The Green Generation: Green Market’s Rheanna Chen talks sustainability

When one thinks of Ecuador, Japan, South Africa and India, one doesn’t necessarily think “eco-friendly” off the bat. But it was travelling to these places – working on permaculture farms in Ecuador, learning about the sushi market in Tokyo, going to the vineyards of South Africa and visiting the slums in India – that has made Rheanna Chen a more concerned global citizen. And she’s ready for Trinidad to play catch up in the industry.

Rheanna has been the co-manager at the Santa Cruz Green Market for the last four years. Nestled on ¾-acre in the San Antonia Estate, the market is part of the 5-acre working farm owned by Wendell Mottley and Vicki Assevero.

“It’s basically an experiment in sustainable community development,” Rheanna explained. “We’re a striving organic farm, we do outdoor kids’ education, we try to hold workshops that bring people together to exchange skills. So we’re a fun space that brings community together in the name of the environment.”

For Rheanna, who did a Bachelor’s of Science in International Agriculture Development at the University of California Davis, the opportunity at the Green Market was the perfect blend of all that she’d wanted to do.

“My big dream was to go work for the United Nations World Food Program when I graduated, and I had the opportunity to do that at their headquarters in Italy,” she mentioned. “But somehow, I got this epiphany that I needed to come home.”

But it was a scary thought, knowing she was walking away from her dream job, and flying back to a country where sustainability wasn’t necessary top priority for the government and its citizens – or any priority at all.

“It was one of those really strong messages – and I thought ok, this is where God wants me to go,” she said. “So I have to take a leap of faith and trust that there will be something for me to come home to do.”

That leap of faith turned into fate, and Rheanna describes it as a serendipitous moment. When she returned home, she visited the Green Market for the first time and met Vicki. Instantly, and without even truly seeking it, a job manifested itself, and Rheanna stepped into a role that merged all of her passions: food, the environment and community.

In the four years that she’s been there, she’s witnessed a transformation within the community and the country – namely a shift in people gathering, wanting to know where their food comes from, wanting to support eco-friendlier products, wanting to know who makes their clothes and jewellery.

“It’s really inspiring to see people come together in the name of nature, and wanting to see Trinidad become more sustainable despite all the other factors against us,” she added. “We live in a gem of an island, with so much capacity for more.”

And while so much change has happened in the four years that Rheanna’s been home and working, she says there’s so much more to go. Trinidad and Tobago, as the richest Caribbean country, should be the number one leader in the sustainability industry, but red tape issues with the Government has left us far behind. While most people have sort of lost faith in our Government, there’s still plenty power and movement happening through the grassroots, and change can come.

“There are a lot of young people, not just me, who are really passionate about it – whether it’s with energy, food, forest conservation or working with rural communities,” Rheanna said. “I think the more focus on them, where we all work to cross or overlap our passions, that’s where social environmental change can happen.”

Our neighbour, Barbados, is certainly one to follow as their Government plays a more active role in making the country eco-friendlier. For them, this means using the tax system to invest in renewable energy, and banning plastic straws, and eventually all single-use plastics. While Trinidad’s Government hasn’t made any substantial moves in our favour, Green Market has taken things into their own hands. Two years ago, they made the decision to ban Styrofoam entirely in the market, and began switching over to compostable packaging. Today, at their Earth Day event, they’re petitioning alongside T&T’s largest eco-friendly organisations to ban plastic pollution.

But it hasn’t been as easy as you’d expect in terms of getting support from the public. Besides those who are passionate about the environment, the majority of Trinis show a lot of resistance to the idea of embracing a greener lifestyle, and that’s where education comes into play.

“Public policy plays a huge role, but you also have to have the citizens understand why they’re doing what they do,” Rheanna explained. “Education is a form of empowerment – so if you can get people to understand, they’ll follow it.”

It’s funny though, because a lifestyle of sustainability isn’t ‘rocket science’, says Rheanna. In fact, it’s what our grandparents were doing back in the day, long before we had the access to cheap energy and single-use disposables. Those in the 60s and 70s were living a sustainable lifestyle, we’re just using fancier jargon today. Even in today’s decade, the practices that they’re trying to put in place in T&T have happened all over the world.

“There’s nothing that we’re recreating here in Trinidad and Tobago – this has all been a success story somewhere else in our world of close to 8 billion people,” Rheanna said. “It would be a pity for us to stay left behind.”

And while Rheanna doesn’t consider herself an environmentalist per se – she thinks she’s a little too shy and quiet to adopt that role in its entirety – she strives to be as zero-waste, plant-based and minimalist as she can be. She lives in a tiny cottage on a fruit and flower estate, opts for her bike over her car as much as she can, and eats as clean and green as one can get. But she says the true role of an environmentalist isn’t what they do or what they eat, it’s how they think.

“You really have to appreciate life first and foremost, for you to then be able to appreciate the life of other organisms in our biosphere – to really appreciate the plants and the animals and the other people,” she added. “Self-care is important. If you don’t know how to care for yourself, how can you care for the earth? They go hand in hand.”

In Rheanna’s mind, if you can truly appreciate being alive on this planet, you can truly appreciate how to make good choices to help the planet as well – it’s twofold: treating yourself with the care and respect that you deserve, and treating the planet with the care and respect that it deserves.

“Environmental care doesn’t have to be so big and far-removed, it can come down to as little as just nurturing a community, a home, a family,” she explained. “Because how can there be change in the whole world unless there’s change in a single human heart, or within a relationship, or a home.”

At a time when it feels like the earth is truly in peril – with more hurricanes, climate change and natural disasters than ever – it’s inspiring to see how Rheanna remains positive of the good that can, and will, come to the world.

“It seems like the world is in chaos, but it makes you think of the other side of the coin: the capacity for change, and for great revolutions to happen – which are already happening,” she said.

And while revolutions are happening, both here in Trinidad and all around the world, it’s not always easy. Changing minds, changing policies and changing lives are the hardest things to do, and our eco-warriors are dedicated to do that, one by one. Humans aren’t perfect, and learning – and teaching others – to be eco-friendly and sustainable is an upward battle, but one that’s destined to win.

“You have to choose your battles, and at the end of the day, don’t burn yourself out,” Rheanna advised. “Just everyday wake up, and keep trying again. I’m a big believer that every day is your own masterpiece, and I try to live by that.”

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