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, is one of the greatest, cheapest, and most eco-friendly solutions to flooding, landslides, slope stabilisation and erosion control.
Yet with all of these benefits, it has continually been a neglected solution and preventative measure to the growing threat of climate change on the islands.
The country’s continual experience of excess flooding and its aftermath, which include shortages of local produce and displaced citizens, have proven why solutions like Vetiver Systems can no longer be neglected.
What is Vetiver?
Vetiver, scientifically known as, Chrysopogon Zizanioides, is a densely tufted bunch of grass that is found in tropical and subtropical regions. Above the soil, Vetiver looks like a dense cluster of perennial grass. Within the soil, is an abundant, dense and interlocking root system that grows vertically to as much as 10 feet.
Its intricate root system holds the structure of soil and in the process, supports the infrastructure around it. This is the key reason vetiver can be used as a prevention tool for flood mitigation, erosion control, slope stabilization and the redemption of contaminated soil. However, the other factor that makes the grass particularly unique is its resistance to both drought and flooding.
Vetiver is used across the world and multiple studies have proven its low-cost, simple, and multi-purpose benefits to climate change risks. One study in particular published in 2017 by the Journal of Geography & Natural Disasters, assessed Vetiver Systems and their efficacy in disaster risk reduction in the Kerala State of India.
The study focused on answering two main questions: firstly, “can vetiver grass be successfully used for ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction activities?” and secondly, “how can a field implementation practice for vetiver system[s] be developed in the Indian context?”
The study carefully considers the implementation practice used and found that Vetiver, “play[ed] a key role in disaster mitigation and vulnerability reduction.” It also emphasized the plant’s particular benefit as a “new solution in disaster risk reduction activities because conventional engineering approaches [were] insufficient, especially in a densely populated and tropical country like India”
One key observation from the study found that the success of the field’s execution was its connection with, “well-established national-level programmes,” which strengthened the initiatives.
A similar sentiment was shared by Jonathan Barcant, the Technical Director and Chairman of Vetiver TT, Ecological and Engineering Solutions Limited. He acknowledged that the success of executing Vetiver Systems cannot solely rely on companies like his. It requires support from national agencies and funding partners.
When discussing the use of the plant on other Caribbean islands, Barcant said, “the adoption on the other islands has been largely supported by our work, although working with key partners who were the local champions or funding agencies helped to make it possible, some of which included, Eco Strategies Grenada and the GEF UNDP Small Grants Programme, IICA, and the Caribbean Biodiversity Fund, amongst others.”
Still, large-scale use is slow both regionally and locally. In his interview with Climate Tracker, Barcant shared why he believes widescale adoption both in Trinidad and Tobago and the English-speaking Caribbean is gradual, “making the right changes generally isn’t easy and fast, unfortunately. It doesn’t mean that strides aren’t being made, but people are often just trying to survive and get by.”
He continued, “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.”
Barcant and his company continue to be one of the most prominent figures in the push for Vetiver Systems in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean. Both in implementation and education. There are, however, challenges with both.
While Vetiver isn’t a new phenomenon in the Caribbean, Barcant shared that there is a generational divide in its use, “on the other islands that there was a good presence of vetiver in some areas, but similar to Trinidad and Tobago, the knowledge wasn’t very present amongst our current generations, but more with the older generations.”
Education is a crucial component to achieving regular use of the plant on the islands. Barcant’s other venture The Vetiver Education & Empowerment Project (VEEP) aims to fill that void by having workshops to educate people on the use and benefits of the grass but also by introducing the Vetiver System to the communities that are most in need of it.
The program which began in the hills of Paramin Trinidad from 2016 to 2017 resulted in the planting of 25,000 Vetiver plants across the village alongside classroom and handicraft workshops. Since then, it has expanded to 10 additional communities across Trinidad and Tobago.
But where does this place the state of Vetiver in Trinidad and Tobago now? For Barcant, it’s to achieve the 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 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.”
Partnerships like the “ME-WE-GREEN: An Education & Empowerment Programme for Climate Change Adaption”, between Barcant’s NGO, IAMovement and The Green Fund, a branch of the Ministry of Planning and Development are a signal in the right direction.
However, with the repercussions of Trinidad and Tobago’s last rainy reason still making newspaper headlines, larger investments into Vetiver and other climate change solutions are no longer just needed but essential to the country’s sustainable environmental development.
Learn more about Vetiver and Barcant’s companies in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean here:
This story was published with the support of Climate Tracker and The Cropper Foundation’s Caribbean Citizen Climate Journalism Fellowship