The Highway Re-Route Movement claims that Trinidad and Tobago faces an environmental tipping point in the fight to save endangered wetlands:
Even as Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar was boasting to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday that her Government emphasizes human development and not “concrete, steel and buildings”, her Government was proving otherwise in the eyes of certain groups back at home.
On the tiny island-nation a story that brings to mind the biblical tale of David and Goliath has been playing out in virtual operatic style with highs and lows, broken promises, courtroom dramas, two hunger strikes, and millions, if not billions of dollars at stake.
The battle is one as old as modern time: a razing of ecologically, socially and historically important lands in a quest to satisfy the insatiable needs of a car obsessed society spoilt by subsidized fuel and cheap imported foreign-used cars. With many households in this nation of 1.32 million persons having at least one car and even one car per person in the household the country is overwhelmed with traffic jams, frayed nerves and demand that the Government ‘do something about it.’
A significant part of the Government’s answer has been to build more roads, more highways and byways to satisfy the furious demands of the public. But in an island that measures 5,128 square kilometres (1,980 sq miles) it was only a matter of time before the needs of the public bounced up against developments that threaten the environment and the delicate ecology of this flora and fauna rich country.
In the construction of the multi-lane highway between the southern city of San Fernando, the ‘oil capital’ of Trinidad and Tobago, and the southernmost town of Point Fortin, the country may have found its tipping point when it comes to environmentally conscious sustainable development – an essential component of any boast of prioritizing human development.
A group of concerned citizens who are known as the Highway Reroute Movement (HRM) are challenging the Government to reroute one small part of the highway, known as the Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway, in order not to lay waste to vast swaths of land that are ecologically important and that have been home to hundreds of persons who have social and economic attachment to the land.
Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, environmental activist, university professor and Oxford graduate, has become both cornerstone and a spokesperson for the group having taken on their cause as his own. His impassioned and evocative expounding on the issue has won him both followers and detractors.
His two hunger strikes, the first in November of 2012 which went on for 21 days, and his second which began last Wednesday September 17 2014 and is ongoing, have divided the country and drawn the ire of Government and its supporters. But despite pleas from friends and foes alike, the activist remains unmoved and committed to his quest to have the work on that section of the highway stopped.
“This government wants to destroy over 300 homes, fragment 13 communities, destroy million dollar businesses, run an embankment through one of our last remaining wetland system, fragment a well-ordered street network, destroy thousands of acres of agricultural land, break up a system of commerce, land inheritance and tenure; in short, gobble, chew up and spit out 13 communities, without doing the studies to determine if this is the correct and viable thing to do,” Dr Kublalsingh has declared.
“Before the public assets of communities are destroyed, the potential destroyer or developer must make sure. They must do the relevant studies and research. That is why the Government needs to obey the Armstrong Report. This independent report, written by 19 independent scientists, has declared that the Certificate of Environmental Clearance for this Debe to Mon Desir highway is flawed. It has ruled that there is no cost-benefit analysis, no social impact analysis, no hydrology study of the wetland area for this project.”
“In other words,” he says, “the Government wants to knock the financial, ecological, social and economic guts out of the communities, without doing the requisite studies. Communities are the knots which keep the web of the nation intact. Clusters of failed communities add up, here and there. When rats begin eating into the social, economic and financial net, a bit here, a bit there, eventually, suddenly there is collapse, a failed net. All fall through. Collapse: a failed state.”
Dr Kublalsingh has made it clear that all the Highway Reroute Movement is asking is that the Prime Minister stick to her word when, following the first hunger strike and multiple layers of action by members of the HRM, she agreed to halt work on the disputed area and review the work on the development of that section of the highway.
Dr Kublalsingh’s position is supported by a number of documents and questionable actions in the highway work.
He outlines the following supporting documents and views:
*First, there is the procurement process. There was no competitive bidding for the Debe to Mon Desir highway. The contractor, the OAS, was handed this project on a platter.
*Second, there is the feasibility study. The IADB met with state, and prominent government officials, in mid-2010, and advised that Debe to Mon Desir was over-designed, too costly, and that it was concerned about the sole tender process. These were the findings of its feasibility study. It refused to entertain funding for this project.
*Third, there is the Environmental Impact Assessment and the Town and Country Act. The Armstrong Report (February 2013) stated that the EIA for this project, and therefore the Certificate of Environmental Clearance, was flawed. The Town and Country Act has also been breached.
*Fourth, there is the public consultation process. In 2007, stakeholder residents at the statutory public consultation held in Debe raised serious concerns about the social impact of this project. It raised concerns about the impact on the hydrology of the area. It proposed a reroute option. But the consultation was a fait accompli, done deal; their concerns were ignored (See EIA, public comments).
*Fifth, there is a standard econometric tool for assessing costs and benefits of projects. No cost-benefit analysis was done for this project.
*Sixth, there is the Social Impact Analysis. This measures the social impacts, especially where significant social and economic impacts are expected. There is no SIA for this project.
*Seventh, the regulatory authority may commission a specialized study of rare ecological assets for which mitigation measures have to be well thought out, or for which there might be no mitigation measures. There is no hydrological report for the dynamic wetland system of the Oropouche Lagoon, which the Debe to Mon Desir highway proposes to cross.
*Eight, the public authority might opt to do a review. The Prime Minister, in March 2012, promised to put on hold and do a review of Debe to Mon Desir. When this promise was violated (High Court ruling, May 2014), a hunger strike forced an independent report calling for works to stop and a proper review of key aspects of the project to be done. The Armstrong Report was ignored and construction works started at the end of 2013.
*Ninth, there is the law. In a judgement in May 2014, which allowed work to proceed on Debe to Mon Desir, the High Court ruled that the Prime Minister had breached the law of legitimate expectation and Section 4a of the constitution. She failed to abide by her promise to review; and thereby failed to protect the properties of those to whom she had made the promise.
*Tenth, there is the act of simply listening. A simple accounting measure is meeting and listening in good faith to those who engage in advocacy, protest, demonstration and public outcry. The word that the High Court used to describe the behaviour of the Prime Minister’s and her officers towards the Reroute Movement is “insincere”.
Dr Kublalsingh has a strong history of environment activism in Trinidad and Tobago.
In 2002 he organized the University of the West Indies Symposium on land use options for 77,000 acres of land and infrastructure on the West Coast of Trinidad, which was about to be abandoned due to the closure of Caroni (1975) Limited and the historic sugar industry.
From 2006 to 2008 he worked with communities at Chatham and the South West Peninsula to prevent the state from allowing the ALCOA aluminium smelter at Chatham; similarly with La Brea and South West Peninsula from 2006 to 2010 to prevent the state from proceeding with the Alutrint aluminum smelter.
From 2009 to 2011 he worked with residents of Pranz Gardens and environs to prevent the building of Essar Steel a steel manufacturing complex that was proposed to be built in the proximity of communities in Claxton Bay. He also worked with residents of Claxton Bay and the fishermen of the Claxton Bay fishing port to stop the building an industrial port on the Claxton Bay Mangrove System.
He worked with residents of Savonetta Village and environs to prevent the state from building CARISAL, a caustic soda company, to be built on lands outside of the Point Lisas Industrial Estate.
Dr Kublalsingh may be facing his toughest battle yet, but he and the communities from Debe to Mon Desir are committed to a fight to the end even as they acknowledge their slingshots and arrows may not be enough to stop the might of the bulldozer as it erases their history and threatens to tip this ecologically diverse and rich country into a land of concrete jungles, contributing to the global warming and climate change that it has promised to fight against at the United Nations Climate Summit.