The Adopted Dog – The Steel Band practises

Edsel was with us this last time – although he had been to Kingstown many years before it took a while to orientate him.  On the first evening we went down to the city to find some food.  Unfortunately Kingstown had an excellent selection of cafes that did buffet lunches, rotis and other snacks, but in the evenings there were only one or two rather pricey restaurants open and for the rest you were left with a handful of fast food joints.  We had a reasonable pizza on the Back Street and then took Edsel on a quick evening walk around the centre of the city.  Kingstown often seemed to close down at night – much of the daytime population head off to their towns, villages and suburbs along the  coastlines or in the hills and there were only a handful of slightly shady nightclubs.

Cobblestone Inn arches

The Cobblestone archways in Kingstown

Which is why it was surprising to hear a rich deep beat of music as we walked back from dinner that night.  We had sauntered past all the shuttered up shops along Bay St and turned inland before climbing the hill to our accommodation.  The noise was coming from in amongst a bunch of old warehouses to our left.  In a small car park, under a canvas awning, was a steel band.  With one or two exceptions, the band were teenagers, directed by a skinny, tall energetic guy with dreadlocks.  He sat in the centre surrounded by an extensive drum kit.  Even sitting down he dominated the band and with the extensions to the hands in the form of drumsticks he seemed able to reach right across the whole troop whenever he needed to single someone out.  And boy was he harsh.  He would stop the play if he heard one note out of place and either sing the part, or beat it out with his sticks to emphasise the detailed notes he would give back.  I thought it a bit harsh on young players, but they stood there absorbing it all in – looking rather bored and grey; very little reaction and certainly no resentment.  But when he would go “One…Two..Three” and start playing the drums, the ensemble came together in one energetic cacophony of sound.

I love full steel bands.  Not the tinkling little foursome playing “Moon River” while you eat your lobster at a resort hotel, but the energy and life of a full orchestra.  A dextrous tune played out on the tenor instruments, the bass ones, literally oil drums bashed into form, thump out the beat with such ferocity it would make my ribs shake.  With some drums, a few other percussion and a guitar or two, the range of tunes, harmonies, speeds and moods they could evoke was mind blowing.

It sounded fantastic to me, but the conductor would pull them up within bars of starting and give another minute long explanation of what was wrong, what he wanted.  He was a perfectionist, and quite dictatorial.  But you could see that the band respected his opinion and learnt from his direction so were obviously used to his directness.

The three of us stood on the roadside peering into the car park through a chain fence.  No-one seemed to even notice we were there, the focus was all on the conductor and the music.  After several attempts, they managed to play several minutes of the tune they were practicing, but you could see this was more about finessing the music for some competition or big concert, and we were not going to be treated to more than the sneakiest of previews that night.  We could still hear the stop start of the practice as we headed up our own road to the house.

The Adopted Dog – Eduardo settles in

Eduardo settled in to his long term visits in the islands and got established in the house.  I next visited him for a set of general training sessions that we had organised.  By this time he was well into the routine and we had been keeping in touch regularly by Skype or email.  We had long conversations where I had to try and keep his morale up.  As with many of these projects you are often forging ahead alone and trying to persuade your clients to come along with you for the ride.  Staff changes, off island conferences, multi tasking all did not help to get them to focus on what you were trying to achieve.   And when you are out on a job alone it can often make your energy sap, especially in the early stages of a project when the finishing line seems so, so far away.  But when I reached the island for the second visit, he was fairly cheerful and the clients were all appreciative of the progress that had been made.

He had settled in to his apartment too. It was small with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small galley kitchen and a central lounge.  Most of the rooms were along one long strip of building, as the back was against the hillside.  The windows were all out front and opened out on to a long veranda.  Eduardo had set up a couple of chairs on one side and this was where he spent most of his time in the evenings, working, skyping his girlfriend or listening to music.  From the veranda a few steps went down on to a sloping concrete surface that would normally have been the parking lot, but since Eduardo did not have a vehicle on island, this was an open space, and meant that from the veranda we had a clear view out over Kingstown city centre, the bay beyond and in the distance, the northern most Grenadine Islands.  Although many houses had a view over this bay – the theatre style of the valley sides within which Kingstown sat dictated that many got a full view of the stage – I felt especially privileged.  I do like views which are dynamic. It is all very well to have a sea view but if it only changes every day, I need only glance at it once to see what is going on.  When a view is in a city you have all the motions of the thousands of people to observe.  From this spot you could see several of the schools dotted around the city, and sports grounds where cricketers, baseball players, basketball players, footballers at one time or another would play.  Many of the houses below us were nestled in amongst their own small holdings so were hidden away behind palm trees, bananas, or fruit trees of various types; mangoes, breadfruit, sugar apples or plums.

