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 Local News - August 2001

'The San Fernando Hill' - In the dream of a world mountain

Promotion of the natural and cultural resources of the San Fernando Hill to provide tourism experiences, in as natural a way as possible, without further degradation of the Hillís resources

1. Location and Description

The San Fernando Hill is located in the centre of the city of San Fernando, which lies on the southwest coast of Trinidad about thirty (30) miles from Port of Spain. San Fernando occupies the heartland of the islandís energy based industries. The Hill which is regarded as the Cityís most valuable natural asset and number one tourist attraction, occupies approximately 26 hectares (65 acres) of land space and rises 195 metres (639.75 feet) above sea level.

Geologists report that the Hill is a cretaceous outcrop among tertiary rock formations and is therefore a unique geological occurrence in Trinidad. This uniqueness is said to be the reason for the Hill once being called "Anaparima". Anaparima in the language of the earliest inhabitants of the City, the Amerindians, means "single hill"; in other words, a hill without a range, a hill which seems to rise sheerly out of the ground. Prior to extensive quarrying, the Hill had a sugar loaf appearance. It still is the most outstanding landform in the Naparima plains.

2. View from the top

From the top of the Hill looking north and northwest, is the Gulf of Paria, which stretches to the horizon from the "lazy" curvature of the shoreline. The silver tanks of the Trintoc refinery can be seen "scattered amongst towers and columns that process petroleum - the product that fuelled the development of the industrial south and indeed, the entire country". The refinery stretches eastward to the Solomon Hochoy Highway, which runs thread-like in a north to south direction to the San Fernando Technical Institute. Further east, as far as the eyes could see, sugar cane fields extend to Usine Ste. Madeleine, a sugar cane processing factory. The tall chimney of the factory seems to oversee the thousands of acres of sugar cane, formerly the mainstay of the countryís economy.

Still looking to the east but closer to view, the San Fernando By-Pass marks the start of the eastern perimeter of the City, from the Mon Repos Fire Station Tower standing at the top and running all the way down to the new Cross Crossing inter-pass. Beyond the By-Pass is the community of Pleasantville, with rows of housing flats geometrically patterned around two schools: the Pleasantville Junior Secondary and Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive Schools.

To the southwest, the community of Green Acres borders the City, with the Gulf City Shopping Complex just beyond it. The Cipero River meanders along the southern boundary of the City to the Gulf of Paria. Skinner Park is barely visible with that boundary.

Still south but closer to view, Coffee Street runs from Royal Road into the heart of the City. However, the business centre is hidden from view by the highest projection of the Hill, which obscures the southwest. It would be necessary to climb by way of a nature trail to get to a vantagepoint to observe the commercial centre with the Library, Excellent Stores, and the City Market.

At the base of the Hill on the south side, is Carib Street named after the pre-Columbian peoples, or "Caribs" who once occupied the area. A "Carib House" which is located there was recently modernised, but was regarded as the oldest house in San Fernando as its style and architecture dated back to Spanish times. To the left, the Lionís Civic Centre, the Oilfield Workerís Trade Unionís Paramount building and Circular Road can be seen. The Vistabella River outlines the northern boundary of the City.

3. Flora and Fauna

Near the entrance to the Hill the road is lined with a grove of Tacoma trees that are often called "little Poui" because they appear as dwarf Poui trees with their yellow flowers resembling those of the yellow Poui. Although they are not stately, Tacoma trees have the advantage of flowering several times a year thus enhancing the beauty of the Hill. They are interplanted with some majestic African tulip and pink Poui trees.

On the ascent, leafy Leucena trees shade the road. Leucena are fast growing proteinaceous plants that add nitrogen to the soil. Therefore, in addition to providing shade they produce organic matter, which help to improve the soil structure. Mango trees also appear scattered alongside and up the roadway. In most places up the Hill the panoramic view is visible only through a frame of branches; and, while the bare pinnacles remain to tell the tale of an accusing past, their starkness is softened by the contrast of the foliage.

Argave (desert-like plants) flourish on the hard bare limestone and Casurina trees with their pine shaped or needle-like leaves grow scattered along the rugged slopes.

The Hill has a varied bird population that includes majestic corbeaux, small sucriers, local canaries, kiskidees, blue and black Tanagers and ground doves. Because the Hill lies near the sea there is often an intrusion of huge slow-flying Pilot birds.

Many of the trees are covered with a parasitic "bird-vine" which grows from seeds excreted by the birds. The vines provide sleeping places for the birds and produce seeds that are a source of food.

At the base of the Hill on the northern side, there is a manmade pond that traps eroded material and reduces the water runoff from the hillside. Waterweeds grow abundantly in the clear water and there are several species of freshwater fish. They include local Guppies ("seven colours"), sardines and cuscarubs.

