Centre for World Environmental History

Islands of Inequality

The environmental history of Tobago 1763-2005

The formation of the Tobago forest reserve in 1764 serves not only as an example of the earliest efforts to conserve tropical forests in the British Empire but also as an illustration of the inseparable nature of environment, economy and society in the study of the Caribbean.The planned colonisation of Tobago and the other ceded isles in the 1760s illustrates how, at its peak, the Atlantic trade in slaves and sugar moulded landscapes and societies through the institution of the plantation as the agent of nascent globalisation.The decline and fall of the plantation system in nineteenth century Tobago culminated in the bitter battle between the colonial authorities in Trinidad and their own Chief Justice over the linked imperatives of land reform and social justice.These events were followed by half a century as a neglected backwater of empire prior to independence. Despite a brief spell as a retreat of choice for the stars of fifties' Hollywood, it is only in the last decade that Tobago has begun to make the transition to a fully fledged tourist destination.The concern is that the pressures of tourism will undermine efforts to conserve Tobago's startling biodiversity whilst symbolically replacing the plantations of yesteryear with the plantation resorts of the present.

This project seeks to explore the relationship between society and environmental change in Tobago within the context of past and present waves of economic globalisation.The need to understand the history of the conflicts between tourist development and local concerns will be explored with the objective of addressing long running concerns about the representation of landscapes, people and livelihoods that have been at the forefront in Caribbean history.

The choice of Tobago for this study is underlined by both the rapidity of environmental and social change in recent years as well as the iconic status of Tobago's environment in the history of ideas about the environment. As an emerging ecotourism destination coupled with more conventional beach tourism, Tobago appears a long way from being merely a construct of slaves and plantations.

The support of the Leverhulme Trust will mean that the project can draw not just on archival materials but also undertake ethnographic fieldwork in Tobago in order to identify and analyse present environmental conflicts.The goal of this research is both an environmental history of Tobago but also an urgently needed investigation of the new dynamics of social and environmental change in the Caribbean and their origins past and present.

Professor James Fairhead
Prof Richard Grove
Lowell Woodcock
University of Sussex