© Photo by Rebeck Photography
The dual-island destination of Antigua and Barbuda has long been a favourite of travellers seeking a sun-and-sand Caribbean refuge from the stresses of everyday life. Each year, thousands of visitors flock to the gentle green hills, placid lagoons, and reef-lined beaches of Antigua and Barbuda on the tropical getaway of a lifetime. With a combined population of under 100,000 people and only limited, self-sustaining industries, this tourism is the economic lifeblood of the destination, typically accounting for over half of the country’s GDP pre-COVID.
The magnetic appeal of Antigua and Barbuda has always been a product of its stunning natural beauty and biological diversity, and residents have consequently become keenly aware of the connection between environmental sustainability and economic survival. In recent years, Antigua and Barbuda has been at the forefront of driving sustainable tourism, rolling out a “Green Tourism Initiatives” package aimed at minimizing the impact of excursions on sea turtles and endemic birds, incentivizing locally owned businesses, and implementing a ban on plastics. In particular, one small village in Antigua is providing a new, inspiring model for the rest of the world on how to realize grassroots, community-driven change.
Nestled in the forested areas of southwestern Antigua, The Wallings Nature Reserve is the country’s first community-managed national park. A not-for-profit company that safeguards over 1600 acres of Antiguan rainforest, the nature reserve has grown from humble origins into an international case study for empowering vulnerable communities. The secret to Wallings’ success is in its staffing: the reserve draws its growing force of volunteers and employees from persons who have a love for nature. Although located in John Hughes Village, most team members do not reside in the village. Rangers, technicians and administrators make up the dynamic team, driven by a desire to preserve the nature and wildlife of the last remaining rainforest in the Sherkley Mountain range.
“The story of Wallings dates back over 30 years from another NGO Environmental Awareness Group (EAG). Although written, those plans for the area never materialized,” said Refica Attwood, Executive Director of Wallings Nature Reserve. “It took one person in 2016, after receiving training in community tourism from the sustainable tourism unit within the Ministry of Tourism, to create what is now the conservation and development of the Wallings Forest area.”
Championing biodiversity, ecological sustainability, and equal access to the islands’ resources, the Wallings Nature Reserve has been able to translate the hard work and commitment of the company into a compelling outreach, forging key partnerships with other NGOs and public donors both at home and abroad. With this growing groundswell of support, the reserve has already initiated and completed 11 projects to conserve the biodiversity of the Wallings Forest area. Extensive reforestation, the construction of accessible washrooms, and the provision of local subsidies for businesses suffering from the impact of COVID-19 are only a few highlights from the company’s ambitious docket.
With Wallings Reserve quickly growing to become one of the foremost attractions in Antigua, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of its rise has been the parish of St. Mary’s. Wildlife lovers who may have previously been solely enraptured by the expansive Frigatebird sanctuary in Barbuda are now provided with a complementary alternative in the Euphonias and vireos that flit about in the canopies above Wallings as hikers and picnickers frequent the meticulously maintained trails of the reserve either accompanied by a local guide or through self-guided exploration.
Looking forward to the future, the administration at Wallings continues to have big plans. Fresh off navigating the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team is gearing up to pursue further beautification efforts (including hammocks, benches, and resurfacing), reservoir maintenance and repair, and an electrically powered shuttle service. In keeping with the core of their conservatory mission, the team is also looking to convert the entirety of the reserve to solar power.
“We won’t rest on our laurels. We’ve done so much, but there’s much more than can be done,” concluded Attwood. “We’ve created a model of community-driven change that we know can do great things. We think this is something that can work all across Antigua and Barbuda and beyond, to realize greater sustainability in the world.”
Of course, this sort of forward, sustainably-minded thinking is emblematic of the shift towards greener, cleaner initiatives embraced by Antigua and Barbuda on the whole. Should the world’s leaders need a thriving example of environmentally conscious policymaking in action, they will find it in Antigua and Barbuda. Should the world’s people seek an uplifting, authentic story of how a vulnerable village reinvented itself as a verdant preserve for some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful flora and fauna, they will find it in the Wallings Forest being led by Wallings Nature Reserve.
To learn more about the Wallings Nature Reserve and how you can support the project, visit www.wallingsnaturereserve.org
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