This post was first published on Cari-Bois Environmental News Network; an edited version appears below as part of a content-sharing agreement.
By Kyle Foster
For thousands of years, fast-flowing water has shaped and sculpted a variety of karst landscapes across Barbados’ limestone, and over time, gullies have become an integral part of the island’s culture and heritage.
The trenches of gullies are inhabited by a wide range of flora and fauna, which makes these formations important terrestrial ecosystems for biodiversity, but their value extends far beyond this, also serving many economic and historical values.
Yet, consistent, unsustainable anthropogenic activities have led to the degradation of some of the island’s gullies.
Ecological functions and historical relevance
Gullies cover five percent of Barbados’ total land area. During heavy rainfall, they act as drainage channels for flowing water that starts in the central highlands of the island and moves towards the coast.
Over one-third of the island's plant species — like the native Macaw palm (Aiphanes minima) which is distinguished by its spiny trunk, and the Bearded Fig tree (Ficus citrifolia) — can be found growing in the lush, green forests of gullies.
Reptiles like lizards and the endangered Barbados threadsnake (Tetracheilostoma carlae), the world’s smallest snake, can also be found in these gullies. Endemic to the island, this snake primarily inhabits forested areas, which are few and far between, as the island has no original forest left, most of it having been cleared for agricultural purposes. While the species is elusive, Welchman Hall Gully is one area where it can be found; it is believed they also exist in other areas with similar conditions.
Given that gullies are difficult areas to develop, they now preserve many of the island’s native plant species and, as such, are some of the last remaining refuges for native species like the Barbados threadsnake.
Further to their ecosystem functions, the vegetation in gullies contributes to carbon sequestration and regulates the flow of water by allowing it to slow down and infiltrate the ground. This process replenishes the island’s aquifers and reduces soil erosion. Gullies also contain rich biological resources, which can be used for traditional medicines, biomedical research, and animal foods.
Gullies also hold cultural and historical significance. Studies by archaeologists Frederick H. Smith and Hayden F. Bassett found that during plantation slavery, gullies served as pathways between estates for the enslaved, allowing them to travel without being seen by estate owners.
Archaeological evidence, like artefacts found in the gullies in St. Nicholas Abbey, also shows that caves located in the gullies were once used as social gathering areas or for the purpose of relaying information, allowing enslaved people to have their own spaces, hidden away from those dominated by the planter class.
Issues affecting Barbados’ gullies
Indiscriminate waste disposal and rapid land-use changes have threatened the ecological well-being of Barbados’ gullies. Illegal dumping is one of the main issues affecting these areas, and the battle to stop this activity has been ongoing for many years.
Old household appliances — fridges, furniture and construction rubble — and dead livestock are among the types of waste found indiscriminately dumped in gullies across the island. In addition to the harm this kind of waste can cause to wildlife, gully pollution also affects the quality of life in nearby communities.
Pollution facilitates conditions for pests like rodents, flies and mosquitoes to thrive, which increases the risk of disease. It also increases the likelihood of flooding, as the physical barrier created by solid waste and debris in waterways can, and often does, dam flowing water during heavy rainfall.
One such incident occurred in 1995, when there was the breakdown of a barrier in a gully in Weston, in the parish of St. James along Barabados'west coast. Popular calypsonian Neville Denis Blackman, known by the sobriquet “De Great Carew,” died during the flooding.
In addition to solid waste, chemical runoff from agriculture also affects gullies’ well-being. Throw the introduction of invasive species and deforestation into the mix and the true scope of the threat to Barbados’ gullies begins to be seen.
Over time, national campaigns to clean up gullies have become a regular activity in Barbados, with non-governmental organisations and volunteers often gathering to clean the gullies, which are most affected by illegal dumping.
In 2022, the Barbados Defence Force, Coast Guard and other such entities collaborated for a cleanup of Bucks Gully, St. Thomas, in the centre of the island, where an estimated 66,000 pounds of garbage was collected.
Other proactive conservation approaches include the creation, in 2005, of the Integrated Gully Ecosystem Management Plan (IGEMP) by the then Ministry of Energy and the Environment. The plan sought to build public awareness of gullies through education, by making it part of the school curriculum and educating farmers on how the chemicals they use affect gullies.
The IGEMP also outlined policies for gullies which prevent deforestation, promote natural reforestation, and enforce a three-metre, no-development buffer zone around gullies. However, the 15-year-old plan is now dated, and there are debates on its effectiveness.
Still, education is key if the protection of gullies is to be successful, as illegal dumping remains one of the main threats. While it is difficult to consistently monitor illegal dumping, efforts to reduce this habit heavily rely on the awareness of surrounding communities to make decisions with gullies in mind.