A three part series (so far) for the Trinidad Sunday Express on the closure of T&T’s world famous Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC). The articles are included in longer (unedited) text format and from PDFs of the original Express publications.

Part 1, “Save our Global Treasure”, examines the importance of AWNC to nature tourism worldwide and pleas for its salvation from T&T and abroad.

Part 2, “Something Wrong in Paradise”, looks at why AWNC had to close and whether it was even necessary.

Part 3, “The Asa Wright Phoenix”, reports on the deterioration of AWNC over the year of the pandemic and the management’s plans to extricate themselves from a mess of their own making. Also, a report on the plight of Asa Wright’s sacked workers trying to reach a fair settlement.

PART ONE – SAVE OUR GLOBAL TREASURE

The news that the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) is to close has drawn a chorus of shock and dismay from nature tour companies across the globe, which regard it as an unmitigated disaster. Regarded as iconic, legendary and one of the finest places in the world to see birds, AWNC is also the glue that holds the rest of T&T’s nature tourism business together. Asa Wright’s demise will be felt far outside the Arima Valley. But, behind the scenes, a hornet’s nest of recrimination is tearing at the fabric of our venerable and much-loved institution. Why did it need to close and how can it be saved?

By MARK MEREDITH

Do you remember the impact Asa Wright had on you the first time you visited? How, after driving through tropical forest on the hilly, winding Arima to Blanchisseuse road, you suddenly came upon paradise? Right here in T&T?

Maybe you recall the walk along the polished wooden floorboards of the elegant old estate house past paintings and photographs of birds, the estate and its royal visitors?

And when you reached that famous veranda and looked out, were you, like me, transfixed by the astonishing spectacle before you? How a flurry of colour whirled around right there, just in front of you, so close you could almost touch? Hummingbirds in rainbow colours, so many shapes and sizes; tanagers, honeycreepers, bananaquits and others dazzling in their plumage, putting on a scintillating show for you.

Remember how the wonder didn’t stop there? On the pathways below, golden tegu lizards as long as your arm prowled for fruit scraps, like miniature dinosaurs. While out in front of you the rainforest tumbled down the valley in a green haze of a hundred hues, the nests of crested oropendola swaying lazily in the breeze, Ornate Hawk-eagles soaring, and everywhere a myriad species flitting busily about.

There are, according to the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC), 166 bird species to be seen in its 1,500 acre grounds, as well as many visiting species, bringing numbers that can be viewed to over 200 species. Added to that are the attractions of the many bird trails, the clanging of the forest’s loudest resident, the bearded bellbird, and the cave dwelling oilbirds, the most accessible colony in the world. 

The sheer concentration of birds and sense of exhilaration draws international tourists here from across the globe. That is why AWNC’s closure has come like a hammer blow to international and local tour operators.

The primary booking agent for Asa Wright for the past 40 years has been Caligo Ventures based in Arizona. It acts as AWNC’s exclusive booking agent for North America. In a typical year it sends 1,000 high-spending tourists to Asa Wright.

“The centre is truly a global treasure. We tell people it is the best place on the planet to learn tropical birding,” said Director Peg Abbott.

“Every major tour company in the UK and USA brings tours almost every year to Trinidad and Tobago. The AWNC is the anchor of that stay. It certainly puts Trinidad and Tobago on the map for aspiring naturalists, photographers, and birders.”

Calling AWNC’s closure “deeply shocking”, Caligo, like other operators, will offer alternatives to a closed-down Asa Wright, said Abbott. 

“Our clients will also simply choose other destinations, of which there are many. They will take Trinidad off the list, and something else will slide in. So a portion of our business will simply go elsewhere, and that is sad for Trinidad and Tobago, but a boon to other locations. Without the Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad risks losing its strong global position with that audience.”

American Bill Murphy, an entomologist and Smithsonian Institute member, has led 94 birding tours to AWNC over 40 years, bringing over 2,000 high-spending guests to T&T. When he heard about the closure, he posted on Facebook that he wept. He regaled me with stories of his love of Asa Wright and how it evolved from simple beginnings to what he regards as the finest ecolodge he knows today.

“I have stayed at a dozen ecolodges in Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Panama. While each of them offers some of the attributes that birders desire – safety, cleanliness, comfort, plentiful safe food, and of course a lot of birds – no other ecolodge comes close to Asa Wright in hitting home runs in every aspect.

