This story was originally published on Climate Tracker as a part of its Citizen Climate Journalism Fellowship, in partnership with The Cropper Foundation. An edited version is republished here with permission.
At first glance, vetiver may look like any wild grass growing at the side of the road in Trinidad and Tobago. Deep within its elongated roots, however, lies one of the greatest, cheapest, and most eco-friendly solutions to flooding, landslides, slope stabilisation and erosion control; yet, it has been a neglected preventative measure to the threats imposed by climate change. The increasing occurrence of flooding in the country, however, which has ripple effects that include human displacement and shortages of local produce, has proven why solutions like vetiver systems can no longer be neglected.
Scientifically known as chrysopogon zizanioides, vetiver is a densely tufted grass found in tropical and subtropical regions. Above the soil, it looks like a dense cluster of perennial grass, while below is an abundant, dense and interlocking root system that grows vertically to as much as 10 feet (three meters).
Its intricate root system holds the structure of soil and supports the infrastructure around it, making it an effective prevention tool for flood mitigation, erosion control, slope stabilisation and redemption of contaminated soil. The other factor that makes the grass particularly unique is its resistance to both drought and flooding.
Simple, low-cost, and multi-purpose, vetiver's benefits to climate change risks in different countries have been proven by several studies, which confirm that it “play[s] a key role in disaster mitigation and vulnerability reduction.”
Now, more Trinbagonians are becoming aware of the virtues of vetiver thanks to the efforts of organisations like Vetiver TT, which is helping to establish nationwide planting programmes. However, its chair, Jonathan Barcant, says the initiative cannot solely rely on companies like his. It also requires support from national agencies and funding partners.
With the input of partners, local and regional champions and funding agencies, Barcant said that the plant has also begun to be used in other Caribbean islands. Still, large-scale use is slow both regionally and locally. Barcant acknowledged that “making the right changes generally isn’t easy and fast,” which may explain why wide-scale adoption, both in Trinidad and Tobago and the English-speaking Caribbean, has been gradual. “It doesn’t mean that strides aren’t being made, but people are often just trying to survive and get by.”
Unless there is true top-down leadership at the country level to drive the kind of change that we need to see, it can be quite difficult and slow for those working at the bottom, whether it be entrepreneurs or activists, to drive things as quickly as they are needing to happen.
Challenges remain, however, with both implementation and education. While vetiver isn’t a new phenomenon in the region, Barcant explained that there is a generational divide in its use, with older people being more knowledgeable about its benefits.
Education is a crucial component to achieving regular use of the plant. Vetiver TT’s Vetiver Education & Empowerment Project (VEEP) aims to fill that void by hosting workshops that educate people on the uses and benefits of the grass, while introducing the vetiver system to communities that are most in need of it.
The programme, which began in 2016, first ran for a year in the hilly agricultural community of Paramin, in northern Trinidad. Alongside regular classroom and handicraft workshops, the initiative resulted in the planting of 25,000 vetiver plants. The programme has since expanded to 10 additional communities across Trinidad and Tobago, and this is helping to achieve Barcant's goal of widespread awareness:
Nowadays, everyone knows what mangroves do for coastlines and the benefits they bring; one day everyone should also have knowledge and understanding about vetiver for land.
In fact, he thinks it must be positioned as a preventative safety measure for citizens: “Nobody in the tropical world should have to face challenges of land slippage and erosion at their own properties or in their communities, and not know that vetiver grass is available to them as a solution.”
This greatly relies on, as Barcant says, “relevant government ministries continu[ing] to make greater use of it, in infrastructure projects and promoting and advocating its use in the agricultural sector.” In this vein, partnerships like ME-WE-GREEN, an educational and empowerment programme aimed at climate change adaptation that is an initiative between Barcant’s NGO IAMovement and The Green Fund, a branch of the Ministry of Planning and Development, signal a step in the right direction.
With the repercussions of Trinidad and Tobago’s last rainy reason still making headlines, however, larger investments into vetiver and other climate change solutions are essential to the country’s sustainable environmental development.