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by Stuart Heaslet

One day in 1999 I was standing on the old wooden boardwalk at Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary in Barbados about 50 meters from a group of giggling schoolchildren. I turned away for a moment, but looked back when I heard a collective gasp.

Flying less than 10 metres above us was an osprey, carrying what looked to be a large tilapia. The fish was struggling mightily for its life and freedom in the osprey’s talons, and for a moment the group was stunned into silence. Ospreys had been seen here, of course, but never so close.

A few moments later the spell was broken by sounds of amazement and laughter. “I don’t think I would want to be that fish,” said one small boy, while another spread his arms and pretended to swoop down on a classmate. But a few children remained quiet as they continued to stare after the bird.

Earlier, at the request of the Rare Species Conservatory I had been to Barbados as a project consultant to conduct candidate interviews resulting in the hiring of Roger Sweeney, as the assistant director and aviculturist for the Sanctuary. Through them I had met Peter Allard, a businessman and the owner of the Sanctuary, and knew him to be sympathetic to preserving the extraordinary and diverse biodiversity and habitat at Morne Diablotin, home of the rarest Amazon parrot on earth. 

The vision of a Graeme Hall sanctuary came to Allard from Dr. Karl Watson. Graeme Hall was very unlike the Morne Diablotin National Park project as it was surrounded by urban development and was not known as an island biodiversity "hotspot." But the Graeme Hall mangrove woodland was the last of its kind in Barbados, and it deserved to be saved and protected as part of the island's biological and cultural legacy. And the Government of Barbados seemed to be on board with preserving the health of the mangrove wetland given that the 1988 National Physical Development Plan in force at the time had over 160 acres of wetland buffer areas to the north.

A few years later, Allard asked me to finish the Sanctuary project and to implement a commercial eco-tour operation that would also support environmental education and habitat monitoring programs. By this point in my life and career I was very interested in projects that that preserved biodiversity and improved the quality of life for people. I had come to believe that biodiversity is one of earth's libraries with great secrets yet to be discovered, and it is strange to think that we often don't place as much of an economic value on it as much as we would, say, the inventory of a grocery store.

So it was that particular moment with the children and the osprey that signaled my eventual return to Barbados, and that nearly a quarter of my professional life would be inextricably bound to the restoration and preservation of the last mangrove and sedge swamp on the island. In 2001 I was asked by Allard to leave my home in the US to oversee design and construction of the new Sanctuary, and implement eco-tour operations.

My arrival in Barbados occurred after Allard's initial commitments to purchase various parcels of land within the Graeme Hall Swamp in 1994 and 1995. Allard and Mr. Michael Cullen, an architect from the US, along with Alan Armstrong, an Irish-born engineer in Barbados, first designed a conceptual plan that would accommodate visitors within a small portion of the overall wetland. This conceptual design is the basis for today's Sanctuary.

The design of the Sanctuary had to deal with many problems, some of which were obvious, others were subtle. Some of the more obvious problems were: How do you integrate visitors into a wild area without disturbing animal behaviour? And how do you construct a commercial low-density visitor and education facility without having significant environmental impacts on a wetland?

After Allard outlined his vision for the Sanctuary, Cullen and Armstrong set to work with preliminary civil engineering and detailing plans for layouts and structure designs. Since much of the work had to be phased in conformance with phased permissions from Government, initial work focused on boardwalk and site preparations.

Construction began with the addition of migratory bird ponds adjoining the Main Lake, and combining them with an integrated network of boardwalks connecting various elements within the Sanctuary. The network was carefully imposed on the landscape in a way that allowed environmental “buffers within buffers,” thereby protecting wildlife from human intrusions, and linking observation and interpretive sites in an aesthetic manner.

From the air, it is possible to see how man-made structures are buffered from the natural habitat. No buildings are built immediately adjacent to the mangrove woodland, and artificial irrigation has not been allowed to cross into this habitat.