“With so many potential destinations throughout the world, why have more than 2,000 people chosen to join my tours to Trinidad & Tobago? Only one reason – Asa Wright. I have yet to meet anyone who has returned from a visit to Asa Wright and said, ‘It was okay’. Instead they return as evangelists intent on persuading all of their friends to hop on the next flight to Piarco.”

Murphy is devastated for the staff at AWNC who, he says, are one of the best reasons for visiting. “I worry greatly about the tremendous negative impact these firings will have on the entire Arima Valley. About 90% of the staff live within a few miles of the Centre. Many of them have spouses and children, and they based their lives and financial futures on their jobs at the Centre.

“Anyone can tell that these workers – the receptionists, drivers, trail guides, kitchen staff, housecleaners and ground crews – love their jobs and love the place itself.”

Vaughan Ashby of Birdfinders, a UK-based company, told me: “From the perspective of nature lovers and, in particular, birdwatchers, it is a disaster.” He said it was a blow to the T&T economy as nature tourism was significant, as was the loss of associated jobs that would follow from AWNC’s closure.

Megan Crewe of Texas-based Field Guides said she had led 18 tours to AWNC, bringing some 180 people to T&T. “In international birding circles, AWNC truly ranks as one of the legendary destinations.” She emphasised the importance AWNC had on other aspects of the local tourism economy.

“The lodge brings hundreds – maybe thousands? – of birders a year to the islands. Those birders spend thousands of dollars each – and not only at Asa Wright. We rent vehicles. We stay at other hotels on the islands. Our groups also spend two nights on Tobago and a final night near the Piarco airport. We eat at restaurants. We hire local guides. We rent boots before walking Tobago’s Gilpin Trace. We take boat trips to Caroni Swamp and Little Tobago. The list goes on.”

Dale Dunlop from Canada, who leads Maritime Explorer tours, fell in love, like his wife, with Asa Wright, Trinidad and its people. He told me: “This is terrible news. The AWNC is one of the top ten birding destinations on earth and one that every birder aspires to visit one day. With the rapid development of a vaccine it would be very short-sighted on the government’s part not to see it through.”

Chris Lotz of UK-based Birding Ecotours said: “I think Trinidad and Tobago have now lost their most famous attraction to birders and nature lovers, and a great many of these people will simply go to competing countries such as Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica, Cuba, etc., and just forget Trinidad and Tobago now that the prime lodge has gone. 

“We were just about to re-add Trinidad and Tobago to our repertoire, but won’t now. It won’t be the same without Asa Wright. It no longer has that edge, so we won’t market it any more. We have plenty of other destinations to market. It’s horribly sad for the people of T&T.

“For the sake of the people of Trinidad and Tobago, I would really hope that the government would make a way – for their people.”

Similar sentiments came from Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures in South Africa. Asa Wright was on MD Keith Valentine’s bucket list: “Seems as though that may never happen now,” he said. “Very sad indeed as it feels like it is not only Trinidad and Tobago that is losing one of its most well-known birding locations but the entire world … a reputation like theirs doesn’t happen without good reason.”

Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of BirdsCaribbean in Boston, said: “We were devastated to hear the news. We were planning to hold our next international conference in Trinidad and include pre- and post-conference day and multi-day field trips to Asa Wright.”

For local operators like Cuffie River Nature Retreat, Jason Radix’s Eureka Natural History Tours and nature guide Faraaz Abdool, Asa Wright’s closure is a terrible blow.

Jason Radix told me: “My business success is heavily dependent on the existence and success of the Centre. Over 90% of my clients book through Caligo Ventures, which sells packages that include both islands. For the millions of registered international ‘birders’ it is difficult to sell Tobago on its own, and this void will negatively impact not just mine but the other complementary businesses in Tobago.”

Regina Dumas of Cuffie River Nature Retreat said keen international birdwatchers, like Audubon groups in the US, choose to do both islands. Asa Wright tends to be the Trinidad choice and Cuffie River Nature Retreat the Tobago equivalent.

These groups, she said, like to do both Trinidad and Tobago because these two islands offer something different to the sun and sand on offer elsewhere, something other islands simply can’t match. “With the demise of the centre we will lose continued international recognition among a specialised group.” 

