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Monday, September 5, 2011

Gabriel “Coco” Charles - St. Lucia’s First Chief Forest Officer

Nicole La Force

On a week like this in August of 1993 St. Lucia lost one of its conservation pioneers, in the person of Gabriel Charles affectionately called “Coco” Charles. It was the 31st of August, mid morning in 1993 at the Desruisseaux junction when Coco Charles’ vehicle overturned on the side of the road. Cause of death as it was later revealed, was a heart attach. And at 58 a son of the soil who impacted greatly the protection and conservation of our flora and fauna, was gone.
Many young people today may have no idea who Coco Charles was and I as a new forester have come to appreciate the work he has done and have enjoyed the various anecdotes that those who worked with him shared and in some ways I envy them.

He was an inspiring character who in many respects was a ‘community activist’ for the cause of sustainable development, though the term was hardly known or used back then. He preached about the potential negative effects of poor land management practices, a situation that unfortunately characterizes much of our development today. One of his principle concerns was the need to ensure sustainable livelihoods of grassroots people and local communities through education and active participation. As a result he became involved in many community environmental programmes and inspired the formation of many local environmental groups and their leadership.

Coco Charles was instrumental in the passing of many of today’s laws and legislation which now serves to protect our flora and fauna, one of which enabled the protection of and the naming of the Amazona versicolor “Jacquot” as St. Lucia’s national bird in 1980, a year after St. Lucia gained independence. He along with Paul Butler led the national campaign which restored the bird from the brink of extinction.

Regionally Coco Charles was considered an iconic figure that elevated the status of forestry to a more embracing profession of environmental conservation and management.

During his life, Gabriel Coco Charles received the prestigious Fred Packard Award and was named a Member of the British Empire and was nominated to the United Nation’s Global 500 list of people who have made an outstanding contribution in the field of conservation. He received this in 1988 alongside the world famous Jacques Cousteau and upon his death was RARE Center’s Assistant Director for Conservation Education.

For his zeal and passion with regards to environmental protection and sustainability he should always be remembered. He has left a great legacy on which we as foresters, environmentalists and citizens of this fair Helen should build upon and emulate.