And further down the hill we had a could see the roofs of the city centre.  The detail was lost on us – only the spires of the Catholic Cathedral and the plain white tower of the Anglican Cathedral dominated the back of the town, and through the jumble of roofs and television aerials I could just make out the tall pink government building where we were working.  But a small ridge with houses on it obscured most of that view.  We got a much clearer view off to the south east.  We could not see the quayside itself, but the headland that protected it from the swells of Bequia Channel was a prominent part of our vista.  And we could see beyond and watch the parade of small ferries that came from Bequia itself, or less frequently from the other islands further south.  And on a number of occasions cruise ships of various shapes and sizes would glide into view in the morning and later drift off into the night.

If you went out in the garden you could see up the hill too and realise despite our apparently lofty position there were row upon row of house plots going right up the mountain behind us.  I walked up those roads a couple of times.  Again the expanding housing stock a visible sign of the stress on land this small country.

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Nice spot to call home

Eduardo and I spent several evenings…. and breakfasts and weekends, out on the porch working away or chatting.  Eduardo was keen to cook for me and we hardly ate out that second trip.  He was still settling into the apartment and it was Spartan in its furnishings – a couple of chairs, small table and sideboard.  By the time I returned for the third and final trip about eight months later, he was treating it like a second home and the furniture was much more extensive.  In the interim he had spent three to four times there of about six weeks each helping out with various phases of the project, including the time consuming case studies we had specked out.  He knew which minibuses to use; had a driver that could take him further afield.  He knew which supermarkets to get all the best bargains, and where to find a nice bottle of wine (normally he would try and bring it in as the selection was not great in Kingstown).

The Adopted Dog – Spotting the Squatting

But our work was not to focus on the big infrastructural projects here.  Tony was concerned that we look at a much more serious planning issue in this part of the island; that of squatters.  Now when I have been told about squatters in most other parts of the world, I see shanty towns, informal settlements, whatever you want to call them, on the edge of the roadside taking over a scrap of land that had not been used, or had gone out of agricultural production.  Tony drove us over to one of the squatter houses is this area.  Turning off the main road and heading towards the coast the ground became open and grassy, the result of heavy grazing by goats, and peppered across the landscape was a mixture of chattel houses, concrete villas and , most bizarrely, some three storey, 8 bedroom mansions.  I said to Tony that the owners there must be a bit peeved that the squatters were just randomly eating up the surrounding land.  Tony smiled at me – the guy who has built that mansion, he said, is also squatting.  He never bought the rights to that land.  But the government has never been able to take any action against him.

The problem of squatting in a small island is not all about the landless trying to find places to build their homes.  Some people seek the advantage to take on what is known to be abandoned land without going through all the paperwork, and because family ties are strong and populations small, some find they are not challenged by the official “authorities” as they know someone who can sit on the little administrator and keep them quiet.

But spending huge amounts of money building a large modern mansion complete with external walls and lavish metal gates on land  you did not own did seem a tad audacious.  It really did cock a snoop at those honest civil servants who are trying to manage the whole country’s interests.

The Adopted Dog – Into Mesopotamia

Our second day of field trips was to look at two more of our possible case studies.  The first was probably the most important one from the point of view of the EU Funding.  To the north east of Kingstown is a large catchment called the Mesopotamia valley, and it is stacked full of banana trees – the largest plantations in the whole country.  As I’ve explained the industry is declining and some of the hillsides are being abandoned.  While the natural vegetation is encroaching on some fields, the steeper slopes are becoming more susceptible to erosion and the consequences for flooding in the settled valley bottoms and dumping soil out over the coral reefs on the Atlantic Coast.

