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Monday, August 10, 2015
Forres Park garbage dump. PHOTO: MARC DE VERTEUIL

It is sensory overload. Around me swirl black vultures. Their beating wings sound like rotors. An unnatural soil sticks to my feet. 

It looks like dirt but it is mud mixed in with ash and plastic and decomposing organic material. The air is filled with white, acrid smoke that seeps from the ground, as if from a fiery underworld. 

But there is no underworld. This is a field of burning trash at the Forres Park garbage dump near to Claxton Bay.

A fire has raged here for days. A bulldozer tries to put it out by heaping up burning garbage and soil, churning them in to smouldering topsoil.

Among the fields of garbage are stick figures of men. T-shirts wrapped around their mouths and noses to protect them from the noxious fumes. 

None seem to wear any protective gear. A steady stream of garbage trucks drives into the dump. The stick figures descend on each one as they dump their load, looking for sellable, recyclable items.

To my right, a group of men huddles in a circle around a fire. Thick, black smoke bellows from the circle centre. They burn tyres to retrieve the steel cords that reinforce them. This is how these men survive. 

This is recycling Trinidad style. It is probably how the fire started.

The Forres Park dump is the only engineered dump in Trinidad. Properly it should be called a landfill but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of planning, so I will call it a dump. There is a leachate pool at the bottom of the dump. Legend has it that caiman live in the toxic runoff. I did not see it myself but in this other world I would believe anything.

Not many people know where Forres Park dump is. It is well hidden in the hills near Claxton Bay, to the east of the Solomon Hochoy Highway. 

The most famous nearby site is the haunted statue that overlooks the highway. It is an accident-prone spot where drivers claim to see the image of a girl crossing the road.

A nearby, broken statue of a girl who died young is blamed. Traffic engineers say that accidents are due to dangerous crosswinds, a sharp curve and driving and texting. 

These days an occasional thick cloud of smoke from the dump, hugging the highway may be another reason for accidents.

The truth be told, it doesn’t matter to most motorists. The air-conditioning is on and cars zip through the dioxin and methane-laden fumes in a matter of seconds.

For the nearby residents of Spring Village, directly downwind from Forres Park, it is a different story. 

They remember the Forres Park dump site as good agricultural land. The community evolved from the barracks of a sugar estate. 

They are rooted to the soil. With pride they talk about the green rolling hills that surround their home. Natural springs gave the area its name, they say.

It is not the place they remember, though. The ever-growing dump and frequent fires impact their lives. 

I spoke to one resident who was relaxing in a hammock under his house. He told me he has lived in Spring Village for 30 years.

His house was shrouded in a thin haze of smoke. I asked him if the fumes bothered him. At first he told me: “Hardly.” 

Then he said, “Well, you know, once you get used to something it isn’t that bad, you stop noticing it.” Our perceptions were different. I felt like I was breathing from a burning garbage bin. I couldn’t wait to get fresh air. He has nowhere to go. This is home.

He told me that it is not the smoke that bothers him most, but the smell. 

He says the smell is there even when the smoke is not. The smell is rotting organic matter and gases like methane.

A former resident, a psychologist, told me that she cannot visit her parent’s home in Spring Village when the fumes are particularly bad. 

She has asthma and becomes overwhelmed on bad days. She had to move, an environmental refugee. A truck driver told me that politicians organised resident protests against the dump. He said: “They had us jumping up and down with placards. 

Once they got elected the politicians were no longer seen, the dump no longer needed to be dealt with.”

A government-funded study shows that we can reduce the flow of trash to garbage dumps by 80 per cent. This means that four out of five garbage dumps in T&T can be closed. 

The study selects Forres Park as the one dump in Trinidad to remain open, due to its central location. 

It recommends that the dump be properly engineered and managed. If done correctly, it should not impact residents. 


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