Faraaz Abdool, a naturalist, photographer and writer who leads bird tours in T&T was fulsome in his praise of AWNC and the unique experiences it offers. However, he said his main concern was that the surrounding forest remains protected.

“There are numerous patches of deforestation opening up on the perimeter of the centre, as well as hunting taking place nearby. Without staff present, I can only hope that persons do not become emboldened to perform illegal or damaging activity.” 

Presently the buildings and 1,500-acre grounds are being manned by a skeleton staff of 12, which include five security guards and a trainee.

In a recent TV interview, AWNC Chair Dr Judith Gobin said the centre was looking at a “new business model” and mentioned that “there were some lands that we may consider for sale”. 

I put it to her: “I’m sure any reduction in the conservation estate would have a very negative impact on the wildlife of the area? After all, we know how developments in Trinidad go – with very little thought for the surrounding environment.” 

She replied: “I assure you the board and trustees are very well aware of your concern, which is also ours.”

PART 2 – SOMETHING WRONG IN PARADISE

Listed in the New York Times bestseller by Patricia Shulz, “1000 Places To See Before You Die”, Asa Wright Nature Centre should not have expected to die before readers of that book. Was its “scandalous” closure, and the unemployment of its much lauded staff, inevitable in the face of the pandemic?

By MARK MEREDITH

There is a pot of gold at the end of The Ministry of Planning and Development’s own special rainbow. It’s called The Green Fund. Could it have saved Asa Wright? Could it still? 

Or, as some critics insist, should no public money be spent saving our internationally acclaimed institution while the current board which oversaw its demise after 53 years remains in control? 

In the last published Auditor General’s Report in 2019 the Green Fund was worth TT$$6,946,131,930.49 billion, a little over US$1 billion. But, like the mythical pot of gold, getting your organisation’s hands on the elusive money in the ministry’s stash has proved frustrating. 

By 2019 only TT$392 million of those many billions had been allocated. That means less than 6 per cent of the Green Fund has ever been utilised. Of the 27 projects that did manage to touch that pot of gold, 77 per cent were of state agencies. 

In 2018-2019 the fund grew by TT$943.5 million. It’s the gold mine gift which keeps giving to the T&T government. 

A non-profit company “can access the Green Fund”, according to the Ministry, if it “is engaged in activities related to the remediation, reforestation, environmental education and public awareness of environmental issues and conservation of the environment”. 

Asa Wright, as a non-profit company, is a prime candidate for Green Fund money, funds which might have made all the difference – if someone had applied for them. 

But the board of the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC), whose Chair is UWI lecturer Dr Judith Gobin, has not made an application to the Green Fund.

Dr Gobin confirmed they made an application “some years ago” which failed because their “status” then did not qualify. It now does.

“Years passed and now we can go after it again,” she added.

It was put to Dr Gobin: why hadn’t she applied for potentially life-saving funds when the borders closed, thus avoiding the calamity of closure and unemployment of AWNC workers?

And why, when their own board member, vice-chair Marina Narinesingh, has sat on the Green Fund Advisory Board since 2012 did they not make any application given her expertise and knowledge of the fund and how it works?

Later, fellow board member Christine Toppin-Allahar, for Dr Gobin, said that “they were working towards the submission of a Green Fund application before the advent of Covid-19”. 

She did not explain, when asked, what the reasons were for making the submission before the pandemic struck, or why there was no urgency to do so once it arrived.

Toppin-Allahar said: “This is not a simple process. We still intend to submit a proposal to the Green Fund as soon as possible.”

Her view was that given what she called “limited purposes for which grants can lawfully be made from the Green Fund”, no such application could “possibly be made” which would have saved their employees’ jobs.

There is no ceiling for funding by the Green Fund. The Express was told by a well-placed source that only by AWNC drawing up a proposal that encompasses conservation and sustainable ecotourism will they truly know if the ecolodge and their employees jobs might be saved.

It is not as though the Ministry of Planning and Development would be unsupportive of AWNC. Far from it. 

In AWNC’s The Bellbird magazine 50th Anniversary Edition, the ministry took out an advertisement congratulating it as a “leading agency for environmental preservation, conservation and education…spearheading environmental enhancement… the future of Trinidad and Tobago’s environment is in good hands”.

