27 June 2021

After 1492: The Nature of the Damage (UWI Symposium on Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Sustainability)

On Monday, October 12, 2020, it was my special honour to participate as the Featured Speaker at a symposium hosted at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. The symposium was co-organized by the Faculty of Law and the Santa Rosa First People's Community and it was titled, "Our First Peoples: Leading Us Toward Environmentally Sound and Sustainable Communities". The timing of the event was pertinent: held on the 528th anniversary of the entry of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean, it was also timed to coincide with "The First Peoples' Day of Recognition" and "Heritage Week," with activities running from October 9-14, 2020. One of the most impressive features of this wonderful event was that it involved a live gathering of Indigenous representatives from across the Caribbean, South America, Central America, and North America.

My feature address was titled, "After 1492: The Nature of the Damage". The presentation was cautious and sceptical about the sudden intrusion into the region of notably foreign narratives about "environmental sustainability" and the assumption that there must be "Indigenous perspectives" ready-made and waiting for the arrival of this narrative. I alerted those present to the dangers of a Green Imperialism and Green Structural Adjustment by pointing to the historical and geopolitical context in which this narrative has been granted prominence by powerful political and corporate interests.

The focus of the presentation was on three dimensions of Indigenous knowledge that I think have gained new prominence, and even new urgency, in the present so-called "pandemic": one involves the long-standing question of how we manufacture problems for the world by adhering to clearly flawed dichotomous frameworks that separate humans from nature, and set the two in opposition. The second concerns the need, in the case of Trinidad, to draw inspiration, strength, and practical solutions not just from Amerindian Indigenous knowledge, but from what we might call the Exogenous Indigenous—peoples from Africa and India who brought with them not just some implements, and even some seeds, but also a wealth of agricultural, horticultural, and herbal knowledge, much of which has survived and blended with other knowledge systems in the Trinidadian context. The third, is the recurring and still unresolved issue of food security, or food insecurity, a problem laid bare in the sun by the current "pandemic".

The event was followed by a joint appearance by Chief Ricardo Bharat Hernandez and myself on Tony Fraser's radio programme on Power 102 FM on October 14, 2020.

All of the files for these two events follow below: a flyer for the symposium; the program of the symposium; a video showing my presentation alone; the complete proceedings of the symposium (which can also be viewed on Facebook); and, a podcast of the joint radio interview on Power 102.

Flyer for October 12, 2020 ... by Maximilian Forte

Conference Program, "O... by Maximilian Forte

After 1492: The Nature of the Damage


Maroons, Indigenous Peoples, and Self-Determination: The 13th Annual Charles Town Maroon Conference


On Thursday, June 24, 2021, I was honoured to participate (by virtual means) in the 13th Annual International Charles Town Maroon Conference and Festival. My presentation focused on The State, the Church, and Indigenous Self-Determination in Trinidad & Tobago. You can listen to the audio file of the spoken presentation, or watch the video presentation of the proceedings below. The conference program follows next.

The purpose of the presentation was to outline both the advances and successes of the work done over the past four decades (45 years) by the leadership of the Carib Community in seeking greater national visibility, official recognition, and a land grant. At the same time, I discuss some of the constraints that have been imposed by the Community's relationships with both the state and the Catholic Church. This information can be used to reflect on the strategy of trying to build autonomy at the same time as leading a cultural resurgence, in the absence of significant economic resources.

13th Annual International Charles Town Maroon Conference Programme - June 23 and 24, 2021 by Maximilian Forte on Scribd

17 June 2020

The Pandemic: Indigenous Perspectives on Survival, Adaptation, Rebuilding, and Preparedness

Statement released by Chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez,
Santa Rosa First Peoples Community,
Arima, Trinidad & Tobago,
June 16, 2020.

As Amerindians/Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean, we are historically well acquainted with a series of epidemics and pandemics. We therefore have a lot of historical experience in suffering and surviving from both local epidemics and regional pandemics. We have seen some of the worst in the past, and now the rest of the world is getting a small taste of what we had to go through. The big difference is that we did not have a World Health Organization looking into our situation; nobody came to our assistance; there was no protection or support from the authorities; we were left to our own devices. We have survived the very worst, rebuilt our economies, and we are still here today thanks to our ancestors’ survival skills. We have some lessons to offer from those experiences.