We gathered at the ministry to take a vehicle out of town towards the airport.  Just beyond the turn off to the terminal, right at the end of the runway, we veered off the Windward Highway and started heading up through the leafier suburbs behind Arnos Vale and over the ridge into Mesopotamia itself.  The road hairpins down the side of the valley, but not before you have several look out points to see the expanse of the plantations.  It was rainy season and the central mountains of St Vincent looked threatening in amongst the iron grey skies.  Houses were generally nestled at the base of the valleys, or along the many ridges that reach down from the volcanic peaks.  The steep slopes in between were full of banana plants, many of them with their fruit covered in blue plastic bags to protect them from insects and fungus.

The evidence of banana industry was everywhere – not just in the fields.  Along the roadside we would see pallets ready for stacking the produce; in the heart of the valley was a large metal storehouse that was marked as a processing plant.  A whole posse of trucks sat in yards here and there waiting for the time they were to transport the cargo down to Kingstown wharf.  It all looked very organised, productive and profitable.  But then we saw the abandoned plantations and the derelict machines and you realised this was the last vestiges of a declining industry.

The options for land use change in St Vincent were limited.  Beyond the abandonment of fields and recapture by the natural vegetation, they could be taken on for other sorts of agriculture.  This was somewhat limited by the steepness of the slopes on which the bananas had been grown.  One potential application of the National GIS was to study the slopes, the soils and the water sources to look at land capability for other crops; be they ground annual crops like rice or wheat, or plantations such as rubber, arrowroot.  The latter was a traditional crop in the north of St Vincent that had gone into decline until it was seen as a very useful whitener or computer paper.  The other alternative was to subdivide the plantations and allow further building development.  And that was about all.  The steep slopes of Mesopotamia were a large problem for government right now.

We followed the main river out of the valley and down to the Windward coast.  Here the land was flatter and often used for coconut plantation as well as other farming – the options of non-banana land were much wider than that in the valley.  But this area was earmarked for a much bigger project.  Ever since I had started coming to St Vincent there had been talk of a new airport.  Still no turf had been cut, no sod lifted.  But this windward region was in such limbo that it too looked slightly decayed and worn out.  With the prospect of hectares of land being bought up for runway, taxiways, tarmac, terminal buildings and car parks, nobody was investing in their private dwellings – just waiting for the government to pay them off so they could move on.

The Adopted Dog – A day trip to Bequia

Eduardo and I met up with two staff from the Ministry of Planning; Tony Bowman who was the overall project coordinator, and Dornet Hull who was a chief technician, at the ferry dock at the eastern end of the waterfront.  We chugged over on the hourly ferry to Admiralty Bay, chatting about various aspects of the project and life in general.  These field trips are often useful to build the personal relationships with your clients; and this project had struggled for a long time to get through to this stage.  When you are being formal over the phone or by email, it is difficult to understand the context of the people you are meeting, and of course you do not get the visual clues to client’s moods or concerns.  A day in the field away from all the formality of office bric-a-brac helps break down any barriers and explore around the work.

With islanders though, they are often distracted.  Everyone knows everyone else and there was at least three other people that Tony had to talk to while we made the short crossing, which cut up our time to focus together.

On arrival at the small jetty in Admiralty Bay, we were met by a driver from the Ministry of Planning based in a sub-office on Bequia itself.  We were driven all over the island that day, mostly places I had seen on my previous visits, but again with different people and with a different purpose, you saw new perspectives.  We drove into Friendship Bay, the largest settlement on the south coast of the island.  In the two years since I had last been there, I could see how new housing was both infilling in the bay area, and reaching higher into the hills at the back.  Zigzag roads up to each property were cutting into the rock, backhoes were sitting around on roadsides all over town.  We walked over one slope which has been subdivided and now earmarked for development.  The initial clearance of the dry shrub had occurred, but so far this was the extent of any work; indeed the dormant time which is so common in any Caribbean development – whether it be big government projects or small residential builds, had allowed the natural vegetation, or at least the weeds, to cover the ground once more.

We drove up the eastern side of the island, dropping in on Brother King’s turtle hatchery that I had visited a few years previously.  This side of the island at least still looked the same, although Tony pointed out several locations where people had plans, in particular government wanting to subdivided some old palm plantations.

