What is the social and/or ecological challenge?
The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a country that has long thrived on the fossil fuel economy, which in turn has encouraged large construction development and commercial business and discouraged the development of a sustainable economy. As an example, despite having ideal conditions for year-round farming, Trinidad and Tobago imports more than 90% of its food. Additionally, in a country that has been ranked the world’s highest producer of waste volume per capita and second-highest producer of greenhouse gases per capita, interventions to positively impact the environment are normally regarded as only for NGOs, and not worthy of mainstream efforts in a country whose main business is not exactly based on environmental care. Sound environmental jobs and projects can already be seen as having a powerful social effect of raising hope that is desperately needed. Vetiver TT has gained some public awareness as a for-profit environmental engineering company, offering solutions to private homeowners and more recently to commercial and public works (catchment-ponds, landslides, and waste-landfill rehabilitation). However, lack of funding opportunity has kept it from tackling the degraded hillsides in the northern range, where forest fires rage every two to three years in the dry season. With no vegetation to retain the soil, the rains that follow wash away topsoil and often lead to flooding downstream. The Vetiver System (VS) slows down runoff, captures and recharges groundwater, and has the potential to rehabilitate those hills.
The social entrepreneurial approach
A for-profit company, Vetiver TT has been working for the last two years to introduce the VS to Trinidad and Tobago as a "soft engineering" technique for addressing a wide range of challenges in tropical climates, such as slope stabilisation, erosion protection, soil and water conservation and phytoremediation (cleaning of contaminated lands and water).
Because vetiver grass, the key component of VS, is certified sterile and non-invasive by the USDA, it poses no risk when introduced to new areas. Vetiver TT serves clients ranging from homeowners facing soil issues through commercial construction projects and public infrastructure works to community projects. Vetiver grass is a promising solution for land slippage, erosion and revegetation while costing as little as 15-20% as much as hard-engineering alternatives (eg. gabion rock baskets, retaining walls, geotextile mats). Soil and water conservation is a notable added benefit. Without grant funding, however, it is hard to find clients that seek the services of “soil and water conservation” specifically. Although case histories have been done in other geographies, a specific project on "groundwater recharge" has yet to be performed in Trinidad and Tobago.
The greatest challenge for the VS is gaining the trust of private and public entities since, when described, the approach can seem "too good to be true". Vetiver TT is thus committed to growing local experience and its projects portfolio, which takes time because VS is not a piece of hardware that can simply be installed but rather a solution that depends on plant growth.
Goals and expected impact
Trinidad and Tobago is seen as a model by countries throughout the Caribbean Community. It derives most of its income from fossil fuels and has invested little in environmental care. While there are still pristine places in the country, environmental catastrophes such as decimated hillsides, landfills that leak leachate into water supplies and waste into rivers and seas, are stark reminders of work needing to be done. With oil prices down, the country is being forced to diversify, and citizens are waking up to the environmental fallout of industrial development and consumerism. Solid environmental work would rekindle public hope and prove that green solutions can be sustainable, profitable and successful.