Category Archives: Trinidad and Tobago

Remembering Max Richards

Fourth President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. University principal. Professor. Chemical engineer. Mas’ lover. Expert maker of rum punch. These all describe the person who was Max Richards. But there are others that matter more – husband, father, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, friend.

And the one that matters to me: uncle.

It’s almost impossible to capture all there is to say about a person who is one of the major influences in my life. Never in any single big way – I would have a hard time pointing to something specific and saying “I am the person I am because of this thing” – but rather, in a thousand small ways that only someone who was there throughout your childhood and adolescence can influence you. I can’t say that he inspired me to get a PhD, but rather, the fact that he had a PhD created a space in which I could see a PhD as something possible.

As far back as my memories take me, as far back as the stories take me, Auntie Jean and Uncle Max are there. One of my earliest memories is of Uncle Max cooking breakfast – eggs, I think. I was four, and it was the summer after we moved to Canada. The family had come to visit – Jean, Max, Mark and Maxine – and rented a house by a lake. My father would drop my mother and two-year-old brother off each morning on his way to work, but my sister and I got to stay with Jean and Max by the lake. It was a great adventure, my first experience being away from my parents (albeit only for the nights). It may have been a week, or it may have been two, but it was my first great adventure. On the first morning, before breakfast, Mark and I went down to the lake to explore, until Jean and Max called us in for breakfast. The idea of going out before breakfast was new and exciting (something that hasn’t entirely faded in 4+ decades), as was being called back in for breakfast and the fact that Max was doing the cooking.

Whether he was calling you in for breakfast as a small child, or offering you food (and drink) when you visited his home, Max has a real way of making you feel welcome. He had real presence, real charisma. He stood out in a way that had little to do with the fact that he was at least half a head taller than everyone around him. But despite that presence, he also had the ability to not stand out. When I was a student at UWI, everyone knew who Max Richards was, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about how he was running the university. But he could walk around campus and be utterly unremarkable – you’d never mistake him for anything other than an academic, of course, but you’d never think he was the man in charge.

It’s easy for his role as President to overshadow what came before, but his role as campus principal was probably the bigger achievement. The end of the oil boom ushered in great uncertainty. The year before I started, the government had cut UWI’s budget substantially and instituted a cess, a tax on students at the university. Faculty and staff were asked to do more with substantially less, with no prospect of raises. Students were asked to pay more for less. Everyone felt great uncertainty, and blame frequently found its way to Max (because we need to assign responsibility to a real person, not some nebulous group we call “admin”). He took the heat for decisions made by many of his subordinates, and he accepted it with little complaint.

Having spent much of my adult life around universities, I have a sense of what a big achievement it must have been to keep UWI afloat in the face of such a massive budget shortfall – and to do it without resorting to layoffs. If I’m right, this was a monumental achievement, and one for which he deserves credit.

(Wikipedia says it was a 30% cut, but since I’m the one who added that information to Wikipedia, without a source, I have to be skeptical. Back in 2005 you wrote what you knew and sources were optional. I trust that I wouldn’t have added that information if I didn’t believe it was true, but I can’t trust what I can’t verify.)

It’s unremarkable to point of that Max was highly intelligent; it’s a basic requirement for the job he held. What’s more notable to me was how sharp his mind was, how he made connections between the key things, easily he saw through things to their essentials. I learned a lot from Uncle Max when to listen and when to speak. (If only I were better at putting that knowledge into practice.)

Uncle Max had a decency, a vibrance. He talked to everyone, paid attention to people, let you know he saw you. He was truly alive, and in so many ways he explored the myriad ways that one could be truly Trinbagonian, in the best ways you could be.

It was a privilege and an honour to know you.

Oil spills in southwest Trinidad

A couple weeks ago, I started writing a post in response to the announcement of Trinidad and Tobago’s first oil discovery of 2013; events overtook me when an oil spill occurred in southwest Trinidad. It was initially reported as a break in a 10-inch pipe at Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery; later reports spoke of four separate leaks and still later, eleven.