But is Asa Wright in good hands?

Following AWNC’s closure of their ecolodge business a febrile atmosphere of recrimination now exists between workers and union and the AWNC board and management. 

Staff who have had their jobs terminated are, according to sources, angry and “heartbroken”. They feel betrayed after their long years (some up to 40) of loyal service. 

The Government Industrial & General Workers Union, which represents AWNC staff, blames the board for refusal to compromise over retrenchments the board wanted to push through.

AWNC union workers were not against furloughs, retirements, and keeping a skeleton crew, they say, but were united in their opposition to retrenchments and even offered to accept a pay cut of 50% to avoid retrenchment.  

They say AWNC told them they had no money to pay any percentage of their pay. The workers then agreed to going half a year (two 90-day periods) without pay to avoid retrenchment. 

But the union claims workers were retrenched without the required involvement of the union. AWNC’s workers were then terminated without severance benefits four days shy of their retrenchment date, a violation of The Retrenchment and Severance Benefit Act, they say.

Dr Gobin said: “I can confirm to you that the offers made by the AWNC to the union were all rejected outright and that is why we had to make some crucial decisions.” 

She added, “We are now at the Ministry of Labour and as expected this will go to the Industrial or other court”. 

In fact, AWNC were a no-show at the last meeting between the parties called by the Minister of Labour on 28th January to resolve the impasse. Three unanswered calls were made by the Conciliator to AWNC representatives to find out where they were. 

According to Krishna Sukdeo, legal counsel acting for the union (but not employed by them), AWNC’s illegal and uncompromising stance threatens the entire future of AWNC, Trust and all.

By terminating the workers and saying they are closing, and then talking of “reinventing” themselves and opening again along the same lines as before, AWNC will open themselves up to litigation under Successorship Application and Recognition law. 

The Express has learned that AWNC will certainly lose and be taken for a “couple of million” in damages by the union. “The money that they (AWNC) would have had to run their programs and their facility (will have) gone elsewhere. So it’s really stupidity, absolute stupidity,” said Sukdeo.

He stressed it was his and the union’s goal to preserve Asa Wright. That both sides should “smoke a peace pipe” and compromise. 

Many supporters of Asa Wright remain unconvinced by AWNC’s explanations to date; that it suddenly found itself broke, staff sacked, centre shut. For them survival of the centre is all that matters. If it takes a new board and direction then, as far as they are concerned, so much the better. 

Roger Neckles, the well-known Trinidad nature photographer and guide, was scathing. “Sell Asa to experienced international hands. Decades of failure cannot be attributed solely to Covid, No way! Asa is too old an institution to use Covid as a scapegoat for alleged management incompetence.”

Dr Gobin has stated it costs $450,000 a month to operate the centre. But that figure is questioned by some including former board members and the union, who believe it to be much lower. It is pointed out that $450,000 might be the figure during a normal high season. But the centre has been closed since March, with minimal operating expenses. 

This anomaly was among many questions sent to Dr Gobin, almost all of which she declined to answer.

She was asked whether AWNC sets aside cash reserves for repairs, acquisition of land, unforeseen physical circumstances, or to carry the centre through a rough financial patch. What reserves did they have at the beginning of 2020? What was the value of AWNC donations since March?

The union says they repeatedly requested three years of financial statements from the board but have been provided with none. As a nonprofit, such provision is required under law. The latest request was through attorney Sukdeo on 1st February.

Sukdeo said that AWNC “may say they are basically insolvent and have to terminate everybody but where is the financial proof of that insolvency? You can’t just say it, you have to prove it.” We asked, unsuccessfully, why the board of AWNC withheld such critical information from the union.

AWNC had 42 workers but 21 board members, an unusually high proportion of the latter in anyone’s book. Some of those board members have marketing and advertising skills, but such skills do not seem to have been employed in saving the centre.

On the AWNC Board of Management & Staff home page, a professional fundraiser, Kathy Dwyer Southern, is listed as a board member. She is noted for having raised $32 million for a project in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr Gobin was asked what Southern’s strategy was for raising funds for the centre, or whether her expertise was even utilised. No luck there, either.

