Barbados’ northern peninsula is a sparsely inhabited, rural region that feels far removed from the beaches and yachts of the island’s south coast and its capital, Bridgetown. With its poor transport links and few signs of development, the northern parish of Saint Andrew has little in the way of features to distinguish it from other sections of this nation in the Lesser Antilles, save its saint’s name.
The only Barbadians to visit regularly are the surfers, a few tourists that make a stop to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of a remote, rugged coastline, and the truckers – around 800 pass through each month – that collect silica sand from Walkers Sand Quarry. For the past five decades, this open-pit mine has provided the main ingredient for Barbados’ construction industry. In fact, sand from the quarry can be found in almost every building realized since the Caribbean island gained its independence from the UK, just over 50 years ago.
But if visitors venture over the hill from the current active sand quarry, they will see something remarkable. Covering its 300 acres Walkers is also a pioneering nature reserve and organic food forest featuring over 18,000 fruit trees and plants, from bananas and plantains to figs and lemongrass. The project is led by the current owner of the quarry, Ian McNeel, a social entrepreneur and impact investor determined to turn this family business into a natural resource that can provide new employment and income for Barbados.
McNeel has been intimately familiar with Barbados from a very young age. He made his first visit to the Caribbean island aged three months and would intermittently spend time over the following 40 years, while his father attended to the quarry and the two hotels he owned on the island.
Although for most of his adult life, McNeel has played an active part in his family’s private equity business, he also developed an interest in ecology as he grew, which became a lifelong passion focused on stewarding and investing in projects and practices that help both people’s livelihoods and the surrounding environment.
From a life dedicated to ecology-focused projects, when McNeel inherited the sand quarry in 2006, he was suddenly faced, as he puts it, with a role where he could be responsible for destroying natural habitats.
Recalling the experience from the island he has made his permanent home, McNeel admits sensing he could deliver tangible benefits to Barbados if the quarry could be brought back to ecological health through regeneration. “Most often, we don’t choose the things we inherit, and many times are not sure what to do with them when we receive them,” he says. “It became apparent to me that what we choose to do with our inheritance is what makes the difference.”
Despite having a lengthy history as the sugarcane producer that fed the wealth of the British Empire, Barbados today produces virtually no crops. Instead, it imports an estimated 80% of the foodstuffs consumed on the island. Armed with deep-rooted beliefs in the benefits of conversation and regeneration, and a desire to make food production viable in Barbados once again, the sand quarry owner began to conceive a plan focused on bringing crops and employment to the original site of the business. “My process as an ecologist started a long time ago. But it wasn’t until I was left with the gift of the quarry and several other investments – venture capital and private equity has been in the family for a long time – that it became evident to me that something else had to happen here,” says McNeel.
Within days of deciding on his intended course of action, McNeel and his partner, Julie Hooper McNeel, began visiting farmers’ markets to speak to growers, eventually leading to direct contact with the Barbados Organic Growers and Consumers Association (OCGA).
“An important part of our life in the US was reaching out and getting to know the organic farmers that we were working with,” explains McNeel. “So, when we moved here, the first thing we did was to look at who our farmers were.”
One such farmer was John Hunte, an experienced organic grower who well understood the challenges facing Barbados’ agriculture sector. He agreed to work with McNeel on bringing food production to the quarry. “I got to know John through the OCGA. He explained what the real issues were on the island, and I said, by the way, I have this quarry I would like to regenerate – we could grow food there,” recalls McNeel. “It didn’t make sense to me that in this tropical climate where you can grow so much, the island imports most of its food. I was and am still determined to cut down the import bill and create more a local economy.”
Together with Hunte, McNeel started to look at what could be grown in the degraded landscape of the mine. They focused on what was already present in the surrounding area, namely cashew, tamarind and coconut trees, while also looking at plants that could add nitrogen to the soil. “John and I looked at the endemic species that were there before the sand quarry and the mining,” he says.
Cashews had been growing in the area for a very long time, so the first thing they did was to go out and plant cashew seedlings, but most of them did not stick and died. This was a hard lesson to learn, but one which would prove vital to the project over the coming years.
McNeel also made the decision to hire two people from the local area, allowing him to gradually build up support for the project from those living in the neighboring village of Belleplaine. “We knew that if we were going to start this process, we needed to support the community around us,” explains McNeel. “Belleplaine is a very marginalized area in a lot of ways, but two of those individuals are still with us and are now managers.”
McNeel learned about different, ecologically-sound systems and methodologies – like permaculture – that could be put into practice on the site.
“When I found permaculture, it was evident to me that the way I was looking at things before was not a whole systems approach and that the social components and the living capital components all play a crucial role in the ability to have financial capital.”