Here are some key points from our historical experience:

(i) “by 1518 only 16,000 [Taino] survived. That year a smallpox epidemic swept through the Spanish colonies, a pandemic, according to the historical demographer Henry Dobyns, that by 1525 had left no American culture untouched. By 1545 the 29 sugar mills on Hispaniola were using nearly 6,000 non-Taino from the South American mainland and the Lesser Antilles and 3,300 Africans as laborers”.i
(ii) In 1739, a smallpox outbreak “decimated” Trinidad’s Indian population.ii
(iii) In 1817 the Yellow Fever Epidemic swept Trinidad, followed by the cholera epidemic in the 1850s; and, smallpox in the 1870s.iii
(iv) In 1854 a cholera epidemic struck North coast Indians* heavily” (pp. 14–15); “The same epidemic decimated the Amerindian population living in the hills around the old Arima mission”.iv
(v) “On the north coast...the surviving Amerindian families were brought together in the mission at Cumana (Toco); but they disappeared inexorably, and the cholera epidemic of 1854 apparently exterminated nearly all the north coast Indians. By 1885 there were only perhaps a dozen half-caste Amerindian families on the north coast”; “In Arima the story was the same. In 1840 there were only about three hundred Indians of pure descent in the old mission, mostly aged. Occasionally surviving members of a group of Chayma Indians used to come down from the heights beyond Arima to the Farfan estate, to barter wild meats for small household goods. But after 1854 they were seen no more: cholera had extinguished the Chaymas”.v

Chief Ricardo leading his people in prayer
Our Amerindian/Indigenous peoples are closely connected to Mother Earth and all the life she sustains. Of benefit to the modern world are the Caribbean Indigenous lessons on listening to and learning from the natural environment; revising our relationships with animals; and building self-sustaining local agriculture.

Part of this pandemic appears to stem from an imbalance between humans and other animals. We cannot afford to continue viewing the natural environment with contempt, or as something to be devoured. The “Medicine Man or Woman” is very important in our culture, with knowledge of the healing herbs and minerals which are gifted to us in the natural environment. The Caribbean Amerindian/Indigenous relationship with the natural, animal world was intensely intimate. It was not just a matter of living in a “harmonious relationship” with nature—it is about being one and the same with nature, inseparable, indivisible, and indistinguishable. On the mainland Amerindian ancestor communities in places such as Guyana, heralded themselves as members of the “Jaguar clan” or the “Eagle clan”—this was not just a matter of empty symbolism. They firmly believed that their ultimate ancestor was a jaguar, or an eagle, and so on. We need to reinstitute that relationship of respect, knowing our limits as human beings, and being attentive to the realities of where we live.

Instead of being constantly and repeatedly exposed to destruction from recurring phenomena, we must learn lessons from the past, and implement changes.

A hurricane will flatten one of our Caribbean neighbours, razing as many as 90% of all structures. So what do they do? They rebuild the same sort of structures that are vulnerable to destruction from hurricanes—square or rectangular houses, with jagged rooftops. The best structure is the Amerindian/Indigenous one, which is conical, and at the very worst is easy to rebuild.

The same is true about having an abundance of root crops (ground provisions), as practised by the Amerindians/Indigenous People. Ground provisions cannot be destroyed in a hurricane, thus ensuring that people have a ready supply of food in order to rebuild.

This pandemic revealed similar frailty. We are fragile by design: it is an outcome of inappropriate policies, and inadequate planning. Our dependency on foreign imports of food placed us in a situation of great insecurity. People were also dependent on going out to buy food, rather than turning to supplies that could have been provided by their own gardens—we were over exposed, and for no good reason.

In rebuilding, there needs to be a dramatic new investment in local agriculture, and a national plan that includes everyone—not just career “farmers”. Every yard needs to be planted. There should be an abundance of cassava flour that renders imported wheat flour too expensive, and is even a less healthy alternative to cassava flour. We need to teach our people what they can do with local products, that they are not currently doing. A national farming system could turn every household into a unit of production, with excess supply purchased by the state, and processed into items with a long shelf-life. National education, through government media programming, could teach people how they can contribute, or how they can use items such as cassava flour.

What can we do to make life during the next pandemic more bearable? How can we act now, to not be like victims in the future? What must change? How can the Indigenous People of Trinidad & Tobago offer some vital guidance?