Initial reports were followed by images of oiled beaches, fishing boats and mangrove and reports of one community in particular that was affected by the spill. A local NGO, Papa Bois Conservation, has done excellent citizen reporting on the spills. In an effort to wrap my head around what was going on, I put together a page – “Southwest Trinidad Oil Spills” – and managed to collect over 150 articles from the three daily newspapers in TT over the course of just over two weeks. Petrotrin and the government have been calling the spills possible sabotage, with Petrotrin chairman Lindsay Gillette saying that in at least two of the spills specialised tools would have been needed to open the pipes that spilled oil.

Oil spills are nothing new in south Trinidad – streams and roadside ditches in the oil belt are frequently oiled or have oil-stained banks; old pipelines built by companies that vanished decades ago may still leak oil. It takes more than a trace amount of oil to even be recognised as a spill. That alone suggests that these spills involve substantial amounts of oil. Pictures from Coffee Beach in La Brea (where 25 people were hospitalised after the spill came ashore) show substantial quantities of oil on the beach, while this video shows oiled water and coastline. The damage done to coastal and marine life (and to coastal communities) is going to be substantial. I think that it shows progress that this is being cast as an environmental disaster, not merely a costly inconvenience for the company.

Petroleum (and natural gas) production in Trinidad is a fascinating microcosm of the extractive economy. Oil production dominates the economy, and oil royalties and taxes dominate state revenues. Production – which comes both with the benefits of employment and the costs of living with oil production – is concentrated in the southwest and southeast (primarily offshore in the southeast). The people of La Brea (to pick an example that came up here) see relatively little of the benefits of the petro-economy, but pay a disproportionate share of the costs. Fisherfolk and crab catchers will also pay substantial costs for this oil spill, but again, see little of the benefits. Beach goers will be inconvenienced, but the people who frequent the beaches in southwest Trinidad are disproportionately from southwest Trinidad. Again, the wealthiest people, and the people who see most of the benefits, will pay a far smaller price. And into this whole mix we need to introduce the natural environment.

The natural environment in southwest Trinidad has paid a high price for petroleum extraction. Although relatively lightly populated, the forests of southwest Trinidad are heavily fragmented and degraded. The coastal and marine environment has also paid a price over almost a century of oil production. Environmental conservation should be more than just a concern of middle class hobbyists – natural resources, ecosystem services, natural capital – however you want to name it, nature plays an important role not only in the economy, but also in the well-being of people. But, again, the costs of an extractive economy are unlikely to be paid by the people who enjoy most of the benefits.

A footnote to the British Empire

In his 2002 review of The Mystic Masseur, Roger Ebert wrote

The West Indies were a footnote to the British Empire, and the Indian community of Trinidad was a footnote to the footnote.

Even intelligent, educated people tend to make the mistake of assuming that, to some extent, things have always been the way they are today. What’s left of the British West Indies is, indeed, collected leftovers of Empire, too small to stand on their own, and the English-speaking Caribbean is little more than a footnote in geopolitics. But that wasn’t always the case. Both Cadogan Estates, one of the largest landowners in London, and the British Museum have their origins in the acquisitions (of property and objects, respectively) of Sir Hans Sloane in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sloane estimated that he spent ₤50,000 putting together the collections that were the foundation of the British Museum. While Sloane’s prosperity came in part from his successful medical practice, a major income stream was his wife’s share of a Jamaican sugar plantation that she inherited from her first husband.

In the eighteenth century the West Indies weren’t a footnote in the British Empire – they were the heart of the Empire. The loss of the American colonies may have been a blow to the prestige of the Empire, but they were far less important than Jamaica or Barbados. And while the importance of some of these islands faded in the nineteenth century, especially after the abolition of slavery, others did not. At the very time The Mystic Masseur begins, Trinidad is anything but a footnote. It is, in fact, a key source of oil for the Empire at war, an important link in the Atlantic U-boat war, and the site of major American military and naval bases.

Farewell, Prof Kenny

[Repost from my old blog]
I began my UWI experience knowing a little more about the place than the average undergrad. My sister, two years into her time there, saw to it that I knew the general layout of the place, such that I was able to easily win the Orientation Week treasure hunt (and the $50 prize, which was more than a little money back in 1989).

