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An officer attached to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry Division, stands guard at the Eccesvile Windbelt Reserve where some 25 hectares were destroyed in Rio Claro.

Conservator of Forests Denny Dipchansingh says changes to the legislation, additional training for workers, and increased staff will help in clamping down on rampant squatting on forest reserves by illegal farmers.

Dipchansingh was responding to the recent destruction of 25 hectares of the Ecclesville Windbelt Reserve in Rio Claro by rouge farmers who want the land to plant a variety of crops including chadon beni, plantain, and dasheen.

The discovery was made by forestry workers who returned to work last week after being off the job for two weeks in keeping with the COVID-19 regulations.

The windbelt reserve, which comprises a total of 515 hectares, was designated to protect surrounding communities against storms and hurricanes. Over the years, however, approximately 150 hectares have been bulldozed by illegal farmers.

Forester Three Sunpaul Laloo of the South-East Conservancy explained that it is difficult to pinpoint the perpetrators or catch them in the act because the illegal operation is part of a coordinated network that also involves villagers. He called for all forest workers to be precepted and given more powers to deal with environmental crimes.

Dipchansingh agreed and added, “We are empowered under the Forests, Sawmills, and Conservation of Wildlife Acts and additional forestry workers should be precepted and additional training is always welcomed. And additional changes in legislation should (be taken to) enhance the authority of the Conservator of Forests to evict illegal occupants on reserves. Presently this authority lies only with the Commissioner of State Lands.”

Dipchansingh said the workers should be commended for their efforts and noted that five persons were charged for the illicit felling of trees between 2017 and 2019.

Dipchansingh assured that they will be liaising with the Land Management Unit and together with the Commissioner of State Lands will be taking a more vigorous approach in evicting the illegal farmers.

Meanwhile, Kristopher Rattansingh, chairman of the Wildlife and Environmental Protection of Trinidad and Tobago (WEPTT) is appealing to the authorities to equip the Forestry Division with the necessary resources to save the forests and wildlife.