4. Structures/Buildings

At the entrance to the Hill is a 5,000,000 gallon water tank operated by the Water and Sewage Authority (WASA).

On approaching the base of the Hill there is small concrete building that is used as a security booth. To the right across the paved roadway and carpark is an open, seemingly unfinished concrete structure that provides an ideal shelter for visitors.

At the top of the Hill is a visitor centre. This is a two-storey building, on the ground floor, housing a large room used as an interpretive area displaying images from San Fernandoís history and culture; from religious pilgrimages of Amerindian tribes to the era of oil booms and industry.

The second storey is an open, breezy gallery-like area that offers a perfect spot for admiring the view, or having small formal/informal social, cultural and/or religious events. The building also houses an office, bathroom facilities and a simple kitchenette.

The surroundings are beautifully landscaped with a small duck/fish pond and ornamental plants.

Rustic sheds near the top of the Hill and a number of Japanese kiosks and concrete benches along the road cater for picnics, "limes" and/or rest stops.

5. Legendary and historical background

Local writer and historian Michael Anthony says that the earliest written reference to the Hill comes from the English navigator Sir Walter Raleigh who in 1595 while sailing in the Gulf of Paria saw "Annaparima" and decided to come ashore. Of this Raleigh wrote:

"Myself coasted in my barge close to the shore to the mountain foot called Annaparima"...

Local historian Peter Harris seems to disqualify this school of thought when he says that the very earliest reference is to be found in Stollmayerís map of 1574 in which the Hill was called Mount Naparima. To quote Peter Harris:

"The Hill must always have been a sacred place to Amerindian eyes. This means at least since BC 6,500, the current earliest date for man in Trinidad. Distinct landmarks such as hills, waterfalls, lakes, rocks are typically regarded as the abode of a spirit. The isolated character of Naparima Hill, viewed from either sea or land, would have ensured its sacred status."

Confirmation of this antiquity is said to come from the Waraos or Guaraunos, a canoe people who were the original Amerindian settlers of the then village called "Annaparima" and who (some 14,000 strong - 1988 data) still live today in the Orinoco Delta.

They believed that each Warao village belonged to one of three male supreme spirits called Kanobos, meaning "our grandfathers". Each lived on a sacred world mountain, which held up the sky at the corners of the world. The Naparima Hill is still their world mountain to the north, home of the supreme spirit Warao warao, whose symbol is the butterfly.

Legend has it that Haburi, maker of the first canoe, still resides on the Hill with his mother and aunt. It is believed that a tree frog woman tricked him into committing incest with his mother and aunt. To escape punishment from the tribe be built the first canoe and fled with the two women to the San Fernando Hill where all three reside in exile.

Until the first decade of the 1900ís the Waraos are reported to have made an annual pilgrimage to the Hill. In 1869, Charles kinsley wrote:

"For once a year till of late - I know not whether the thing may be seen still - a strange phantom used to appear at San Fernando...canoes of Indians came mysteriously across the Gulf of Paria from the vast swamps of the Orinoco, and the naked folk landed and went up through the town after the Naparima ladies had sent down to the shore garments for the women, which were worn only through the streets and laid by as soon as they entered the forest. The smoke of their fires rose out of lonely woods as they collected the fruit of trees known only to themselves. In a few weeks their wild harvest was over; they came back through San Fernando; made almost in silence their little purchases in the town and paddled away across theGulf towards the unknown wilderness from whence they came."

Former President of Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. Noor Hassanali remembered seeing the Amerindians "walking up Carib Street on their way to the San Fernando Hill".

The first Amerindian settlement identified in the City was on the southern end of the Hill in the Black Street area. In 1970 pottery and other artefacts were found in that area.

Interestingly, a famous painting of the Hill by the renowned Caribbean artist, Michael Jean Cazabon dates back to the 1840s.

During his term of office the English Governor Lord Harris (1846-1854), took visiting officials to the Hill for recreation. Harris was so enchanted by the beauty of the Hill that he constructed 400 steps to its top. These steps served as the main access to the top from the southeast slope, but were bulldozed during quarrying operations in the 1970s.

Following the decimation of the Amerindian population, reportedly around 1800, part of the lush green vegetation of the Hill was removed when in 1825 gravel was extracted to repair the Royal Road. This marked the beginning of quarrying and it did not stop until 1978 when the then government declared quarrying on the Hill as illegal. Until then, as the town grew in the 1850s more and more gravel was needed. Up to 1900 all the roads in San Fernando were made with gravel. Every rainy season the gravel was washed away and had to be restored. San Fernando gravel was also used for the network of roads in the canefields and Caroni Limited had a quarry on the Hill. The devastation of the Hill peaked during the 1970s because of the rapid development of San Fernando and the southland. The destruction seemed uncontrolled. There were rumours of bribes being passed, of Ministers giving permission to this or that person to quarry. It appeared that anyone with a bulldozer could quarry.

