The brainchild of its Director and Founder, Ian McNeel, the Walkers Institute for Regenerative Research Education and Design (WIRRED) was born out of the restoration of a sand quarry that has been owned and operated by the McNeel family for more than 50 years. Throughout that period, Walkers provided an abundance of silica sand to the construction sector of Barbados while managing to steward and protect one of the largest native dune forests on the island. But today, as the quarry’s supply nears exhaustion, a new story is emerging — one of biodiversity, ecological health and regeneration. Working alongside his wife Julie, and a talented team of professionals, Ian is  committed to utilizing regenerative agroforestry and permaculture design principles as a framework to guide the transformation of a quarry into a thriving nature reserve, research centre and eco-tourism destination.

Ian McNeel

Thanks to the guiding influence of my parents, I grew up acutely aware that we all have a responsibility to protect the environment and take care of the world around us.

But in business, and as an entrepreneur, my real wake-up call came about 17 years ago when I witnessed first-hand the catastrophic damage caused by one of our garment factories in India. Rivers behind the factory were literally running red, yellow and neon pink with discarded fabric dyes. It shocked  me to think I might be responsible for all that toxic water flowing downstream. And, knowing India, I thought it was most likely being used for other purposes such as bathing, crop irrigation and drinking water. It was a benchmark moment that forced me to reflect on the fact that our family had once been involved in manufacturing petro-chemical products for the agricultural sector, albeit during the 1950s and 60s when people were unaware of the risks involved. After joining all the dots I determined that my next step would be to turn something degrative to the environment into something regenerative. I saw the rejuvenation of the quarry as an impact investment and a way to contribute to Barbados, because the country has an obvious lack of bio-diversity and habitat as a result of centuries of producing a monocrop, sugar cane, and poor land management practices. So I thought, what better opportunity and scalable example for environmental regeneration than the mining industry.

I started by seeking local knowledge from ‘bushmen’ and Parish elders who forage around St. Andrew, connected and collaborated with the organic growers association to better understand what some of the solutions and challenges were in organic farming, and listening within the communities. Next I started building new knowledge and skill sets, engaging with local and international thought-leaders and educators in the regenerative agro-sector space, learning what it really means to observe a landscape with a holistic lens and the importance of restoring ecosystems. When you start at that very basic level, like I did, you quickly understand that ecosystems are biodiverse networks that are inter-dependent and interconnected. The entire natural world is interconnected, but it also very fragile. Start picking at anything long enough and it eventually affects everything else. Clearly it is a lot easier to extract and destroy eco systems than it is to build and protect them. So, in our case, we are transitioning a sand quarry from an extractive business model to a circular economy, which supports multiple forms of capital, a conscious return on investment and greater overall value for the people, environment and businesses involved. We can no longer take small steps toward sustainability. We need to start making bold moves in order to change the status quo.

Julie McNeel

With a background in healing and holistic nutrition, I had always aspired to one day establish a location where people could gather to learn how to connect more with the natural environment, so what we are now doing with Walkers is very near and dear to me.

We are healing our 277 acres of land through regenerative agriculture and permaculture practices, such as planting endemic species and food plants. As well as using climate-smart techniques like contour planting on the hillsides and planting Khus-Khus grass (Vetiver) to prevent soil erosion through rainwater run-off. Instead of erecting invasive man-made structures, we let nature do its own Green Engineering. Another important element of the project is to create new habitats for re-wilding and we are already attracting an encouraging quantity and variety of flora and fauna, especially bird life. Ideally located at the crossroads of the north-south and east-west migratory highways, Barbados is one of the few places on earth with both New World and Old World bird species. Happily, Walkers is now benefitting from that fortunate natural advantage.

In order to make Walkers as sustainable as possible, we have adopted a number of enterprising ways to help finance our work. At the basic level, we are aiming to localize organic food and agro-forestry production so that we can feed people coming to work or do tours and the guests that stay here, as well as supplying ‘Local & Co’, our new Farm To Table restaurant in Speightstown. But we are also experimenting with new options like growing and roasting cashew nuts or making wine from Sea Grapes, as well as planting other value-added, non-food crops such as Tropical Indigo for fabric dye. A good example of our holistic approach is that we are growing different types of grasses to learn which ones work best for making baskets and other weaved products. Importantly, as part of that process, we are also discovering where, when and how to plant the grasses; what growth cycles do they undergo; when is the best time to harvest; how should the grass be dried and treated before weaving; and so on. The overarching goal encompassing all of that is to promote the island’s culturally relevant arts and crafts as a practical and productive way to arrest the loss of important elder knowledge. To help preserve that collective expertise for future generations, we have built a Knowledge Centre to facilitate on-site learning. The Centre hosts training programmes around the main themes of Permaculture, Wellness, Weaving and Art, all of which are accessible for locals and tourists alike. We also offer certification courses in collaboration with the Caribbean Permaculture Research Institute (CPRI). Ultimately, we want Walkers to be a zero-footprint tourism product, with the capacity to provide completely green accommodation facilities. As such, I am keen to add Wellness Gatherings and retreats to our activities. Barbados has a long history as a health inducing location, so I want to connect with other healing centres and practitioners around the world and attract them here. We’d like Walkers to become a leading Caribbean destination for holistic wellbeing.

Ian McNeel

We are living in vulnerable times.

From the pandemic to climate change and vulnerable infrastructure, we are currently undergoing a radical transformation where every nation, particularly small island developing states, must reimagine and reconstruct our current systems  – social systems, financial systems, energy and infrastructure systems, distribution systems, food security resilience and economic productivity. We can no longer use the same thinking that got us here. It’s not business as usual. I win and you lose is a zero-sum game.  Look at climate change, for example, and the staggering loss of habitat and biodiversity we are experiencing, which is not only threatening the stability of the Caribbean but the entire planet. I truly believe that we in Barbados are at a pivotal point where we must decide what kind of economy will best serve and futureproof the nation, especially with regard to tourism. What kind of tourism will attract visitors, be financially viable, and still be beneficial for people, environment and our local economy? In my opinion, the answers to those questions revolve around our willingness to become a more sustainable and resilient nation. One solution could be to engage more with the modern traveller and ‘Digital nomads’ who tend to be more environmentally and socially aware. Let’s invest in tourism products and solutions that invite visitors to plant trees and offset their carbon footprint, volunteer for Slow Food programmes, experience alternative energy solutions, take farm tours, dine with farm to table culinary experiences, participate in a beach clean-up with local eco-groups, or enable visiting divers to help regenerate our reefs by planting new coral. And, through offering a combined package that embraces cultural, social, ecological elements, we could convert past problems into future solutions. Give people a chance to enjoy a vacation in Barbados with more environmental, cultural and wellness based experiences, and the satisfaction of ‘giving back’ to the island. Let them reinvigorate themselves, while contributing to the regeneration of our environment. There are endless opportunities for entrepreneurs, business leaders and our youth in the new regenerative tourism economy.

One thing for sure is that whatever WIRRED can contribute towards the regeneration of Barbados, we can't do it alone. We have to get everybody on board, from individuals and communities to businesses and government, all working towards the common outcome for a sustainable island and indeed the planet. Our only way forward is through collaboration and the sharing of information, skills and resources. And while the foundational skills needed to run a business are still important, companies need to come to grips with existential concerns and provide solutions that go well beyond the old-school balance sheet.