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Sascha Wilson

While most people were adhering to the COVID-19 Stay-at-Home restrictions, 25 hectares of the Eccesville Windbelt Reserve in Rio Claro were bulldozed by rogue farmers desperate for state land to expand their agricultural business.

An investigation has been launched by the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries’ Forestry Division but it is unlikely the culprits will ever be brought to justice.

Forestry workers said it was an expensive high-level operation with an intricate network system comprising large and small farmers and even villagers. Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat, however, believes the rogue farmers have police connections and forestry workers may be turning a blind eye. He said he has reported the matter to Police Commissioner Gary Griffith, who promised to take action.

Over the years, illegal farmers have been squatting on 150 hectares in the forest reserve and destroyed the habitats of several species of wildlife. Various crops, including chadon beni, plantain, dasheen and pimentoes have been planted on the land.

Just last December, another area not far from where the 25 hectares were destroyed, off MacMohan Road, was bulldozed and a large pond was dug to supply water for the crops.

Through the forest on the way to those sites on Tuesday, the Guardian Media crew observed tracks, clearings with camps and agricultural crops, as well as manmade ponds. About a mile inside the forest, a pick-up van with several male occupants was spotted transporting bags of chadon beni out the area.

Concerned about the increased squatting in the reserve, Forrester Three Sunpaul Laloo, who is attached to the South-East Conservancy, called for forest officers to be given more power. “We need legislation where forest officers are empowered under the State Lands Act and all the governing acts. As it is now, we are governed under the Forest Act, the state land officers are under the State Lands Act. So we have to report the squatting to state land officers and then state land officers will issue their quit notices.”

Laloo, who was among a group of Forestry Division workers investigating the incident, said all forest officers should also be precepted.

Concerned that some animals could become extinct in the area if drastic measures are not taken, Forrester Two Goolab Ramroop said access to the forest reserves should restricted to only persons with a permit.

Explaining why it was difficult to apprehend the perpetrators, Laloo said, “Inside here is a covert operation, you have a lot of networking. So you realise coming in here we came through Legendre Road, Rajpaul Trace, Noel Trace and then MacMohan Road, because of the networking the entire village is connected to this squatting.”

Saddened by the displaced animals, he added, “It is very sad to see all this indiscriminate squatting by these farmers, who just look at it in terms of dollars and cents. It is really sad what is going on and it is sad for the animals who we are empowered to help, to save and protect, the monkeys, the parrots, the birds, the wildlife.”

Rambharat said raised the matter with Conservator of Forests Denny Dipchansingh since last March after he visited areas in Ecclesville, Tableland and other parts of South-East Trinidad where forest reserve was being cleared.

While there are several vacancies in the Forestry Division, he said, “We can do better with the manpower we have at the Forestry Division. These persons should have been found and charged since March 2019.”

However, he also agreed they should be precepted and given law enforcement training.