Residents were affected also. For years people had complained about the quarrying. The dust and noise from blasting were a nuisance and danger to their health; their nerves were affected. Some were forced to sell their homes while others had their homes damaged by runaway trucks, tractors and/or landslides. In the rainy season tons of gravel were washed down and the streets were often covered with mud and silt. Soon about half of the Hill was cut down and, in despair, people began to say that the damage had gone so far, that the Hill should be levelled completely.

It was at this time that the one of the first community action groups in Trinidad was formed - the San Fernando Citizens Action Committee. This group found ready support from concerned citizens, among them the then Minister of Food Production, Marine Exploitation, Forestry and the Environment, the Honourable Lincoln Myers. A campaign was mounted to stir up public support and pick the conscience of the "body politic". The group succeeded in obtaining the backing of Mayor Girtrude Kirton for its Save-the-Hill Campaign and eventually, in 1977, Government was "forced" into action. Cabinet decided to acquire "16 acres, 1 rood, 30 perches from private owners". The following year, quarrying operations on Statelands (including that being done by Caroni Limited) had stopped and Government appointed a committee to make recommendations for the restoration and further utilisation of the Hill.

The committee immediately sought the participation of the San Fernando Borough Council, the Citizensí Action Committee and the San Fernando Arts Council in planning the development/restoration of the Hill. There was general agreement that there should be as little disturbance as possible to the existing hill by way of cutting and excavation. There should be a look out or observatory at the top, nature open-air theatre. In other words, the Hill should be "a place of passive recreation".

The sequence of events which followed were as follows:

January 1980 - The Town and Country Planning Division published a San Fernando Draft Report that dealt with, among other things, the history of the Hill and the development potential for the area.
November 1980 - The Ministry of Petroleum and Mines reported on the geology of the Hill.

The Forestry Division, aided by the Organisation of American States (O.A.S), published a plan for a system of National Parks and other protected areas. In this plan the Hill was identified as a Natural Landmark.

November 1981 - The Forestry Division published a report on the ecology of the San Fernando Hill.
1982 The Forestry Division also sought permission of the Ministry to prepare a Management and Development Plan for the Hill with technical assistance from the OAS.
November 1984 -The OAS technical expert in National Parks, Mr Richard Huber, arrived and was mandated to prepare a Management and Development Plan for the Hill in collaboration with the Forestry Division. The Cabinet appointed Committee of 1978 was disbanded and responsibility for the development of the Hill passed directly to the San Fernando Borough Council.

Mayor Rakeeb Hosein appointed another Hill Committee that included such persons as Mr Richard Huber of the OAS and Mr Ronald Bickram, Assistant Conservator of forests.

1985 -A Draft Management and Development Plan was prepared and submitted to relevant agencies for comment.
1986 -The final document, "A Management and Development Plan for the Cultural and Natural Restoration of the San Fernando Hill" was completed.

Students of the University of the West Indies discovered a rare species of orchid, habenaria alata, growing on the Hill.

Field Naturalists from the OAS sighted a peregrine falcon nesting on the Hill. The bird of the North Temperate Zone would have flown thousands of miles to the Hill to shelter from the winter.

TCL Skiffle Bunch emerged world champions in the pan-around-the-neck category in the Steelband Festival. Their tune was dedicated to the Hill and called In the Dream of the Dynamite, composed by Len "Boogsie" Sharpe.

May 1988 -Phase one of the Hill Rehabilitation Project was opened. It involved the construction and paving of approximately one kilometre of roadway, a car park, and the installation of eight to ten picnic shelters with accompanying facilities.

The San Fernando Hill was opened to the public as a Natural Landmark.

The Haji Shafik Rahaman Park was opened on the Hill, thereby providing playing facilities for children.

Dr. Romesh Mootoo referred to the Hill as "the Acropolis of the Caribbean".

1990 -Electricity was installed with the help of the British High Commission.
1997 -The Construction of a visitorsí centre and the appointment of a Board to manage the Hill.
2000 -The appointment of an Interim Management Committee for the San Fernando Hill National Park pending the establishment of a proposed National Parks Authority.

6. Restoration of the San Fernando Hill Natural Landmark

The ultimate goal of restoration activities has been, from the inception, to re-establish the Hill as a recreational/cultural area consistent with the proposals of the accepted management plan developed by the Forestry Division in 1986. The successful completion of the project would be tangible evidence of the rehabilitation of a mined area to provide opportunities for a variety of recreational and educational pursuits for the benefit of the National population. It is believed that the San Fernando Hill has considerable potential to be the most significant attraction to visitors to the Southern City.

