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A Stretch of Asphalt Where Our Freedoms Should Be

Steel Will - Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh on Day 21 of his initial hunger strike in 2012. Photo by Jolynna Sinanan, used with permission.

Steel Will: Trinidad and Tobago protestor Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh on Day 21 of his initial hunger strike in 2012. Photo by Jolynna Sinanan, used with permission.

The protests started long before 2012, when environmental activist and university lecturer Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh declared a hunger strike as a personal and public protest against the construction of a contentious section of highway between Debe and Mon Desir in the south of Trinidad. He became the face of a group called the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM). The HRM had received assurances from the current prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and others in her party while they were still in opposition, that no road would be built through their community, and that the Oropuche Lagoon, an environmentally sensitive area, would not be affected by any potential road works.

But once Persad-Bissessar’s People's Partnership came into power in the general election of 2010, all such promises were forgotten. Construction began in earnest: backhoes destroyed the HRM's protest camp and Dr. Kublalsingh was arrested. He undertook his initial hunger strike five months later, only ending it when, on the urging of civil society groups, the government agreed to an independent assessment of the highway project.

By then, most people understood that Dr. Kublalsingh's dissent was about much more than a simple highway—it was about principle. It was about holding elected officials to account. Transparency. Good governance. About development that respected human community and the environment. It was, essentially, about progress—but not just the kind that you can easily measure. The ravages that Dr. Kublalsingh forced his body to endure for 21 days in November 2012 asked the question: “Are you, as a citizen, doing enough for your country?”

The fact that a man who had previously put himself on the line and successfully stopped the construction of two proposed aluminium smelters in south Trinidad had to resort to a hunger strike to get his government’s attention suggests that the answer is “No”. Hunger strikes are things that regularly happen in Castro's Cuba; the desperate pis aller of the powerless. Why is it that Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh has had to embark on another round of starvation to have the concerns of a significant portion of the citizenry attended to? Is this participatory democracy? When people disagree with the status quo, ignore them? Vilify them? When people ask questions, attempt to discredit them?

Supporters of the highway project say that the HRM is anti-development. In reality, the HRM is calling for the government to stand by its agreement to consider the findings of the independent Armstrong Report and re-route the Debe to Mon Desir stretch. It has even provided an alternative. There are some real achievements for our democracy here. Dr. Kublalsingh's suffering and the HRM's staunch support of him prompted positive, solutions-oriented action from civil society. Just as importantly, the government agreed to pay for the independent audit that civil society groups put forward as the solution to the impasse.

But a communication breakdown has ensued. In an unfortunate misstep, the HRM has accused the government of not tendering the project. Afra Raymond, President of the Joint Consultative Council, which helped broker the independent assessment that brought the first hunger strike to an end, thought the claim troublesome for two reasons: firstly, the highway contract was in fact tendered in 2010, and secondly, according to Raymond, the HRM’s “baseless assertions . . .  show a lack of familiarity with the contents of The Armstrong Report.”

Any meaningful discourse that the Armstrong Report occasioned has now degenerated into name-calling and vitriol from the pro-highway camp, which the Prime Minister has essentially dubbed freedom of speech so long as “they are not in breach of the law”. Apparently, the country's president did not get that memo. And apparently, there are more important priorities for a prime minister than the concerns of citizens who are represented by a dying activist.

I am weary of—and wary of—patriarchal politics. In this land of “eat a food”, I'm so fed up of the politics of public relations that I can't stomach another bite. Can we take a step back, here? Can we all just. . . hush? Because in the words of rapso group 3Canal, “everybody talking, but nobody listening,” and we're all in danger of missing the point. And if we do—if we dismiss Dr. Kublalsingh out of hand as a troublemaker, a tree-hugger, a dissident—we will not understand the importance of what he is fighting for until it is too late.

So let's stop talking and listen. What we should be focusing on, as artist Peter Minshall put it, is not whether Dr. Kublalsingh can be compared to Gandhi or whether he should have endangered his life by embarking upon a second hunger strike. At this point, the spotlight should not even be on Kublalsingh. But we're too accustomed to red herrings and robber talk, so we think this is about a stretch of asphalt, when in reality it is about our freedoms and rights as citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, whether we support the highway or not.

If the communities between Debe and Mon Desir lose their homes, their livelihoods and their sense of belonging, we lose something too. If Dr. Kublalsingh and his family recoil from the wicked words of a sect so self-assured in its mission that they cannot respectfully listen to a different point of view, our freedom to speak our own truth becomes a little more constricted. If there are attempts at reasonable compromise and the HRM is unwilling to bend, we all suffer.

I do not know Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, but I do know this: the man has vision. He has seen the end of the road and he has put taxpayers’ money where his mouth is. So, instead of allowing ourselves to be distracted by the cacophony of tumultuous voices, let us be still and listen to Dr. Kublalsingh's message as he speaks through his laboured breath. Let us hear the groan of the bulldozers that refuse to stop long enough for everyone to regroup and gain some clarity. Let us be quiet and ruminate on the question that we have ignored for far too long: “What do we, as a country, want for ourselves?”

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