About 2,400 workers employed through non-governmental organisations who help contain bush fires are now on the breadline. Contracts for 65 of these NGOs have been terminated, and they were given a month’s notice to fire their staff.
The move is aimed at restructuring the National Reforestation and Watershed Rehabilitation Programme.
The 65 NGOs that employ them are now questioning the timing of such a move, especially in the peak of a dry season that is hotter than usual.
Officials connected to two of the 65 organisations told Newsday that in the first week of March they got a letter dated February 28 from the Ministry of Agriculture, telling them to terminate contracts and issue claims for payment by March 21.
They were also ordered to return all equipment and paperwork by the same date. Newsday was told each of the 65 NGOs employed 30-35 people, meaning, with the restructuring and termination of contracts, close to 2,400 people are now out of work.
Kemba Jaramogi of the Fondes Amandes Reforestation Community Project said people are not seeing the bigger picture when they think about managing forest fires and the job of these NGOs. “What happens to all these trees people have been planting and watering? We have been experiencing droughts.
“People…are just seeing that the hill catches fire, then it gets green again in the rainy season. But when it floods and people lose thousands in damage, they are not making the connection.” She added, “This is not just to pigeonhole the matter and say it is an environmental issue. This affects a lot more than the environment.”
The workers are usually tasked with clearing forest trails to contain bush fires and patrolling to identify if there were any bush fires in the area and notify the fire service. But Jaramogi said her NGO also educates communities on the dangers of lighting fires in the forest, and how they compromise the topsoil, which leads to flooding later in the year.
She said while most bush fires are man-made, things are made worse by climate change. “We have reduced rainfall. It is drier and hotter.
Vegetation would have little to no moisture.
So if a fire were to break out it would spread faster.
“But all these fires you see are manmade. Some people practise ‘cleaning’ by burning. People would burn their rubbish outdoors, and clear lands by burning. They think they could manage the fire – but they don’t, and it gets out of control.”
The manager of another NGO based in Diego Martin told Newsday the workers are paid $1,100 a fortnight to help preservethe forest, especially during the dry season, when forest fires are rampant.
The manager, who did not wish to be named, said the NGO did not only focus on the environment.
“We hire single mothers and youths to keep them off the streets,” the manager said. “This NGO is community-based – we take the less fortunate to teach them a trade. We put them in courses as well, to give them even more of a chance. Echoing Jaramogi, he said: “This is not just about the environment. These NGOs uplift our communities.”
The same thing happened about five years ago, but they were notified about the restructuring and how long it would take. Although the NGOs were told to reapply to the ministry once the restructuring was over, no one was told when the restructure would be complete.
“The last time it happened it went on for about a week and people were back at work,” he said. “Now it is just a bland letter. We are just left in limbo. No one knows when it will restart.”
Fire Officers’ Association president Leo Ramkissoon said the loss of the workers would be a blow to the service, which is usually overwhelmed by the number of bush fires that ignite during the dry season.
“They would play a pivotal role in containment of bush fires. That would have a spiralling impact to the public. It is a mammoth task to manage bush fires, a task that we struggle to meet with. From a fire officer’s perspective I say we need all hands on deck during the dry season,” Ramkissoon said.
He said there have been more calls and reports about bush fires than usual this year, which adds to the pressure on fire officers, who have to contend with bush fires as well as house fires and other responsibilities.
The situation is made even worse by the spread of covid19. Fire officers are also providing emergency medical care along with fighting fires.
“It is a strain on the resources of the fire services. We have been clamouring for adequate equipment to do our jobs, but we don’t even have enough fire trucks in the services, nor the right amount of firefighting uniforms. We have these issues on a normal basis and now we have to fight an even greater enemy in covid19.” Newsday tried to reach Minister of Agriculture Clarence Rambharat, but calls and WhatsApp messages sent to him went unanswered.