  • Firstly, a priority of the original project was the rehabilitation and revegetation of slopes.
  • The second priority was the construction of a Visitor Centre with Park headquarters, visitor and educational facilities and sanitary amenities.
  • Improvement to the existing security through armed security forces using wireless communications was also considered important.
  • Other infrastructure proposed for the Hill include:
    • An Open air amphitheatre to seat 1,000 persons
    • A childrenís play park (donated by Rahaman Family)
    • Paved roadway and carpark at the base of the Hill
    • Tiled drainage system along the roadway
    • A multi-purpose court yard
    • A Nature trail system
    • A complement of interpretive, regulatory and informative signs
    • A botanic garden
    • A picnic area with picnic shelters and other facilities
    • Sanitary Amenities
    • A wading pool

Most of the targets outlined in the Plan have received some degree of attention with the exception of the open-air amphitheatre and enhanced security.

However, even in its still undeveloped state, "Sando" Hill continues to attract visitors, mainly in pursuit of passive recreation. Today, a reasonable number of visitors use the park either early in the morning or late afternoon for active pursuits such as walking and jogging. Picnicking, once a very regular activity has dwindled perhaps due to the relocation of picnic shelters and the absence of the once popular bar-be-que grills and other facilities.

The planners of cultural events regard the Hill as "the perfect venue" and continue to seek authorisation for such related uses as carnival shows, Carifesta and Kwanza. However, experience has shown that activities attracting large crowds conflict with the Hillís passive recreational pursuits, put severe stress on the resources and cause damage to grassed areas, other plants and seating accommodation.

The Hill has also come under the attack of vandals and robbers who have in the past cut cable lighting, destroyed and uprooted planted trees, pushed park benches over the side of the Hill, spray-painted the entire pavilion area and robbed unsuspecting couples. For nearly two weeks around May 1993 the Hill was closed to the public in order for the authorities to solve the problems of vandalism. Maintained by the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources, several measures were put in place to protect the San Fernando Hill Restoration Project National Park and its visitors. These measures included the following: limiting visiting hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; limiting access to vehicles in the Park; putting in place a system to check the Park for any signs of vandalism; collecting litter left behind by visitors; re-afforestation; and, advising visitors to check with forestry officers (who are easily recognised in their khaki uniforms) prior to going up the Hill.

7. Future Plans and Recommendations

The vision for the future of the Hill includes the complete revegetation of the barren desecrated areas created by quarrying operations. The vision includes the Hill as a tourist attraction and as an area that affords passive recreational opportunity in a safe environment and complete package of interpretive and educational opportunities that will increase visitor awareness and participation in environmental protection practices island wide.

In order to achieve long term benefits of the programme it is essential that the facilities be properly maintained, and that operations be sustained. Although Government funding guarantees its maintenance, it is believed that once developed the Hill will have significant potential to offset operational and maintenance costs. The revenue potential may even be able to generate surpluses to fund other improvement and development works within the project.

In this regard, several recommendations for the sustained viability of the Hill rehabilitation project have been presented to the San Fernando City Corporation for consideration. These include the following:

  1. Developing an aggressive revenue generating plan; for example: fees to be charged for parking, entrance fees, sale of brochures and other publications, concession of booths, cafeteria or other vendors, penalties for damages and other offences, donations, grants, membership, leases, rentals, charges for special accommodation to promoters;
  2. Introducing of a savings plan based upon a system of voluntary services used to supplement paid services; for example, volunteers to clear the Park on special days; or volunteer Park Rangers (from scouts or youth groups); or Park Wardens from among retired security and Police officers, etc.;
  3. Extending opening hours (from 6.00 p.m.) to facilitate visitors viewing sunsets. As a consequence, there would be a need to consider greater security;
  4. Constructing switch-board steps from the base (car park area) to the Visitor Centre to enhance the view, recreate the challenge of climbing the San Fernando Hill, decrease the flow of vehicular traffic to the top; and, provide a safe alternative route to the top of the Hill for pedestrian traffic;
  5. Providing some facility for dealing with first aid emergencies for visitors to the Park;
  6. Posting disclaimers at strategic points on the Hill (in light of the hazardous nature of several areas of the Park)
  7. Developing those northern parcels of land adjacent to the Hill to afford product/service diversity to visitors. This will also spread visitation and reduce the concentration of visitors and the resulting damage due to overuse of an area. The development of shade tree areas, ponds, wading pools, bridges over streams will enhance aesthetics and natural ambiance in an area that lends itself to larger facilities for weddings and similar gatherings;
  8. Constructing a swimming pool. This could be a great revenue earner as well as an essential facility that is lacking for the population of San Fernando;
  9. Exploring the feasibility of constructing a cable car system traversing the San Fernando Hill (perhaps from Circular Road to Library Corner). An investor could install the system and then channel a percentage of his profits into the coffers of the project.
    Paper by: Wendy-Ann Wattie