a week ago, showing her walking in her rose garden with Sir David Attenborough, he reminisced that the world acclaimed English broadcaster, biologist, natural historian and author had also spent two weeks with his group members in Grande Riviere for a sequence of Planet Earth 11. They took him to a school where he inspired children to dream, to be the next conservationist, and the next biologist.
Regarding his conservation work, Peters said that it had continued full pace with managing the Grande Riviere turtle nesting site which was a prohibited area during turtle season.
He added that they had a very dedicated group of volunteers during the leatherback nesting season from March to the end of August each year.
Peters emphasised that before the majority of COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, it was a very challenging time for the association. The beaches were closed to the public during this period, and while they had an exemption to be out there protecting the turtles, sadly people could not come out as it was the group's only revenue stream via tours to manage the site, but their commitment was there.
Grande Riviere Anglican Primary School pupils collect turtle hatchlings.
Turtles continued to be well protected, Peters said. This year has been better as people were back out on the beaches, and the group can now do turtle-watching tours and generate some much-needed revenue.
He shared that on September 9 volunteers from the Grande Riviere Anglican Primary School collected baby turtles in the daytime, and had collected over 12,059 hatchlings over a 20-day period. Peters said that the group also sponsored the students' school uniforms. Representatives from the EMA, the Ministry of Agriculture's Forestry Division and the Turtle Village Trust were present.
Peters said that T&T was a blessed place and one of the few remaining places on Earth that was a custodian of the ancient spectacle of turtles laying their eggs.
He encouraged every T&T citizen to visit a turtle nesting site in their lifetime, preferably Grande Riviere to witness the heart-warming phenomenon, and it was a trip worth making.
Earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth II, as head of the Commonwealth, recognised another Trinidadian, managing director and arranger of Fonclaire Steel Orchestra Darren Sheppard, as the 220th Commonwealth Point of Light in honour of his exceptional voluntary service running pan music education programmes for young people and seniors.