In addition to campus geography, I was also aware fo the basics layout of the chemistry, plant science and zoology departments. And more than anyone else, I had heard of Professor Kenny, the professor of zoology who would lock the door to the lecture room at 8 o’clock, so if you were late you were out of luck. So it was with a great deal of interest that I attended my first zoology lecture as an undergraduate. I don’t recall an awful lot about first year zoology. Prof Kenny taught the first few months of the class before Mary Alkins-Koo took over (in January, I think) with Graham White rounding out the year with vertebrates. Kenny, having decided to mellow in his ‘old age’ took to leaving the doors to the lecture hall unlocked, but his comments to late-comers were enough to ensure that I was in class by 8 am (or, failing that, skip class). If I made it, his lectures were an experience worth getting out of bed for. His long, lanky frame would move across the front of the lecture hall, sitting on the front table like a large bird of prey, now standing with one foot up on the front table. He had an energy in the classroom, full of movement, full of a slightly jerk energy.

Having done A Level zoology, I didn’t feel too great a need to make it to lecture. Until Graham White’s bit at the end of the year, there was very little that was entirely new to me. The lab, on the other hand, was a very different experience, and one that I would not consider missing. Labs allowed for direct interaction with faculty, a chance to talk, to get to know people. Even after his section was done, Kenny had a habit of dropping in on the first year labs and talking to students. While his entry usually attracted a large group of admirers, there were still opportunities to talk to him, tap into his wealth of knowledge.

Kenny always struck me as an unlikely environmentalist. His contribution to the environmental movement in Trinidad and Tobago is huge, and he inspired many people to work for conservation. As I understand it, he was a major inspiration for the foundation of the UWI Biological Society around 1987, a movement that not only launched many a career among environmental professionals in Trinidad and Tobago, but which also helped transform conservation from a ‘French creole’ hobby into a serious national concern. It’s an unusual legacy for someone who was not only born to the ‘local white’ elite, but also someone who seemed profoundly skeptical about whether there was any point whatsoever in trying to conserve anything at all. Still, he taught people to value nature, to love it. And even if he had little faith in their ability to stem the tide of destruction, the love of nature he instilled in his students made them care enough to try.

While I only took first year Zoology from him, so I don’t really know if I count among “Prof’s” students (after all, I never called him “Prof”), he certainly had a major impact on me. At the end of first year, he said to me “sure, you topped the class, but you should have done better” (I only got a B+). And that backhanded compliment was really one of the most important things anyone ever said to me.


I suppose it’s time to stop calling this by the default My Blog that WordPress gave it. To be honest though, it’s a pretty descriptive name – it’s a blog, it’s mine…what more do you want?

I suppose some sense of the place might help. But what do I really want to do here? What’s my vision for this site? And how do you encapsulate it in a single phrase? OK, well, I can’t. Well…what about something clever? Something catchy? Something profound? Sounds great – now all I need is skill in coming up with clever, catchy names. If I could do that, wouldn’t I be making lots of money in marketing?

OK then – how about a reference to something that’s kinda cool and somewhat descriptive? Something with a distinctly Trini flavour. But what? I’m sure there are dozens of ‘river lime’ blogs and ‘rum shop’ blogs. “A Mayaro state of mind” would be nice. But it’s probably been done already. And, more importantly, I’m not shooting the breeze in Mayaro, and I’m not in that sort of a state. I don’t want peace with the universe, I want intellectual engagement. With a sense of what is Trini and botanically inclined, nature inclined.

And then I realised what I was looking for. The samaan tree – Samanea saman. For starters, it’s a really attractive tree with its open, spreading crown. Its long, almost horizontal branches are excellent hosts for epiphytes. The campus of the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine (Trinidad) was dotted with them when I was an undergrad, and (weather permitting) the grass under a samaan tree was a good place to sit and talk, sit and contemplate the world. With the added bonus of random small insects falling out of the tree above you.

The first meeting of the group that was to become the Association for Tropical Biology (and Conservation, in recent years) had their initial meeting in Trinidad, and it was the samaan tree outside the Sir Frank Stockdale Building on the UWI campus that has graced the cover of their journal, Biotropica, ever since.

Although not a native species, there is something very Trinidadian about the samaan tree. In many ways it speaks to an older, less industrialised time when people understood that trees mattered. It has a personal connection, in memories of my undergrad days at UWI. And it is connected with one of the pillars of Neotropical biology – the journal Biotropica.

So it is with that in mind that I have renamed this blog. Too pompous and self-indulgent? Maybe. But so be it.