by Judith L. Garland, Director, Department of Environment and Coastal Resources

The Turks and Caicos Islands is one of six British dependencies in the Caribbean. Lying to the south-east of the Bahamas, it comprises 7 inhabited islands and over 30 small cays of low-lying coral limestone. All are comparatively undeveloped and unspoilt. They harbour endemic cacti, orchids and reptiles, such as the rare rock iguana. Extensive barrier reefs and dramatic coral walls fringe the islands. These support marine life like sponges, infinite varieties of tropical fish, sharks, eagle rays and turtles. Humpback whales pass through local waters from January to April, spending the winter on offshore banks to the south. Bottlenose and other dolphins are also seen close to shore.

Until recently, fishing provided the Turks and Caicos's main source of income, but now tourism has become the top money-spinner in the islands (promoted as "Beautiful by Nature"), bringing with it development pressures and the need for comprehensive conservation measures. There have been reports that the reef systems particularly in Providenciales are under increasing threat from land based sources of pollution. The tax-haven status of the islands is also attracting growing numbers of real-estate developers, along with the banking and off-shore finance industries.

Fortunately, over recent years there have been positive conservation gains in the Turks and Caicos. The National Parks Order 1992 designates a total of 33 protected areas as National Parks, Nature Reserves, Sanctuaries and Historical Sites. Subsequent regulations were also created for the use of these protected areas. The total area protected amounts to approximately 705 km2 and includes parts of all the major islands and many of the offshore cays.

The Park System is designed to manage and protect the marine and coastal resources. Dive sites are protected by the installation of permanent moorings, which prevent anchor damage. Likewise activities are sensibly zoned, so that potentially fatal encounters between snorkelers and water skiers are avoided.

Over the years, the protected areas system has seen dramatic changes. Previously attached to the Department of Planning, the Executive Council approved the creation of a new department to be entitled “The Department of Environment, Heritage and Parks”, in January 1987. This department was charged with the sole responsibility of managing the country's protected areas. Additional tasks of the department included appraising development proposals for the Department of Planning and reviewing international environmental legislation extended to Turks and Caicos Islands Government (TCIG) for ratification.

Until 1994, the Department of Environment, Heritage and Parks had made considerable progress. Three new members of staff were recruited, a local Director and two full time Park Wardens. In an effort to promote public awareness, funding was sought from the Marine Conservation Society - U.K., and two new leaflets were printed, (one on coral reefs and the other on wildlife of Turks and Caicos Islands). Additional brochures were produced on the National Parks of Grand Turk and Salt Cay and Providenciales.

In 1993 World Wide Fund for Nature - U.K. funded the preparation of a management plan for Princess Alexandra Land and Sea National Park and Northwest Point Marine National Park, Providenciales. This funding also made possible the construction of welcoming signs for the Princess Alexandra National Park and Columbus Landfall National Park, Grand Turk and eleven access lane signs. During that time the Department also began the production of a series of “Park Notes”, covering issues such as “Why We Need National Parks”, “Whale Watching” and “Boating in National Parks”. During this same period the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) funded twenty mooring buoys for installation in the Marine Parks.

The Department of Environment, Heritage and Parks remained a separate entity until 1994 when TCIG underwent a structural adjustment to minimise expenditure and cut cost within the public sector. Consequently, an amalgamation of the former Department of Fisheries and Department of Environment, Heritage and Parks took place. This merger formed the new Department of Environment and Coastal Resources and has been optimised by adopting an integrated approach towards managing the country’s resources, although the process of achieving integration has been tedious and chaotic.

Recently however, TCIG has again turned its attention to the protected areas system in the Islands, supporting a half million dollar project for the development of the parks. Key components of the project include the construction of a visitor’s centre on Providenciales, purchase of an inshore patrol boat, park boundary markers, park navigation markers, dive and vessel mooring buoys, the design and installation of underwater interpretive trails, the provision of materials to use in improving public awareness and the implementation of a research and monitoring programme.

To ensure long-term financial self-sufficiency the Government is concurrently investigating a system for revenue generation. One mechanism given approval in principle by TCIG is to charge all park users a fee. Fees will be charged by levying a tax on all visitors to the country, although the means for doing so remains to be resolved. The Department is presently looking into the best method of collection, and fees will eventually be placed in a separate Trust Fund administered by a Board of Trustees.

The importance of conserving the resources of the Turks and Caicos Islands cannot be overstated and many islanders are becoming aware of this fact. The marine resources of the islands are rich but limited forming the basis of a valuable fishing industry and thriving tourism sector. We are proud of our bountiful natural heritage and welcome all to visit and learn more about our islands and park system.

The National Trust of the Turks & Caicos Islands is an organisation dedicated to conservation and preservation of the country's natural and historical heritage. It is supported entirely by memberships and donations but last year launched the Islands in Time campaign in an effort to raise $600,000 to complete nine major projects throughout the Islands.

These include in various combinations accessway improvements, ecotourism development, interpretation, landscaping, management planning, renovation and restoration of the Wade's Green plantation buildings on North Caicos; the cast iron lighthouse on Grand Turk; one of the original salt industry storage sheds and related artifacts on Salt Cay; the Island Cemetery on Grand Turk; the Boiling Hole salt production site on South Caicos; Bird Rock Point on Providenciales northeast tip; Cheshire Hall plantation house on Providenciales and the Conch Bar Caves on Middle Caicos.

The Trust is also conducting a basic country-wide survey of the rock iguana to determine where populations exist and the relative size of these populations. Despite the reptile's seeming abundance in specific areas, this species is considered to be rare and the IUCN has recommended that it be declared "endangered" since it is under threat from development and predation by dogs and cats. A set of general management recommendations for the enhancement and preservation of this unique species will be prepared.

The Turks and Caicos National Museum was opened in November 1991, in the 150-year-old Guinep Lodge, once a private house in Cockburn Town on Grand Turk. It was the return of a valuable collection of artifacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck that set the stage for the development of the museum. These objects are now proudly displayed but the museum's focus has broadened to include exhibits on the exploration and settlement of the islands.

Much has been learned about the Arawak, or Taino, people who inhabited the Turks and Caicos Islands before the arrival of Columbus. With the museum's help, a great deal of research has already been conducted through surveys and excavations of archaeological sites, but even more remains to be done. With the cooperation of the government in requiring environmental impact statements prior to development, efforts by the National Trust to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the islands and the diligent work of the National Museum to recover, conserve and interpret the past, the Turks and Caicos are today a model for other countries in the West Indies.