The Daily Herald writes in The Weekender” that question about Saba’s roving goats reached the public menu again this October when it was brought up during a “Sea and Learn” lecture by orchid specialist Dr. Jim Ackerman. “Sea and Learn” is an environment awareness program which brings naturalists and scientists to the island in a program to attract tourists during low season.
The case in hand was the loss of orchids to marauding goats. In addition to his lecture, Ackerman led a field trip down the Sandy Cruz Trail to check the concentration of goats (by counting goat pellets) in the area of a specific orchid, Brassavola cucullata. The mention of losing orchids to wild beasts brings out the saviour in a lot of visitors, but outsiders often have little understanding of the local culture regarding animal husbandry. After the Sandy Cruz survey, Ackerman told Sea and Learn officials that the quick scan was “inconclusive.” Some locals are highly skeptical about the goat as culprit. “I have never seen a goat eat an orchid,” said one goat owner indignantly. Another pointed the finger elsewhere: “Hey, iguanas are also herbivores!” However, Head of Tourism Glenn Holm, who has a remarkable flower garden surrounding his original Windwardside Saba cottage, said adamantly that he had seen goats eat his orchids.
2004 Goat Buy-Back and Saba Island Livestock Ordinance
This goat problem reached critical mass back in 2004. Concerns were growing about the impact of roving goats jeopardizing road safety, spoiling clean water supplies by defecating on water catchments, and eradicating overnight villagers’ small veggie and flower gardens. The Saba tradition of planting vegetables and herbs outside the kitchen door was no longer a sustainable practice. The Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF) secured financing to mount a “goat buy-back” program to reduce the number of goats on the island and it did…temporarily. But it was – as one resident later called it in a letter to The Daily Herald – “a Band-Aid solution,” since the problem reoccurred at the next island drought. When the hillsides dry out, goats return to Saba’s four villages to graze. Along with the 2004 Buy-Back program came the Saba Island Ordinance of May 28, 2004. It says livestock must be registered, tagged, and behind fences. But talk – or in this case a written Ordinance – is cheap. There was no implementation to speak of except when two armed gentlemen cleared the goat herd residing on airport grounds. Although the herd was a clear danger to vital air traffic to the island, there was public outrage at the “wild west” approach to conflict resolution, which frightened tourists at the airport.
In most cases, it was pretty clear who owned the goats. Bad feelings mounted between normally friendly neighbors. The ex-pat community, which tends to be more environmentally vocal, was up in arms that government was letting the goats “eat up the island” because of political considerations. Local wags resuscitated the old slogan “a goat is a vote.” It was accepted that local politicians curried favor with livestock holders by going slow on implementing any rules which might seem restrictive to them.
After 2004, outrages subsided, but outrage is weather dependent in this regard. Things heated up again recently when a drought brought the starving goats back into the villages. The goats were desperate enough to eat even noxious plants (such as oleander and coralita vine) and were particularly aggressive, even blocking the Lower Hell’s Gate road, which is the only road leading to the airport. A Hell’s Gate resident reported that a steely-eyed buck claimed road rights by ramming his sedan. There was no damage, but it was a frightening experience… and it happened more than once.
With the 2010 political reorganization to a different relationship with the Netherlands, new money from Holland became available for nature improvements on the now “Caribbean Netherlands” islands. The current “Green Funds” (Special Funding for Nature) has allocated $2.1 million for Saba, according to Paul Hoetjes, Policy Advisor Agriculture & Fisheries for the Dutch Economic Affairs Ministry. Hoetjes, from Curacao, is well known and respected on Saba. Bonaire, Statia, and Saba are to submit specific projects and all three must be approved before the Green Funds can be released- -meaning that one island could hold the rest hostage. According to Saba Marine Park Manager Kai Wulf, Saba’s Green Funds submission to The Hague has two main parts: the first is to clean up the dumping ground at Tent Reef Bay and the second is to undertake another goat reduction program. The goats would be harvested, certified by local veterinary services, and sold on the market, most probably on St. Maarten.
The current proposal is modeled on 2004 with the SCF again as implementer. As of now, local goat meat consumption is fairly limited and private. Why?—an old timer in The Bottom said this is because no one knows how to cook it properly any more. “It’s an ol’ time religion kind of thing,” he noted philosophically. Scout’s Place is perhaps the only restaurant with it on the published menu. Every now and then an eatery will do a “Caribbean plate special” with goat meat. Special events, such as “Carnival,” might showcase traditional cooking with goat.
Wulf is convinced that the only way to create some sort of momentum to put the Ordinance to work is to bring all stakeholders together again. “I don’t see police officers out there shooting goats,” Wulf affirmed. Is there political will on Saba to put into practice the2004 Ordinance, which has languished for almost a decade? Saba Commissioner for Agriculture Chris Johnson sees the 2004 Goat Buy-back program as a success. “It’s worked until now,” he offered as proof, but admitted, “It went wrong with Ordinance enforcement.” Johnson recognized that implementation of enforcement is crucial to success and this means stakeholder alignment, which is not easy: “It’s a difficult problem.” In Johnson’s opinion, environment concerns are often hypocritical, such as a Saba “save our feral cats” program, which saved the cats, thereby allowing the cats to continue to feed off and endanger the tropic bird population. Unforeseen consequences or environmental shortsightedness? Saba’s Green Funds proposal is still being finetuned, said Johnson, but he is optimistic that it will go through, with implementation sometime next year. It will certainly be discussed at the regularly scheduled “Caribbean Netherlands” week in Holland in November, the Commissioner added. Johnson is also interested in seeing the development of more sustainable agriculture on Saba in general… might this include goat husbandry?
Last but not least: Saba goat keepers
Local goat keepers seem to have the communal memory regarding how the problem grew: farming replaced by trips to the grocery store, a generally dryer climate which brings goats into the villages, increased laxity on the part of the goat minders, and a bulge in the iguana population (iguana is not a menu item on Saba). Iguanas are possibly over looked in the blame-game. One goat owner said, “Iguanas can scramble up trees and forage there as well as climb over or under fences and,” he added with a touch of Saban humor, “are bold enough to come into your house and eat your sandwich!” Before the tourism boom, goats were brought down to pasture in communal fields that had just been harvested. They were usually tethered. From Flat Point to Hell’s Gate was grass land, but “It’s a jungle now,” said one goat owner, sweeping his pointed finger from the airport to the Hell’s Gate church steeple. There are increasingly fewer planted areas. “It needs careful study,” was the comment. Some owners do not regularly water their herds, it was suggested. One owner said that simply keeping distant watering troughs full might help keep goats out of the villages, but this is not easy given the island’s steep terrain. This owner said he also uses his watering troughs as a delivery system of medicines to deworm his herd and keep it healthy. Tagging is difficult because a special gun is necessary to stun the animals to attach the tag, and the tags provided in 2004 were wrongly sized, according to goat owners. In addition, since the goats were not tagged (and are still not tagged), dishonest hunters slaughtered goats which were not theirs and earned several hundred guilders a morning during the 2004 Buy-Back. There are an estimated 20 goat owners on Saba, and they are concerned about an unconfirmed rumor that stock will be reduced by 80%. Selling goat meat has become an important revenue stream for some Sabans. “It can pay the light bill,” one said. Goat owners say they lose casual labour and construction jobs to outsiders who come to work on Saba for less money. Goat owners want to be included in the discussion and are well aware of their role in reaching a sustainable solution to regulating the goat population. Nevertheless, it will be a challenging task to bring the stakeholders to lasting agreement?