Permaculture is a holistic agriculture system, developed by Australians David Holmgren and Professor Bill Mollison in 1978, which focuses on utilizing patterns and features seen in natural ecosystems.
“Having a sand mine in a very bio-diverse region of the Caribbean that had been degraded, and the possibilities of restoring it to ecological health, I immediately thought: where can I go and find people who have worked in this arena?” said McNeel.
"How could we return degraded areas to ecological health, sequestering carbon through reforestation? I started using a whole system lens to make financial investments and decisions aligned with my social and environmental values. Part of this framework is a meaningful investment in the community connected to our ecosystem in a mutually regenerative relationship.”
Focus on regeneration
McNeel spent the following three years, as he puts it, speaking to as many people as he could that were involved in socially-responsible investments; a journey that was to lead to working with New York-based permaculture and agricultural systems specialist Terra Genesis International. Terra’s chief executive, Gregory Landau, and regenerative agriculture designer, Ethan Soloviev Roland, were to become occasional houseguests at the McNeel property in the years that followed. “When I found Ethan and Gregory I realized they were working in a way I admired,” says McNeel. “We put our heads together, and I said why don’t you guys come down and check this place out, and it has been an incredible journey.”
Another key component in the development of the project was the recruitment of Erle Rahaman-Noronha as site manager. Born in Kenya and raised in Canada, Rahaman-Noronha moved to the nearby island of Trinidad in 1998, where he focused for several years on applying permaculture principles to a 30-acre citrus estate scarred by over-usage of pesticides and other chemicals. When McNeel began looking for a site manager for his regeneration plans in 2014, he quickly identified Rahaman-Noronha as the ideal candidate to run crop trials to see what trees and plants could grow in the quarry.
“The project was just beginning to be implemented when I joined the team, and from the original design work, a small nursery had been built and stocked with some local trees – mainly cashews – and sites were being selected to begin trials,” explains Rahaman-Noronha.
“As an implementations consultant, my primary role is to take the conceptual design with its best thinking on plants and processes for the regeneration and implement them and then observe what happens.”
Today, the Walkers Reserve site has 17 staff members and most of them have been with the project since its earliest days. Over the past two years – since Terra Genesis and Rahaman-Noronha’s participation – the team has been adding to the site thousands of tons of green waste to create compost with sheep, chicken and horse manure, as well as planting over 18,000 trees and nitrogen-fixing plants.
Test zones now feature products such as aloe, banana, fig, plantain, lemongrass, watermelon, and turmeric. According to Rahaman-Noronha, crops initially planted for shade – bananas, cassava, and moringa – are now beginning to produce. Pineapples and arrowroot, which were traditionally grown in northern Barbados are also being planted and are expected to do well in these conditions. The long-term plan for the site is for a food forest that could contain everything from pomegranates and Bajan cherries also called acerola, to guava, soursop, jamun and gooseberries.
For Julie Hooper McNeel, the realization of Ian’s dream has been an amazing adventure that still brings rewards every day. “We planted one of the zones about a year and four months ago – it was just sand, and now you can walk through fruit trees, and things are growing all around. It’s incredible to see it all coming to fruition,” she says.
For Rahaman-Noronha, the project is one symptom of a silent revolution in food production, particularly among the younger generation, that is happening all around the world. One such young person is Jonathan Ramsay, a professional landscape designer and permaculturist who has been working at Walkers full time for over a year following a spell as an intern during the two previous summers.
"People my age (Millenials) are interested in growing food,” says Ramsay. “Two of my close friends are now beginning careers in farming. One will be setting up a permaculture garden in Nicaragua. People that are not working with the soil as a career are doing it in their spare time. Most people are aware of the current disconnect we have from our food, and they are keen to make that reconnection.”
Looking ahead, McNeel hopes to start a food hub with a cold storage room and a farmers’ market on site that will also feature produce from other local growers. Distilling essential oils, growing and weaving natural fibers and eco-tourism are just some of other concepts being discussed for the reserve.
Now the site also offers skill building and knowledge share workshops for employees and the public led by international and local professionals, that teach a mix of sustainable and regenerative techniques from permaculture design courses. Composting, beekeeping and earth building are just some of the topics covered.
Walker Reserve is setting an example for the mining industry and other large degraded landscapes.
"Three years when you’re dealing with decent soil is a lot different to three years in a sand quarry. We have seen amazing results and, all types of life, including migratory species of birds, are coming back,” said McNeel.
"If you can grow food in a sand quarry I’d say you can grow food just about anywhere. But we are still learning lessons every day. If we weren’t, it would mean we were doing something wrong."