“A little bit of Monica in my life... A little bit of Erica by my side... A little bit of Rita’s all I need...” The song Mambo No. 5 blasted through the blue minibus that took me all the way from the south of St Vincent to Chateaubelair in the far north-east where I’d booked a sustainability tour of Richmond Vale Academy, a non-profit research and sustainability centre offering study programmes on climate action, poverty reduction and environmental conservation.
The winding drive revealed a succession of spectacular views. From Barrouallie to Gordon Yard and Spring Village, bluffs towered over teal-coloured bays lined with black-sand beaches.
I spotted islets jutting out of the sea and coconut trees shooting up the top of verdant valleys. Bright-painted homes were sprinkled all about, commanding incredible views. We climbed higher and higher, the engine roaring a bit louder with every hairpin turn in the road.
At Chateaubelair I met Selwyn Patterson, a community leader, drummer and teacher at Richmond Vale Academy, who took me to the school, a five- minute ride away. There we began hiking in the school grounds, past a giant breadfruit tree and a rain collection tank that provides the water for laundry, showers, toilets and irrigation.
Reggae music floated in the air as we approached a model organic garden and plant nursery, where three teachers had their fingers buried in soil, planting lettuce and marigold,
a natural bug repellent. There was also eggplant, cabbage, sweet pepper and spinach. The resulting produce is given to local families or to home gardens in neighbouring communities, and the garden also produces 25,000 meals each year for the school.
“Climate change is a very broad discipline, so we try to find different solutions,” said teacher Danail Petrov. “What we choose to focus on is what we call environmental farming: how to prepare the soil, how to enrich it, how to plant and harvest. We cannot avoid climate change any more. People need to learn how to grow food, how to store water.”
At the back of the nursery we came to the compost area. There were various batches; each bore a thermostat to show which were decomposing most quickly. The compost is mixed with greens and horse manure, and the mulch is added to keep the weeds down and to keep in the moisture so that the sun doesn’t absorb it as fast, and so the rain won’t wash the microbes out of the soil. It then decomposes and becomes a fertiliser. Further along, a biogas digester converts kitchen foodwaste into methane gas after mixing with water. This reduces the cost of cooking gas and avoids burning fossil fuels.
Hiking away from the school and into the fields, we visited the animals, including chickens, sheep, pigs and horses. Their manure is key for the farm’s activities. When we reached a shaded organic banana field, I collapsed on a wooden bench. “This is gloricida,” Selwyn said, pointing to a leafy branch beside me. “We use it for feeding the goats and for mulching, too, because it puts nitrogen back into the soil.”
Richmond Vale Academy’s programmes attract teachers and volunteer students from around the world, but visitors are welcome to pop in and spend a couple of hours touring this extraordinary school to learn about the most critical issues of our time: climate change, food security, environmental degradation and clean energy.
“When we saw the climate disasters and floods happening here in St Vincent, we realised that we have to change,” Stina Herberg, the Academy’s director, told me later. “We went out and asked 250 people in the communities: how do we get ready for climate change?” Locals suggested starting with rubbish collection. Three years of trash pick-ups were followed by recycling rallies and tree-planting competitions. Through grants and campaigns, the school helped raise climate change awareness across St Vincent.
In 2017 Richmond Vale Academy, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Sustainable Development, launched an organic home garden training project. Fifty female heads
of household in surrounding communities were taught to create backyard gardens using polyculture methods, empowering them to grow organic fruits and vegetables, sustain their families and reduce their dependence on pricey, imported goods. This project earned the Academy an Energy Globe Award in 2018.
Richmond Vale is also home to a diving and hiking centre; from here you can trek to remote falls, go horseback riding or dive St Vincent’s pristine reefs. Should you fall in love with the scenery, you can also stay overnight in their solar- powered guest rooms.
“Some people say we are at the end of the road,” Herberg smiled, “but I like to think of it as the beginning of the road.”
Extracts from the article in Cacique Magazine (link)