One source, an AWNC ex-manager, told of a long-standing culture of secrecy between the board and the staff, the latter having no opportunity to contribute to the policies and direction of the centre. He told the Express of a marketing manager who had never even had a formal audience with the board or its Marketing Committee.

“This classification of everything as privilege or confidential has been ongoing for years,” he said. “My professional view is that this would have been a symptom of broader problems within the Asa Wright culture, with even some non-Executive Directors not even having full disclosure within the board.”

The Express learned that one board member was not even aware of the centre’s decision to close until it appeared in the media, days later. This might suggest that not all board members were provided an opportunity to vote on such a vital matter. 

Dr Gobin was asked if such a vote had been taken, or if it was an executive decree that she made. And, if a vote was taken, which board members were allowed to vote? Also what was the criteria for which board members were allowed to vote while others were not?

She said: “The decisions were all made and approved (as constitutionally required) by board members and the trustees were advised and gave their approval.”

Meanwhile international tour operators across the world, and local tour operators which rely on Asa Wright’s guests for their own business in other areas of Trinidad, and in Tobago, want AWNC back up and running.

Jason Radix runs T&T’s Eureka Tours. He told us: “My business success is heavily dependent on the existence and success of the centre. Over 90 per cent of my clients book through Caligo Ventures in North America which sells packages that include both islands. For the millions of registered international ‘birders’ it is difficult to sell Tobago on its own, and this void will negatively impact not just mine but the other complementary businesses in Tobago.”

The Express asked international tour operators if they thought Green Fund rescue money, or any government support, should go to save the centre? 

Among the many who replied confirming such support was Chris Lotz of UK-based Birding Ecotours. He explained that a “similarly excellent lodge at Pico Bonito in Honduras closed down. Their government did not understand the power of such a place. Asa Wright is even sadder as it’s known as one of the classic top lodges of the world”.

“I wish that the governments of Honduras, and now Trinidad & Tobago, would be more like Costa Rica or Botswana and actually value places like this.”

Peg Abbott of Caligo Ventures, the primary booking agent for Asa Wright for the past 40 years, said: “It is incomprehensible to me that the government of Trinidad and Tobago would not support this international gem.

“When COVID retreats this is just the kind of travel people are looking for. The Asa Wright experience is never as timely in appeal as it is now . . .  without AWNC Trinidad and Tobago will miss a good deal of the projected strong pulse of eco-travel inherent to the post pandemic recovery.”

But Dr Gobin, in a TV interview, talked of creating a “new business model”; of “reevaluating and rethinking”, stressing the utilisation of local bird watchers. 

“Clearly we need to change this model”, she said of the same successful model which has brought thousands of international, high-spending nature tourists  to Asa Wright, serving ecotourism in both islands of T&T so well for 53 years.

PART THREE – THE ASA WRIGHT PHOENIX

By MARK MEREDITH

On September 1st Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) unexpectedly announced it was seeking a “Request For Proposals (RFP) for a Concession to Operate (their) Eco Lodge” for 10 years.

Eight months after AWNC suddenly and controversially closed permanently, citing Covid and “insolvency”, it seemed the world-famous eco attraction wished to rise like a mythical bird from the ashes of the pandemic.

But the Sunday Express has learned that optimism for its reopening among nature lovers and worldwide fans of the centre, not to mention scores of struggling former employees, is sadly misplaced.

The likelihood of desperate workers being reemployed and the eco lodge opening for business anytime soon seem as remote as a phoenix alighting upon one of Asa Wright’s avian feeding tables.

Under the watch of the AWNC Chair Dr Judy Gobin and Vice Chair Marina Narinesingh the condition of unmaintained guest houses has been allowed to deteriorate. Photos we have seen and evidence we have heard suggest it’s a more welcome dwelling for bats, roaches and forest creatures.

Piles of dirty washing lie uncollected on the floor of the laundry room, apparently not touched since March 2020; blackened, termite-infested wood, decaying eves, gutters and dissolving drainpipes decorate buildings; black gunge soils shabby roofs with galvanise turned mouldy green; a blizzard of plaster or paint pieces seems to have swept through one bedroom.

We heard some people felt “sick” at the deterioration and abandonment on display during the official RFP site visit on Wednesday. Especially since it could have all been so different.

Our sources tell us AWNC’s ex employees offered to come to the centre to clean and maintain the property, for free. No pay expected. Just so the property would be in a fit state to reopen. But Dr Gobin refused to let them set foot on the property.