We looked up at the north end of the island above Admiralty Bay.  Here on an exposed ridge were more plans to subdivide.  At the top of a small pinnacle along the ridge was a metal pole with what looked like an oil barrel on it.  I correctly assumed it was a trig point, but boy what a survey mark.  Trig points in many countries are small concrete pyramids that surveyors point their theodolites and rangers at to get a fix on their locations.  This was a big fix – indeed it was an oil drum, turned upside down, cemented on the end of the metal pole and painted white and red.  It was large enough that it could be seen in St Vincent 15 kilometres to the north.  The trig points are meant to be accurate to the centimetre, but I wondered what the accuracy of these posts were; the target was enormous and the pole was at about a ten degree angle from the vertical.  Tony, with his usual phlegmatic “this is how it is in the Caribbean” said that the trig point network in St Vincent was old and not maintained well.  Another problem for us pulling together accurate mapping of the islands.

The Adopted Dog – Small but Packed

On my first ever visit to Kingstown I was in the Cobblestone Hotel in the centre of the city.  When I started this project I could not get a room at the Cobblestone and the house rental had not been established so I was put in the New Montrose hotel on the west side of town .  I had briefly stayed in this hotel for a workshop a few years beforehand, but the effect of approaching the town from the west every morning was novel.  You saw different elements of the morning commute, you passed by the a new range shops opening up in the morning or shutting down in the evening.

Kingstown is a bustling little city; although one of the smallest capital cities in the world it has all the functions of primacy you would expect; the government offices, the key commercial and retail outlets, as well as the institutions of religion, society and culture, albeit on a much smaller scale than a mega city like London or Tokyo.  But as well as that it just hums like a busy market town.  People come in to the city from four directions; from the suburbs themselves on the hills behind the city centre, from the leeward and windward coastlines of St Vincent and across the sea from the string of Grenadine islands to the south.

Eduardo and I met up for that first trip; Edsel was not available.  We interviewed all the different agencies and tried to understand the detail of the scope of our job ahead.  Part of the project would be to analyse case studies using GIS to solve particular land issues.  As we interviewed people they all gave their opinions on what topics we should look at.  Towards the end of the trip, we had two days to investigate a couple of these in more detail; which gave us a fantastic excuse to explore the islands.

The first of the field trips was to head back to one of my most favourite islands in the world, Bequia.  I may have given the impression that this was a sleepy idyllic island elsewhere, but it had similar problems to everywhere in the world; one of these being population pressure.  Islands can suffer more than most from this.  Maybe the sheer numbers of population increase are not as great as in, for example, South East Asia or the urban centres of Africa, but the amount of land available to house those new people is much more restricted, and the effects on the environment much less absorbable.  On Bequia plans were afoot to subdivide land parcels.  In most of the world land is owned by someone, and the ownership is recorded geographically by the boundaries of parcels or plots on the ground.  Some people own one small rectangle of land, others huge swathes of countryside.  And those people might be individuals or they may be families or institutions such as government.  In many of the Caribbean islands, the government took on the ownership of the big plantations – the sugar on Antigua, Barbados and St Kitts, the bananas on St Lucia, Dominica and St Vincent.  This meant they have a land bank that when the population increases they can subdivide their own plots and sell them off.  There was a plan on the north coast of Bequia to do just this and it would be a useful trial of the National GIS to see what could be provided geographically to help this process.

The Adopted Dog – Life after bananas

I dropped in to Kingstown a few times during this contract and it gave me a chance to explore both the city and the country more deeply.  There is a habit on my kind of work that you are always thinking of the passport stamps.  As long as I step into a country, stay there a night, say, I can record that I have been to a particular country – and gradually count up to the 204 states and multiple autonomous territories.  So many I have never returned to so my single snapshot in time and space is all that is stored in my memory.  When I return to a country it is revealing to see it again – some places familiar, others changed from the last time I have been there.  But more interesting is stay somewhere new , have a new rhythm of life there,  and meet new people; it allows you to see the whole country afresh, go down new roads and have new experiences which change and hopefully enrich your overall perspective of a country.

This project gave me the chance to do that for St Vincent.  The first work I had done there had been natural resources based, particularly to do with the sea and its reefs, rocks and sandy bays.  This project was about the whole of St Vincent, which put a bias on the land.  New issues were to come out for me; land rights, disaster management, and in particular the process of diversifying agriculture, from which the need to make a national GIS had come.