What surprised me the most during my years in Barbados were some of the most remarkable people I have ever known. These people were the power behind the Sanctuary - while Peter Allard had the vision and was able to provide the financing, it was local people who literally spilled blood to get the project done.

People like Sammy Samuels, Ernest “Hulk” Hines, Bhopaul Sundar, Cecilia Nichols, the MacKenzie brothers and over five hundred other men and women built the Sanctuary into what it is today.

Their names are on a bronze plaque located at the Migratory Bird Exhibit. In alphabetical order, all the same size, as no one was more important than anyone else. The men who dug the ditches and canals also built the interpretive exhibits because they knew precisely where the best photographic view lines were. The engineers, architects and project management people could not have functioned without the passionate contribution of rank and file Barbadians who created a work of art and beauty in the the middle of the Graeme Hall Swamp.

Make no mistake, Barbadians built the place. It was an outdoor project, forcing everyone to work in hot, uncomfortable conditions. I witnessed their pride in what they did, and could tell that they knew what they were doing would be there for multiple generations.

What impressed me the most was the fact that everyone wanted a stake in it. It wasn't just about coming to work and taking home a paycheck. Everyone was always asking questions, such as "shouldn't we extend the path here one more meter?" or some other question that kept challenging the original design concept. The result? They knew why a path turned a certain way, what factors made a good photographic viewpoint, and exactly why it was important to make it all wheelchair friendly. In short order they took these aesthetics to heart, and built a park using their innate intuition and skills.

The skills brought to the project were essential. Numerous examples included “Hulk” Hines, one of the finest backhoe operators I've ever met. Hulk knew how to “feel” the ground through the hydraulics of his machine and minimise damage to the sensitive ecosytem and the underground utilities already in place.

Ardeene Goodridge ran crews to complete the final finishes to the Aviaries and gardens.

Design elements came from David Spink and Michael Cullen. And in a meeting one day nearly a decade ago Kevin Farmer of the National Museum gave inspiration to stay true to the history of Barbados.

Sammy Samuels was an all around powerhouse who put his intellect, heart and soul in the Sanctuary – and Cecilia Nichols not only ran the landscape crews but designed many of the gardens. Much of what people see and photograph at the Sanctuary is because of them.

Crews from R&S Construction were essential, and worked in marginal conditions while they built walkways, underground utilities and various structures. I had to buy a pair of new boots every four months just to keep up with them. Paul Grangaram and Haffies Mohamed became geotextile experts and reconstructed the canals, built sewer lines and later repaired much of the old infrastructure that had rotted in a few short years.

The Mackenzie brothers were brave enough to take on a job they had never done before - to put the stainless steel screening over the Aviary structures built by Ralph “Bizzy” Williams. Both the Mackenzie brothers and Bizzy charged a fair price, and they worked hard to build two of the largest Aviaries in the Caribbean. And despite the danger of working high on thin beams of steel, and the lack of experience, nobody got hurt.

I was proud of the initiative shown by the daily crews. But to meet the educational outreach obligations of the Sanctuary, respected Barbadians who understood the link between the local environment and the culture of Barbados were needed to develop interpretive exhibits.

Wayne “Doc” Burke developed the informal education programme for visitors, and he was responsible for the interpretive text at the Migratory Bird Exhibit, making sure that people understood the nature of flight, the need for science-based preservation, constantly challenging all of us to make good decisions during the construction process. I believe Wayne sacrifices the most of anyone that I know in order to continue his work as a Barbadian environmentalist. He is currently working on the Woodbourne Migratory Bird project with support from Birdlife International, and he is doing so with almost no money.

There are hundreds more examples I could cite of selfless Barbadians and others who worked to make the Sanctuary what it is today. They have my lifelong respect because they were the ones who suffered the most to create one of the most beautiful places in the Caribbean.