Trinidad’s Indigenous People are prepared to lead in establishing the foundations of a national cassava industry. We already have the support of the University of Trinidad and Tobago. The First Peoples Heritage Village, currently under construction, is well positioned to become the nucleus of an expanded agricultural enterprise—it will be a true model, to all other Trinidadians.

i “Indians” here as stated by the Authors, refer to the Amerindians, and not East Indians. From: Keegan, William. (1992). “Death Toll”. Archaeology (January/February), p. 55.

ii From: Ottley, C. Robert. (1955). An Account of Life in Spanish Trinidad (From 1498-b 1797). 1st ed. Diego Martin, Trinidad: C. R. Ottley, p. 42.

iii From Page 253 in: Joseph, E.L. (1970 [1838]). History of Trinidad. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd.

iv From: Goldwasser, Michele. (1994-96). “Remembrances of the Warao: the Miraculous Statue of Siparia, Trinidad”. Antropologica, p. 15.

v From: Brereton, Bridget. (1979) Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 130–131.

16 June 2020

Trinidad: Chief Asks How Does Removing Columbus Statue Improve First Peoples?

Defaced: Red paint is splattered on the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Square, corner of Independence Square and Duncan Street, Port of Spain.

Don’t kill Christopher Columbus a second time just for killing sake.

It will not do the First Peoples any good unless it’s accompanied by tangible measures to advance the indigenous people of Trinidad and Tobago.

So said Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community, Ricardo Bharath.

“We want to kill Columbus a second time and it doesn’t do one blooming thing for us,” Bharath told the Express yesterday.

His position comes even as another indigenous group, supported by the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC) through its Cross Rhodes Freedom Project, is making a call for the removal of Columbus’ statue in Port of Spain.

Bharath said he was invited by the ESC to make a statement at a recent indigenous ritual ceremony where the call for the removal of Columbus’ statue was made.

He said he made his position clear but it was drowned out.

Bharath said there remain several issues relating to the First Peoples which have not been addressed.

He said indigenous people of T&T were the ones most affected by the coming of Columbus in 1498.

He said it was 200 years after Columbus came, however, that the Spanish authorities began the decimation of the First Peoples.

“They forced them to give up their religion and their language. If they did not accept the new religion, they were sometimes put to death. Some of them fled and killed themselves,” he said.

“You hear about so many suicide points around the country. Many accepted the new religion because they did not want to face death or starvation.”

Bharath said only a fraction of the First Peoples remain today, most of them having intermarried.

Leader of another indigenous group, Queen of the Warao Nation, Donna Bermudez-Bovell, last week called on Port of Spain Mayor Joel Martinez to remove the statue of Columbus from Columbus Square and replace it with an indigenous freedom fighter.

The Warao Nation and the ESC have begun an online petition for support and thousands have responded.

Their calls to remove Columbus and other “racist” monuments comes after the removal of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Britain by Black Lives Matter protesters.

But Bharath cleared the air on the Santa Rosa First Peoples community’s position on the matter.

“I am not a Columbus fighter saying his statue must remain and neither am I asking for its removal,” he said yesterday.

“How does the removal of Columbus’ statue improve the lives and the plight of the descendants of the First Peoples today?

“If it is just removing Columbus’ statue for the sake of removing it, I see no benefit and no merit. The removal must be replaced with something significant to advance our cause today.

“And if that cannot be done, it’s a waste of time in fighting for the removal of a statue. What is done is done. By removing Columbus’ statue we cannot undo the past.”

Bharath said they have already presented a model of a monument to a government committee concerning the removal of the bones of indigenous peoples during excavation works in the restoration of the Red House.

He claimed funding has been the cause of the keep back in the setting up of this monument, which comprises an indigenous figure and remains of the First Peoples.

The Red House, site of Parliament, is a colonial relic allegedly constructed on a burial site of indigenous peoples.

Bharath listed some present and ongoing issues affecting the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago.

He said even though the descendants of indigenous people were considered a small group, they want a political voice, both at the local and central government levels.

He said they were promised assistance to establish an Amerindian village in Blanchissuesse and, to date, were still struggling with this with a small UNESCO grant.

“There are funds in the Public Sector Investment Programme for this but nobody seems to be able to get this out.

“We have land issues. There are areas we would like to see protected which are now being destroyed by quarrying.

“If none of those things can’t be done, I don’t see what is the fuss about this Columbus statue,” he said.