It didn’t take one interested party in the RFP very long to take in the state of what he saw to change his mind about the offer on the table from AWNC.

Jason Reece, whose family, the Meyers, once owned all of Spring Hill Estate before half of it was sold to Asa Wright, was interested in the RFP.  He told us it was right next door and he’d potentially be able to double the size of the conservation estate, with more trails and nature opportunities, at no cost to anyone. 

But Reece said the  nature of the guest house properties was “pretty run down”, what he called “rough”, with “roofs infested with woodlice and termites”. They were only able to see two cabins and the others he peered into confirmed his worst suspicions about infestation and disrepair. It was enough to realise the repair bill would be too large. 

We learned that one businessman at the site visit estimated a repair/reconstruction bill to bring the facilities back to international standard of around $10 million.

Reece said the “area around the main compound had the grass cut because they knew we were coming, but the trails were completely overgrown”. The animals, like agoutis, had gone, he said, and despite AWNC putting out a few bird feeders outside the partially mosquito-netted veranda he saw just one hummingbird. “Imagine that, seeing only one hummingbird at Asa Wright.”

On the other hand, former AWNC board member Lester Nanaan, who successfully runs Nanan’s Caroni Sanctuary Boat Tours, didn’t think the conditions so bad, but a natural consequence of no maintenance in a rainforest environment. A passionate conservationist, he intends to put in a bid, though, like Jason Reece and others, he has reservations about the offer on the table.

——————

Under its current management AWNC has been run into the ground, physically and financially. The Sunday Express has learned that in the two financial years prior to Covid striking in March 2020, AWNC guest house deficits alone totalled well over $2 million. 

Our evidence shows the sickness in Asa Wright came not from the virus but from an inability to manage a world-beating product with a glowing, unmatched international reputation; to turn years of steady and improving guest house revenues into a bottomless pit of debt.

“The biggest question,” said Reece, “is where is the money? Where is the money they made all these years? Where is the money from the government grants to maintain the buildings and property? Where is the money, the millions from donations, trusts and international grants made to maintain the centre from all over the world?”

With their former money-spinning guest lodge on decaying life support, and the union turning to legal action against AWNC (See Sidebar), the management of AWNC came up with a plan.

That plan is the RFP, a risk free device, in the simplest terms, to use the obligatory investment by the bidder to fix AWNC’s mess at no cost to them. 

The bidder for this concession will have to pay an unfathomable figure for repairs, rebuilds and renovations of the guest lodge, maintain all trails, pay all marketing and advertising costs, give up unspecified amounts of money to AWNC, yet have no control of anything but the guest lodge rooms.

The selected party will not be allowed to use the Asa Wright main house, the veranda etc, the four high-paying bedrooms in the house, or the trails. But the concessionaire must still pay for maintenance of all the trails.

AWNC is firm: it “will be the sole provider of nature tours on the premises. The Trust will control access to the Visitor Centre, nature trails and other attractions, such as the Bird Blind and Freshwater Pool, on the protected lands.”

The RFP’s Financial Proposals are eye-opening: “to invest in advance such funds as are required to finance the restoration or upgrading of the facilities and to the launch of new and improved eco-lodge operations at Spring Hill Estate, including marketing expenses.”

And, without mentioning any dollar figure, concessionaires are required to pay unknown amounts into the AWNC Trust annually, including an unstated percentage of gross revenues from the lodge, and an unknown percentage of the annual profits.

There’s more: among the “Scope of Concession Services” that applicants are responsible and must pay for are: “development and implementation of international and domestic advertising, marketing, promotion, publicity and similar programmes for the eco-lodge”. 

This is a very efficient way of harvesting an array of marketing tools and strategies to benefit AWNC’s board and core business, again at no cost to them.

Who would be interested in a one-sided deal to repair and run the bug-infested eco lodge for a period of 10 years? Only those with “recent previous experience in managing an eco-lodge or similar business” are invited.

Foreign eco-lodge operators, those with perhaps most experience and capital, were given virtually no notice (a week) to get here for the site visit during Covid travel restrictions. They also had to show they were “duly registered and entitled to do business in Trinidad & Tobago”

Which leaves those most likely to operate Asa Wright’s lodge to be drawn from that wide pool of eco-lodge operators in T&T. Or, realistically, as was the case on Wednesday, local hoteliers. But even home advantage provides a challenge. 