I am profoundly grateful that Peter Allard gave me a chance of a lifetime to be part of creating the finest park in Barbados, a safe haven for children and families and wildlife. While I was in Barbados I was treated with grace and respect by those who worked on the Sanctuary.

I will never forget them.

Note:  The Graeme Hall legacy has continued for many generations. History of ownership was sometimes contentious. The biological importance of the site is fascinating and unique to Barbados, with more information located in the Reference Centre of this site.


Here is the list of people who worked to build the Sanctuary. You can see these names cast in bronze at the Migratory Bird Exhibit.

Anthony Alleyne

Tyrone D. Alleyne

David Alleyne

Harlow Alleyne

Jerry Alleyne

Kenmore Alleyne

Marlon Alleyne

Norman Alleyne Estate

Terrence Alleyne

David Annius

Phillipy Anthony

Andre Applewhite

David A. Archer

Lester Archer

Oscar Archer

Lester Archibald

Alan Armstrong

Carol A. Armstrong

Tanya Armstrong

Arthur Atkinson

Jerry Austin

Junior Austin

Mervin Austin

Philip Austin

Vincent Austin

Sunil Ayanah

Adrian Babb

Stephen Babb

Denson Bailey

Kelvin Bailey

Kenny Bannister

Samuel Barnette

Terrence Barrow

Curtis Bascombe

Natasha Bascombe

Karl Bastian

Donald Beckles

Edson Beckles

Suzette Beckles

Troy Beckles

Leroy Bennet

Shawn Bennett

Trevor Best

Mark Bishton

Steve Bispham

Tyrone Blackman

Everton Blades

Julie A. Blades

Michael A. E. Blades

Arley Blenman

Rondexta Bobb

Nirmala Boodhoo

Bruce Boucoud

Andrea Patricia Bourne

Kurt Bourne

Renaldo Bourne

Robert Bourne

Mervin Bovell

Junior Bowen

Dave Boyce

Natalie J. Boyce

Rudie Boyce

Victor Boyce

James Bradshaw

Samantha Brakes

Russell Bramao

Devere Branch

Nick Branson

Eustace Brathwaite

Richard Brathwaite

Carlton Brown

Darnley Brown

Steve Brown

Basil Bruce

R. Wayne Burke

Martin Burnet

Richard Burrowes

Dale R. Burrowes

Raymond Burrowes

Robert Burrowes

Gerald Caddle

Ashley Callender

Darrell Callender

Rawle Callender

Gladstone Carrington

Dr. Sean Carrington

Ryan Carter

Nedim Cerimagic

Lorey Charlery

Nicholson Charlery

Ejiroghene Charles

Violet Cheeseman

Dwayne Cheltenham

Brian Chester

Clemont Chester

Damien Clarke

Ivor A. Clarke

Jane Clayton

Wade Clermond

Glenroy Codogan

Alfred Codrington

Richard Collymore

Pascale Constantin

Hayden Coppin

Orvin Coppin

Alistair Corbin

Charles A. Corbin

Denzil Corbin

Eric A. Corbin

Shamar Coward

Anthony Cozier

Roosevelt Crawford

Tyrone Crawford

Michael Cullin

Dorian Cumberbatch

Harold Cumberbatch

Rommel Daniel

Gregrey Dasantos

Justin Dasilva

Jeremy C. Date

Wayne Davey

Leric Davis

Colin Deane

Roger Deane

Gerard Defreitas

Cauldric Delicia

Eric Denny

Jason DeSilvia

David Dottin

Glenfield Douglas

Ramoun Downes

Daniel Drakes

Emmerson Drakes

Michael Drakes

Suzanne Drakes

Terrence O. Drayton

Adrian Dyall

