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Protecting T&T’s heritage

Published: 
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Jeffrey Soule of the American Planning Association looks over a T&T Guardian article about heritage conservation. Soule will be researching cultural heritage in the Caribbean in 2013. PHOTO: ROBERTO CODALLO

One of the many missions of the NGO Citizens for Conservation is to change the public perception of natural and built heritage.

 

According to the group’s president, architect Rudylynn Roberts, “Every village in Trinidad has something special.”

 

Another architect and executive member Geoffrey MacLean said, “There’s a public perception that built heritage is symbolised by the Magnificent Seven and these great houses that belonged to the colonial masters, but there are so many other aspects that need to be examined.”

 

There are many places MacLean mentioned that fall under this category, from the area of Belmont and the many gingerbread houses that still exist there to the Shiva Mandir in Reform Village. 

 

Both Roberts and MacLean were speaking at an interview during a Citizens for Conservation meeting in Coblentz Gardens, Port-of-Spain where around 15 passionate individuals had gathered to plan and prepare for more of the group’s outreach activities. 

 

Citizens for Conservation was founded quite dramatically in 1985 after a group of concerned citizens, artists, architects and engineers got together to save the historic George Brown house on Stanmore Avenue. As founding member Christine Millar describes it, “when we started people thought we were mad.” 

 

“We were at a function and someone mentioned that the George Brown house was being demolished in the morning and we immediately organised to stop it from happening. Every artist was there and then (Peter) Minshall put on a whole show where he was the ghost of George Brown and they went round and round the Savannah and that is how it started. Right there in the Savannah there was a resolution taken under a tree,” she said. 

 

Since then one of the group’s major accomplishments has been the advocacy work that resulted in the passing of the National Trust Act in 1991. Roberts explained that Citizens for Conservation began lobbying for a restoration committee within the government soon after their founding. The committee was the foundation block of what has become the National Trust. 

 

Roberts said Citizens also lobbied for the Historical Restoration Unit within the Ministry of Works. The act was meant to provide legal protection for heritage sites. Yet, even though the trust has been active since 1999, there remain no legally protected sites. 

 

This remains a low point for the organisation—many of their members have held positions on the National Trust board.

 

Other accomplishments noted by Roberts included publication of books and studies on heritage, public outreach programmes such as the Day of 1000 Trees and ongoing work with school children through providing resources, information and even correcting research papers. MacLean also noted the restoration of the grave of 19th century painter Michel Jean Cazabon in Laperyouse Cemetery as extremely important to the history of T&T. 

 

Citizens for Conservation has also offered technical support to many restoration projects and at one point occupied and carried out restoration work on Stollmeyer’s Castle.

 

 

In the ongoing restoration of the George Brown house which is now being carried out by UK architectural firm Donald Insall Associates, Citizens for Conservation is also a technical advisor. 

 

There seemed to be a general consensus among Citizens for Conservation members that the National Trust has suffered from being a government organisation. According to Roberts, the trust was modelled after several similar organisations such as those in Barbados and the UK which are run through public membership. 

 

“A major obstacle to the work of conservation in T&T has been a lack of political interest,” said MacLean. 

 

However, political interest alone may not be enough to drum up support from the general public.

 

Another expert who Citizens for Conservation may soon be working with is conservationist Jeffrey Soule. For the remainder of the year, Soule will be working with various NGOs and the Caribbean Network for Urban and Land Management on a joint Unesco/OAS project looking at historic Caribbean cities.

 

A report will be written on each city detailing findings on the meaning of cultural heritage and the use of heritage in development. Whether the reports are put to use will be up the communities studied, however. “If the community decides they want to do something with UNESCO one of the prime requirements is that they have a functioning preservation system, without that there’s no point in talking about world heritage,” said Soule.

 

Part of the problem according to MacLean is not only the absence of laws but also a lack of education. Even as Roberts admits that the trust has not worked the way it was meant to, she says Citizens for Conservation still supports the organisation.

 

Most recently, Citizens has begun a series of meetings with Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration, Clifton DeCoteau to discuss many of the issues facing heritage protection in T&T. The group has now engaged the International National Trusts Organisation to lend expertise to reorganising the trust. The work does not stop with the reorganisation of the trust, however. Next, Roberts said Citizens for Conservation would reopen a campaign for tax incentives for people working on restorative projects.

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