Two years ago, Trinidadian environmental activist Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh embarked on a 21-day hunger strike that ended only when the government gave assurances that there would be an independent review of the section of proposed highway that his lobby group, the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM), was against. The HRM contends that the Debe to Mon Desir stretch of highway intended to link San Fernando to Point Fortin, two major hubs in south Trinidad, would displace many homes and damage the environment.
Kublalsingh's dissent quickly became symbolic of growing public dissatisfaction about matters of transparency and good governance and the cavalier manner in which the electorate's concerns are often managed by those in public office. The Highway Re-Route Movement has even accused some politicians, now in government, of previously supporting their cause. The precursor to the HRM was the Debe to San Francique Highway Action Committee, which formed in 2006, a lobby group in which Minister of Parliament Dr. Roodal Moonilal was involved.
Ten days ago, Kublalsingh restarted his hunger strike on the grounds that the government has not abided by the findings of the Armstrong report, which reviewed the records relating to the highway's construction. The Certificate of Environmental Clearance, for instance, contains “an extensive list of conditions” intended to address the lack of detail presented to the Environmental Management Authority. Because “a significant amount of work” still needs to be done to get the necessary approvals, the report suggested that “no further work be undertaken on the Highway site until all of the conditions contained in the CEC have been fulfilled.” All plans specified in the Environmental Impact Assessment must be submitted to the EMA for approval by the relevant bodies, including the Storm Water Management Plan and the Water Management Plan. This no-work recommendation is also in accordance with the Town and Country Planning Act. The Armstrong report also found it “imperative” that a proper Social Impact Assessment be undertaken before a decision is made whether or not to continue with the Debe to Mon Desir segment of the Highway, “given the potential for severe adverse impacts on the resident population and other stakeholders.”
Despite these suggestions, which the government promised they would consider back in 2012, construction on the highway has not halted and the prime minister has refused to meet with Dr. Kublalsingh to discuss an alternative to the contentious route.
Afra Raymond, a blogger and president of the
Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry, which proffered the idea for the independent review, gave a factual and measured response to the controversy:
Some of the issues now emerging offer disturbing echoes from Kublalsingh’s first hunger-strike in November 2012, but […] these are the very reasons we need to think again so as to find a different way to speak about our country’s large-scale development.
His post began by providing valuable context to the current impasse: The San Fernando – Point Fortin Highway has been proposed for over 40 years; Kublalsingh undertook his initial hunger strike to press for an urgent review of the Debe/Mon Desir section of the highway; civil society's proposal of the independent audit, which was spearheaded by the Joint Consultative Council, eventually brought the strike to an end. The audit was completed and its findings published “after a review process in which the State’s concerns were addressed.” Finally, the National Infrastructure Development Company paid the JCC for costs associated with the review, since that was the body through which funds were disbursed to members of the review team.
Contrary to what some believe — especially those forced to sit in heavy traffic — the Highway Re-Route Movement is not against the highway itself, just the portion it considers a threat. The fact that construction continues on the Debe to MonDesir section is contentious: supporters of the highway just want to see it completed.
According to Raymond, “an alternative view is that the commitment of Public Money to complete a disputed link while it was under study is itself questionable,” but he also called the HRM's stance calling on the government to stick to the Armstrong report's findings “unrealistic”.
There is good news to be had, he maintained:
The Armstrong Report is an historic achievement, to my knowledge being the first review of a State-sponsored project ever undertaken by a Civil Society group in the Caribbean. The Report represents an attempt to review the competing claims on the evidence and therefore promotes the ideal of fact-based decision-making in public policy.
Those are the positives we have to take from this turbid situation and we need to act soberly so as to ensure that those gains are not lost in the heat of this moment. Kublalsingh’s sacrifice opened the way for the Civil Society proposal to be accepted and the Armstrong Report is now a reality.
Many people have been asking whether there is a legal obligation on the State to consider the Armstrong Report and it is clear to me that such an obligation does exist.
Roman Catholic priest Fr. Clyde Harvey, who ministered to Kublalsingh during his first fast, said that the hunger striker was challenging citizens to find “the soul of the nation”. Kublalsingh told Harvey that the heart of the matter could be summed up in three words: truth, transparency, trust. Harvey maintained that:
The Armstrong Report, which is at the centre of all this, is not about the Honourable Prime Minister, it's not even about Wayne Kublalsingh. It's about whether or not we as a people can develop principles and processes which allow us to believe in ourselves, to always stand for truth and to try to be transparent in all that we do.
Popular blog Wired 868 called the situation “an environmental tipping point in the fight to save endangered wetlands” and criticised what it saw as the prime minister's hypocrisy:
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.
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.
The post highlighted some of Kublalsingh's concerns, including the questionable procurement process for the highway's construction, the fact that there were issues with the project's feasibility, and the report's findings that the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project was flawed. The post concluded that “Dr Kublalsingh may be facing his toughest battle yet”:
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.
Raymond questioned whether Trinidad and Tobago had the resolve to surmount this hurdle:
We need to summon the will to turn this corner, the State needs to exercise its powers in a reasonable fashion and that means that the Armstrong Report must be properly considered. The public needs to be advised of that consideration and its outcomes. […]
In years to come it will seem literally unbelievable that the State routinely carried out large-scale developments without this kind of study and consideration. The future is an inescapable part of reality, it is waiting for all of us.