Malcolm Eastmond

Donna Edwards

Norman Edwards

Philip Edwards

Selwyn Edwards

Chad Edwin

Angela Eli

Elvis Elliot

Izola Estwick

Michael Evans

Allan E.P. Evelyn

Kevin Farmer

Gregory Farnum

Katrina Farnum

Elvis Farrell

Hamish Fenty

Dennie D. Flynn

Alvin Forde

Andre’ Forde

Antonio Forde

Frank B. Forde

Rodney Forde

Stevenson Forde

Guy Forte

Gibeon Foster

Peirson Foster

Lloyd Francis

Winston Frederick

Rudy Fredericks

Peter Galbraith

Shawn Gamble

Barbara Garcia

Kirk D. Garcia

Daphne E. Garner

Deidre Garvey

George V.J. Garvey

Ricardo J. Garvey

Rosamond Garvey

Courtney Gaskin

Keith Gaskin

Kelly-anne Gaskin

Dane Gibbons

Sylvester Gibbons

Shone Gibbs

Elvis Gibson

Mencea Gibson

Calvin Gill

Tony Gill

Kevin Gillespie

Arindale Gittens

Dwayne Gittens

T. David Gittens

Ian Gittens

Paula Gittens

T. David Gittens

Tyrone Gittens

Richard Glasgow

Edmund C. Gloumeau

Kevin Goddard

Adam Godson

Francis Godson

George D. Godson

Rick Golden

Paul Goodfellow

Roger Gooding

Wray Gooding

Ardeene Goodridge

Renata Goodridge

Lennott Grace

Richard Grace

Paul Grangaram

Stephen Grant

George Turro Greaves

George W. Greaves

Marlon Greaves

Henry Green

Aaron Greene

Andre A. Griffith

Carlos A. Griffith

Gregston Griffith

Ryan Griffith

Dwayne Grosvenor

Sean Haddock

Adrian Hall

Nico Hannibal

Adrian R. Harewood

Anthony Harewood

Asanchia Harewood

O’Brian Harewood

Sylvia Harewood

Claston Harris

Stephen Harris

Darrel Hart

Michael Haynes

Winston Haynes

Robert Hazel

Kim Headley

Shane Headley

Stuart Douglas Heaslet

Ernest Hinds

Ian Hinds

Joseph Hinds

Fabian O’Neal Hinds

Jennifer Hobbs

Charles Holder

David L. Holder

Wendell Holder

Wesley Holder

Wilton Holder

Kelvin H. Holford

Michelle Holford

Trevor Holford

Rawle Hood

Dr. Julia Horrocks

Rufus Howard

Clemont Howell

Olric Howell

Richard Howell

Michael Hunte

Dr. Wayne Hunte

Tonya Hurley

Damien Husbands

David Husbands

Joan Husbands

Neil Husbands

Richard Husbands

Roslyn Husbands

Louisa Hutchinson

Curtis Ifill

Renair Ifill

Margaret Innis

Corey Jemmot

Shitanga Jerry

Marchel John

Aaron Johnson

Lisa Johnson

Malcolm Johnson

Anthony Jones

Michael Jones

Raymond Jones

Renaldo Jones

Denzil Jordan

Kenmore Jordan

Finber Joseph

Francis Joseph

Patrick Joseph

Victor Joseph

Grantley King

John King

Sheldon King

Louis T. King

Decourcey Knight

Stephenson Knight

Dwayne Layne

Dagne Leacock

Damian Leacock

Kim Leacock

Angus Lewis

Richard A. S. Lewis

Wilson Linton

Joseph Lowe

Judith Lowe

Cy Lyle

Christopher Lythcott

Wendal Lythcott

Wesley Lythcott

Charles Mackenzie

Robert Mackenzie

Mark Maloney

Shawn Maloney

Roger Manning

Wayne Manning

Charles Mapp

Baldwin Markson

Carla Marquardt

Anderson Marsh

Ian Marshall

Timothy Martindale

Henderson Mascoll

Hutson Mascoll

Damien Mason

Rodney Mason

Patrick Massiah

Mark Mathais

Cornelius Matthew