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Bananas in the field below – but fewer are commercially viable

St Vincent, like many small island nations, had been developed through colonial times to provide one commodity to their respective empires.  For St Kitts this was sugar, for Grenada it was spice.  For St Vincent it was bananas.  Many of the volcanic valleys were cleared of their natural vegetation and planted up with row upon row of banana plants.  For years and years, extending past the colonial period, the whole industry of St Vincent was geared around the growing, harvesting and shipping.  Boats from the UK would regularly call in to Kingstown harbour and the lorries would pile down from the leeward and windward sides of the island to load them up for shipment.  I’d seen it myself on previous visits.

But St Vincent’s banana industry was in decline.  The economies of scale that were gained from mass production could not be emulated on the island; indeed some of the individual competing plantations in Latin America were larger than St Vincent itself.  Also, it was incredibly risky economically to put the vast majority of your land and exports into one single item, at the whim of global markets and fashion.  The Government of St Vincent had become convinced by this over the years.  And the European Union were sensitive to it too.  The treaties of the EU preclude favourable trade to former colonies, but they realised that they had a legacy of obligation not to leave these countries stranded with no guaranteed market, so had set up a large fund to help stabilise export earnings from these countries.

St Vincent needed to find a use for the large areas of banana plantation that were being taken out of production due to falling export trade.  Left fallow they could easily become a tangle of weed, or worse still cause horrendous soil erosion that could store up trouble for the rest of the country, causing landslides, cutting off roads, clogging up watercourses and smothering coral reef.  The programme we were a part of was meant to put together a package of interventions to help diversify the land use; for agriculture, tourism or construction, while retaining the balance of soil and vegetation for a healthy environment.  Basic to this was understanding the characteristics and potential of the land, and that meant you needed good information from all government and non government agencies to do that analysis.  Hence our project to systematically gather and catalogue all the existing GIS data for the Ministry of Planning.

The Adopted Dog – Edsel, Eduardo and me

My first encounter with Kingstown, St Vincent was in 1999 where I had a two day trip to try and sort out a consultancy attempting to fly aerial photography over the coral reef of the Grenadines.  From that trip I went back a few times to manage that project and do some training, and I have talked elsewhere about my field work in the Grenadines, and a couple of fantastic day trips to Bequia Island and up the windward side of St Vincent itself.

After working in the Virgin Islands for a couple of years and going back in to consultancy I found myself approached by the Ministry of Planning in Kingstown to develop an idea for a national GIS.  As with many of these contracts, and particularly since the funding was to come through the European Union, the bureaucracy takes many months to sort out before you can actually start out.  I was the main contractor and I partnered up with two people, Edsel of course, but also another GIS expert called Eduardo.

Edsel has introduced me to Eduardo several years before on one of my trips to St Kitts.  Originally from Argentina, he had worked in development in many countries before ending up as a consultant for a couple of projects in St Kitts and Nevis.  There he had settled down with a local girl and become part of the Kittitian GIS scene.  Although he worked a lot for St Kitts government he was keen to do more work up and down the islands.  Edsel and I had met up with him at a beach bar at the far end of St Kitts.  Originally the area had been called Mosquito Bay, but the beach bar owners felt the name was not inviting to tourists so it was being marketed as “Turtle Beach”.  Over the usual Caribbean tourist fare of beefburger, fries and beer, we discussed our interests in work and found a lot of overlap.  More so even than Edsel, Eduardo had a lot of experience with different agencies in developing countries and I could see that we could partner up t some time.

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Eduardo (right) and Tony Bowman on the Bequia Ferry

So when the project in St Vincent was advertised I was keen to get the two of them on board.  It was a different style of project than anything I had undertaken before, full project management for me, and having a couple of subcontractors meant I had to deal with their contracts and payments as well as my own.  And the plan was to have Eduardo be the main consultant in country, with me supervising and inputting on some fronts, and Edsel pitching in with training aspects.  This meant I had to get Eduardo set up to live there long term.  No way could the project afford hotels for the whole time he was due to be there; and I would not inflict hotel life on anyone for that length of time anyway.  Problem was that he was to be in and out of St Vincent several times over the 15 months of the project.  Eduardo did some hunting round in the first week of the project and managed to find a very good deal on a two bedroom villa at the back of Kingstown, and he could take it for the whole period for less than we had budgeted for the 8 months of his time on island.  So we were sorted.