In general, the time to submit RFPs varies around the world, anything from a few months to years. But in the case of the AWNC RFP, the deadline of 27th September at 4pm to submit an extremely detailed and onerous proposal, is a mere 27 days after their RFP was published, or 19 days after the site visit. It would take that long just to estimate the repair bill.

Dr Gobin told us, the “Trustees and board of the AWNC are committed to a fair process with the recently issued RFP; and we stand by the information we have provided in our call”.

The RFP document paints a rosy picture of the possibilities inherent in managing the world famous Asa Wright eco lodge. And it tells us that the lodge received annual average revenues of TT$4,120,319 million between 2011-2019. 

In the year 2019, it says, revenue was up to $5,508,093 million, the highest since 2011. But not a word about the millions lost in recent years prior to the pandemic.

In a strange anomaly the RFP shows that lodge restaurant takings dropped from $752,674 to just $129,422 between 2017 and 2018. No reason given. Did visitors stop eating? Was the food suddenly horrible? Was the chef sacked?

We asked Dr Gobin another question, in vain, which those in T&T and around the world who love Asa Wright might like an answer to. 

After 50 glorious years, one of this country’s finest institutions has been all but destroyed by mismanagement and neglect. Was there any reason she and the board of AWNC shouldn’t resign, en masse, for letting our “global treasure” sink so shamefully low?  How else would the phoenix rise again?

FRUSTRATIONS AND STRUGGLES FOR FAIR SETTLEMENT

The President of the Government Industrial and General Workers Union (GIGWU), Krishna Deonarine, told the Sunday Express of his frustrations and struggles trying to reach a fair and just settlement for retrenched AWNC workers.

He was angered by a statement put out by AWNC Chair Dr Judy Gobin earlier this week who, he said, asking to be quoted, “is a union hater”. Gobin’s statement appeared to lay blame for the impasse on the union.

She said there are “ongoing trade disputes lodged by the GIGWU against the Centre. Despite our efforts, the conciliation processes facilitated by the Ministry of Labour and directly with the Union have not yet produced a resolution . . .”

The Sunday Express has seen time-line documentation which contradicts the AWNC statement and suggests that if any party has the right to feel aggrieved it appears to be the union and their workers.

Dr Gobin has offered $750 per year of service to each employee, which she would like settled out of court. However, according to the retrenchment laws of T&T, that amount, says Deonarine, is paltry compared to what they are owed by law.

For example, Gobin’s proposals (we’ve seen all employees’ figures) by AWNC to a worker with 28 years service would amount to $21,000. Under the formula of T&T retrenchment law that figure should be approximately $100,000, a huge difference to a struggling, unemployed person. 

Krishna Deonarine does not accept AWNC’s offer and said he has already laid the first of several charges with the Industrial Relations Court against AWNC on the first retrenchment notices.

Retrenchment is at the heart of the dispute which has dragged on since

March 19th 2020 when AWNC told workers they would “temporarily” be ceasing operations due to Covid. That closure turned out to be permanent, until the RFP suddenly appeared.

On December 4th 2020 the workers received an 11.15pm email with their retrenchment notices. By law there is a 45 day period before retrenchments take effect and severance payments can be made. 

But on January 15th, said Deonarine, Dr Gobin sent out illegal termination notices to all its workers in what the union termed a “callous and heartless act . . . without explanation ending the careers of many contrary to proposals that were currently under negotiation”.

By pre-empting the legal 45 day retrenchment date and ceasing its business, AWNC avoided due severance payments.

Gobin’s letter was addressed impersonally to staff who had worked at the centre, for up to 38 years, as “Dear Madam”, in the case of one 20 year veteran’s letter we’ve seen.

She explained to them that AWNC had decided to “cease operations” on 18th January 2021 and ‘your dismissal therefore is not the reason of redundancy, but because AWNC has ceased its business. You are, therefore, not entitled to any severance payment, which is only payable to a retrenched worker.”

This worker, like the rest, was offered her salary up to 18th January. And that was it. They have not seen a cent since. Asked how the workers were managing, Deonarine said, “not very good at all”.

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