Kendall Matthews

Barry Mayers

Colridge Mayers

Cameron Maynard

Desmond Maynard

Angela M. Mc.Clean

Karen McGovern

Lynn McGovern

George Medford

Janis Medford

Terry Millar

Charles Miller

Dame Billie Miller

Aubrey Mofford

Haffies Mohamed

Harold Moore

Lester Moore

Richard Moore

Ryan Moore

Kory Morris

Therston Morris

Iftikhar Muhammad

David Murrell

Andrew Nicholls

Cecilia Nicholls

Dalvin Nicholls

Reginald Nicholls

Henderson Niles

Keith Niles

Richard Niles

Wayne Niles

Carson Nurse

Roy Nurse

Seymour Nurse

Elizabeth O’Dell

Michael Okoro

Paul Oliver

Dr. Hazel A. Oxenford

Fabian Padmore

Sunil Padmore

Gregg Payne

Jason Payne

Jerry Payne

Ricky Payne

Mark Pearson

Rosemary Pearson

Damien Perch

John W. Perry

Norwang Persaud

Diorys Perez

O’Brian Phillips

Dwight Piggott

Hershell Pile

Trevor Pile

Fabian Pinder

Ronald Pinder

Chester E. Pitt

Godfrey Pitt

Vivian Pope

Adrian Powlett

Fabian Powlett

Ezra Prescod

Shawn Prescod

Stephen Proverbs

Fitzgerald Providence

Coleman Quintyne

David Ramkissoon

Neerupa Ramnath

Richard Rawlins

David Reece

Dr. Paul Reillo

Ramon Roach

E. Harry A. Roberts

Lyndon Robertson

Grahame V. Robinson

Richard Rock

Prince Rodgers

Kenrick Roett

Angela Rollins

Vashwanath Rovlall

Carl Rowe

Terry Rudder

Trevor Russell

Fitzgerald “Sammy” Samuels

Michelle Sambrano

Thomas Sandiford

Laneisa Sargeant

Ron Savery

Ronald Schoenheit

Carlos Scott

Eric Sealy

Kelvin Sealy

Andrew C. Seymour

Adam Shephard

Henderson Shepherd

Keon Simmons

Mark Simmons

Kempton Simon

Correy Skeete

Felicia Skeete

Geoffrey Skeete

Maureen Skeete

Charles Small

David W. Small

Jeffrey Small

Gregg O. Smith

Marnie E. Smith

Samuel Smith

St. Clair Smith

David R. Spink

Corey Springer

Christopher St. Clair

Sir Harold B. St. John

Joseph Steinbok

Dave Sterling

Terry Stevenson

John Still

Sean Stoddard

Lionel Stoute

Nathan Straker

Ronald Sullivan

Bhopaul Singh Sundar

Roger G. Sweeney

Ingrid Sylvester

Alfred Taylor

Ricardo Tempro

Adrian Thomas

Anthony Thomas

Charles H. Thomas

Stephen C. Thomas

Carlton Thompson

Jamar Thompson

Peter Thompson

Darla Trotman

David Trotman

Kurk Trotman

Walter A. Trotman

Geoffrey Turney

Mike VanBuskirk

Kevin Victor

Carol Waithe

Vincent Waite

Jefferson Walcott

Rodney Walcott

Vincent Walker

Winston Walker

Adrian Walrond

Charles Ward

Jefferson Ward

Joe P. Ward

Tony Ward

Carl Wason

Dr. Karl Watson

Cecilia Webb

John L. Webster

Adrian Weekes

Antonia Weekes

Kwame Weekes

Akwacie Welch

Ancel White

Ivy White

Junior White

Peter White

Guy Whitaker

Troy Whittaker

Michelle R. Wiggins

Arlington Wilkinson

Dennis Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Charles O. Williams

Jason Williams

Junior Williams

Ralph S. Williams

Sylvester Williams

Andy Williamson

Rudolph Worrel

Leroy Yard

Dexter Yearwood

Kris Yearwood

Paul Yearwood

Sylvan Yearwood