Is this thoroughfare truly fair?
It’s been decades since the idea of creating a highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin was first conceptualized and rudimentarily developed and published in Trinidad and Tobago’s National Development Plan. For those who eagerly awaited this project, that eagerness eventually gave way to moderated hope, and perhaps eventually wistful fancy over the years. It became one those things that you knew would happen eventually, but not in your lifetime. A bit like how I felt about the U.S. electing a black president. I never thought that would happen in my lifetime.
As is typical with a major transportation project, there is a lot of preliminary works that need to be conducted – site analyses, community meetings (supposedly), surveying, site testing, design, contract drafting, tendering, et cetera – prior to the initiation of any physical works. Much of this takes places beneath the radar of the general public and is oftentimes only perceptible to those directly affected. Once construction begins however, the public’s interest is piqued and both criticisms and commendations rise as the project falls under heavy scrutiny.
The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is the southernmost island in the Caribbean. It lies just seven miles east of the northeastern tip of Venezuela. The former British colony gained independence in 1962 (celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence this year!) and during these five decades since independence has transformed its economy from an agrarian base to one that hinges upon oil and gas industries. The small twin-island state of 1.3 million persons and 1979 square miles plays a significant role in energy markets, both regionally and internationally. In 2002 Trinidad and Tobago became the world’s largest exporter of methanol and ammonia.
The capital city, Port of Spain, lies at the northwest end of Trinidad. It is serves as the administrative, commercial and cultural hub of the country. San Fernando, located 27 miles south of Port of Spain, is the country’s second largest city. Texaco had its main oil refinery the peri-urban community of Pointe-a-Pierre, just outside of San Fernando proper. Shell had its oil refinery in Point Fortin, an industrial town on the southwestern peninsula, 17 miles south of San Fernando and 44 miles from Port of Spain. The north-south highway system to San Fernando was completed in the late 1970s, and then extended 4 miles further south in 2003.
In 2011 the Trinidad and Tobago government launched construction of the highway to Point Fortin with much fanfare. The current government administration is known for engaging the local media to highlight its “achievements”. I for one, as a native of Point Fortin, was thrilled to see the heavy machinery moving in and construction beginning. Finally, relief from hours and miles of traffic along the circuitous, pot-hole ridden Southern Main road that connected Point Fortin to San Fernando! However, along with media coverage of the construction of the highway, came media coverage of outcry against such a large-scale capital project. A local group called the Re-Route Movement has had a different reaction than I.
The Re-Route Movement Group consists mainly of residents of the Debe / San Francique / Fyzabad communities who are directly affected by the construction of the highway. Many in this group are under threat of losing their homes, agricultural lands, and businesses. There are conflicting stories about whether or not adequate compensation, or any compensation at all, has been offered to persons who must relocate. This group objects only to the portion of the highway project that will traverse their communities. Their position is that this portion of the highway can and should be relocated via another route which does not traverse as many existing communities, which does not destroy as much valuable agricultural lands and wetlands, and which ultimately will be less expensive to construct.
On June 27, the day I was scheduled to meet with members of the Re-route Movement group, the newly appointed Minister of National Security, Austin Jack Warner, (at the time he had been in office for only 48 hours) had gathered the local army and police forces to demolish the campsite that Re-Route had set up along the outlined route of the new highway. Only three days before I had briefly visited the campsite and spoken to a few of the group members who were there at the time. The group had started a period of prayer and fasting and advised me to return on Wednesday during their evening prayer session. I watched the television in complete dismay as Minister Warner held his press conference mere hours after the demolition of the campsite to present his version of the morning’s events. He recounted that during the demolition exercise there was a physical altercation between the Re-route Movement members and the armed forces, leading to the detainment of one (or more) of the Re-route Movement’s members. After work, I dashed to the campsite to find a small number of Re-route Movement members and general public supporters congregating next to what had formerly been the protest group’s campsite. Construction crews had thoroughly removed all evidence of the former campsite and army soldiers were still on site. The construction crews were wasting no time clearing the path for the debated segment of highway.
As I walked towards the group of supporters I recognized a prominent figure of the highway debate, Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, a university professor and environmental activist. I was surprised to see Dr. Kublalsingh there given that the news reports I had heard mere hours before that he had been arrested after assaulting an army officer. Dr. Kublalsingh, who has been adopted as the leader of the Re-Route movement, generously agreed to speak to me for a few minutes.
It had been roughly two years since I had last met with Dr. Kublalsingh. Our last meeting was under very different circumstances. I was conducting field research for my masters thesis and met with him at his office at the University of the West Indies. This time around we sat under a chataigne tree along the roadside, yards away from the original protest campsite, on white plastic chairs which had been rescued from demolition. Dr. Kublalsingh looked thinner than I remembered him being, and I could see that he was tired. He told me as much and mentioned that he was about to head home for a refresher before returning to the site later that night to discuss with the group members their next plan of action and to continue with their evening prayers. Although weary, Dr. Kublalsingh was articulate and thorough in his interview statements.
After speaking with Dr. Kublalsingh I went over to some of the other activist who were keeping watch over their new temporary site. Amongst the group was Gitana Boodhai. Gitana is a resident of San Francique, and a recent graduate of the Agri-Business program at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Her immediate and extended family members have lived in the area for several generations and now they are at risk of losing their homes and acres of agricultural lands. Gitana is currently studying Land Administration at UWI and shared we me that many of her classmates are stakeholders in this highway project, either as surveyors, contractors, or consultants. Gitana drew to my attention that one of the key issues that the group is also fighting against is the manner in which the government seems to be undertaking in order to acquire land for this project. She claims that the government is not following proper procedures as outlined in the Land Acquisition Act of 1984. Gitana’s interview is compelling and adds another dimension to the unfolding drama.
Post by Kristal Peters.