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Heritage site under threat

Proposal for Amerindian Village

For more than 20 years, the Santa Rosa First Peoples Carib Community has been requesting lands for the establishment of an Amerindian Village. It took the vibrant stewardship of the Minister of the new Ministry of National Diversity and Social Integration Clifton De Coteau to make this a reality.

Minister De Coteau shares with us his vision for the Amerindian Village.

"They were here before Columbus and this is what we are recognising today. According to our records, in 1592 the Amerindian population of Trinidad numbered about 40,000. By 1634, the Amerindian population of Trinidad numbered around 4,000. In 42 years, we lost approximately 36,000 of our people. Descendants of indigenous peoples survive today in all parts of the country, but most notably in areas of Arima and Siparia.

"The Santa Rosa First Peoples Carib Community has over 600 members and today finally has the resources by which to join in economic development through increased employment, heritage tourism, food manufacturing and export, agriculture and sale of handicraft and indigenous art forms.

"For an estimated cost of $1.96 million, this project is seeking to include the construction of a large meeting area, washroom facilities, offices, craft shop, restaurant, visitor accommodation, storage centre and cassava processing plant."

The minister envisages all lands planted with cassava, corn and sugar cane. He uses visual imagery in seeing the bustle of activity and consequent swarms of visitors to the site at 1¾ mm Blanchisseuse Road, Arima.

Vel Lewis, chairman of the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago and Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism, sees the site as very much like a "living museum" and a model national heritage site. These disclosures augur well for the long-awaited village. However, there is a looming threat to these well-meaning plans that could ruin the integrity of the site.

Chief of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Carib Community Ricardo Bharath Hernandez reveals the concern of his community. "Bordering the 25 acres of lands proposed for the site, there are some private lands which were originally Amerindian lands. We understand that these lands are now in the hands of a real estate agent, and that they are making efforts to purchase these lands for a housing project. We are hoping and praying that that development does not take place because it will not complement the indigenous village."

At indigenous sites the world over, any outside land development within close proximity usually marks the beginning of environmental and cultural problems for the people. In this case, this threat is positioned along the immediate border of the heritage site, and what is hurtful to the community is that these are lands that originally belonged to Amerindians. In the eyes of the community, history is about to repeat itself.

"By Treaty rights when the Spanish ceded Trinidad to Britain, it was with the understanding that the rights of the territory of the First Peoples of Arima be preserved. The indigenous people of Arima, the Santa Rosa Mission, owned 1,320 acres of land. That was their inalienable right. But they lost all of it because the British disregarded the treaty. The peoples lost their land because they did not have leaders at the forefront to fight for their rights."

Hernandez has spoken to the parties concerned and informs us there is room for the acquisition of these lands.

"While we are thankful to the State for recognising indigenous peoples, their struggles and their rights, we hope that this 25-acre gesture will be expanded. The granting of this land is not a gift from the State to the descendants of the First Peoples of Trinidad by extension Arima. It is their just due.

"All we are asking for is a space sufficient to develop ourselves with the industry of the indigenous peoples such as cassava, handicraft, animal husbandry and whatever else there might be.

"I am bombarded with calls night and day from students wanting information. The school curriculum calls for these studies. What a good thing it will be that they can come to the village and get first-hand experience of all that is indigenous.

"What a beautiful thing this will be when there is a community that sustains itself with all the cultural aspects of their own. It will be a plus not only for the people themselves but for the Borough of Arima, and Trinidad and Tobago."

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