Trinidad has a reputation for producing nothing but sky-burning flames of gas run-off and gloopy masses of oil-ooze industry.
The island in the Southern Caribbean also has a rather sadly neglected agricultural sector, which seems to make very little sense when you consider its masses of natural resources. Came and went did the cacao and coffee industries, in their heyday the envy of this corner of the world, in the face of cheaper imports of lesser quality.
Against this influx of affordability, as has been seen worldwide, local farmers and producers simply cannot compete and, as worldwide, thus do communities fragment and lose touch with the very things that once sustained them.
And yet, here and there are cropping back up pockets of individual brilliance, true eco-community initiatives that are led by the people literally at the grass roots level.
Brasso Seco, a tiny village of some 250 permanent inhabitants, is a prime example. A winding, up and downing, bumpy-tracked two and a half hours from Trini capital Port of Spain, the journey there is not an experience for the faint-hearted. Our tour bus bops and clonks its way over mountains, past acres of planted Christophene (also known as cho-cho or choyote) that clinging to vine slats that give the landscape a distinctly apple-y pallor here in the Northern Range.
Here, bamboo grasses planted in the heady days of agricultural experimentation and now an invasive, ultra-fast growing menace; there bursts bright crimson of wild varieties of Chaconia, the national flower of Trinidad and Tobago. There’s plenty to see on the ride in, that’s for sure, and the relatively long journey (if not distance) serves to give the real sensation of leaving what’s loosely and erroneously termed ‘civilisation’ behind, to be replaced by … what?
The Brasso Seco Paria Tourism Action Committee, reads the official blurb, is a community-based organisation run by villagers that seek to develop, promote and preserve all that this beautiful valley and village have to offer.
Accurate, from one point of view. But from another it hardly begins to describe the genuine warmth with which you’re greeted; the traditional songs sung by the band that greets you; the sense that here at the new tourism centre is a model for many, many other projects of the future.
It is a mountain village with a stream, a couple of streets, a bar (of course), a church (next door to the bar, of course) and a rainforest treasure on its doorstep. Here we stroll with our guide, Carl, who takes us on a journey through truly virgin rainforest. His knowledge of the various flora and fauna is unparalleled and he points out which vegetation is edible, which is poisonous, which vines to drink from in an emergency, even which trees can be tapped for a sophisticated-smelling natural perfume. It’s educational, relaxing and wonderful whilst also reiterating the knowledge we’ve lost through our instant-gratification supermarket worldview.
It’s possible to hike the kilometres to spectacular waterfalls, gorges and Paria Bay Beach, a real treasure, but given our time constraints we return to the village for some special ‘buccaneer’ chicken, wrapped in banana leaf and smoked in a dirt-built traditonal oven and placed on a branca, accompanied by yuca, assorted tubers and salad. There’s even home-made ice-cream which is a real treat.
The day continues with a short and very winding cracked-track drive to something very special indeed: Brasso Seco’s very own coffee and cacao ‘estate.’ This smallholding has been rehabilitated from a very, very overgrown and wild abandoned facility. More music accompanies us as we learn about the coffee bean including the deliciousness of the final tasting.
Earthy, rich, powerful – this is the real deal. There’s something amazing, too, about drinking pure, rich Trinidadian chocolate from an espresso cup. Both products are available at the visitor centre, and though the chocolate is currently sent off-island for processing, there are plans to bring that back in-house as soon as is practical. The centre also sells a variety of jewellery, pepper sauce, kuchella and local wines that include varieties made from the aforementioned Christophene, sorrel and others. Back to the cacao, though, and before we leave we decamp to the roof where a pile of raw beans awaits us.
The Brasso Seco band is back and they play another traditional Parang tune, this time with Spanish words, the only one of which I can fully make out is ‘bailar’ – to dance. And dance there is; the cocoa dance, to be exact. In years gone by, in order to finish off the fermentation of the dried beans to rake them, extract the nasties and make them ready for further processing, workers would literally dance atop them, barefoot. This, of course, is no different to the treading of wine grapes and is another reminder of how divorced from traditional ways we’ve become.
There’s a lot to be said about the modern world, of course, a point that’s rather solidly made as we get back into our air conditioned bus for the return journey. But places like Bracco Seco are vital in not just reminding ourselves what’s important but offering truly sustainable ways to move forward into the future whilst ensuring that the best parts of the past are kept alive, giving communities and tourists the chance to interact for the best possible reasons.
If eco-tourism is, indeed, to be the growth area of the next decade, projects like this are where it will be born. Not on legislation or the imposition of top-down rules, regulations, red tape and government bloat; not by big business and its own necessarily self-serving fundamental motivation; but by communities working together.
Power is such a strange concept, when you think about it. For those who seek it are rarely worthy of it, but those who care not for such distractions, preferring to get on with living together with each other and the land, could yet change the world. Such, perhaps has it always been. Maybe we’ve busied ourselves choking our skies with burning, gaseous smog for so long we’ve lost the ability to even see where we fit anymore.
But Brasso Seco, with government help, and other similar community-based projects, are showing, quietly, effectively, that there is hope.