You are here
Will ‘investors’ win THA election?
One of the books that I dipped into recently to get a clearer perspective on the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election, which comes off on Monday, is The Changing Society of Tobago 1838-1900: A Fractured Whole, which is part one of a two part opus by sociologist Susan Craig-James.
A Fractured Whole is a monumental work that combines archival research in England and Scotland with the oral histories conducted in the eighties and nineties of Tobagonians some of whom were in their 90’s when Dr Craig-James spoke with them.
As their first order of official business, whoever wins the election should call the author and order copies of the book, which was published in 2008, for all of the elected officers and all of the senior public servants employed by the THA.
The only way that Tobago is going to be able to manage the greater self-determination that the People’s Partnership administration is insisting on as the price of the two Tobago seats in the national parliament is if those who lead Tobago have a thorough understanding of the island’s history.
One of the points that part one of the book makes clear is that the reason Tobago was made a ward of Trinidad in 1889 and then was annexed to the larger island ten years later was as a result of the collapse of the Tobago sugar economy in the 1880s.
According to Craig-James, Trinidad and British Guiana (BG) differed from Tobago in the following ways:
• They had large tracts of virgin, fertile land suitable for sugar plantation, while Tobago did not;
• In BG and Trinidad, there was “continuous state-aided immigration schemes especially of indentured labour” for the plantations. Tobago’s plantations simply were not generating enough revenue to be able to afford indentured labourers;
• Because BG and Trinidad were newer colonies and had more recently started the cultivation of sugar, they were able to attract the large capital investment in the most modern technology for sugar growing and processing which was supported by state investment in roads and railways.
The author argues that because many of Tobago’s estates were heavily indebted in the period after Emancipation in 1838, the island was unable to attract the large sums of capital needed to either modernise sugar production in the 1880s or diversify out of sugar. She also argued that there was no local class capable of making the necessary investment.
It is not a coincidence that Tobago was one of the West Indian islands that applied for and received a special court under the Encumbered Estates Act of 1854, which was, according to William A Green’s British Slave Emancipation “designed to facilitate the sale of properties laden with complicated debts” as under earlier laws, “properties could not be sold unless their debts were paid, but the catastrophic fall of estate values after 1846 rendered such sale impossible for plantation burdened—as hundreds of them were—by mortgages, legacies and orther charges which exceeded their market values.”
Delving into Tobago’s history—and we don’t even have the time or space to deal with the implications to Tobago of the introduction of the system of metayage (share-cropping) in the island and how that informed attitudes to land ownership—is important, of course, because of the similarities between the 1890s and today.
Along with its inherant inadequacies of small size, “tired” soil and difficult topography, the Tobago economy collapsed 122 years ago because the island was unable to attract the capital needed to make sugar competitive or to find something else to generate enough revenue to sustain the island.
Tobago has been dependent on the more vibrant economy in Trinidad ever since.
In February 2007, a law was passed requiring that foreigners who wished to purchase land in Tobago first needed to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Finance.
That land licence regime has starved Tobago’s tourism industry of the capital that it needs to compete with much larger, better endowed tourist destinations that are closer to the sources of international visitors.
The impression that one gets is that the land licence regime has been a huge success with Tobagonians, who got caught up in the hysteria starting about a decade ago that Germans and Italians were buying up all of the land in the country.
Obviously, scrapping the land licence regime—or at least reducing the time period for acquiring a licence from three years to three days or three hours—would be the fiscally prudent move to make as there is clear evidence that Tobago’s tourism sector is dying a slow, painful and ugly death.
As the Tobago-based real estate agent Dawn Glaisher argued three years ago:
“Tobago is a great place to live and to visit, and it is not difficult to persuade investors of this fact if we set about it the right way and have a licencing system that functions efficiently along with national tourism and investment policies that truly welcome investors prepared to risk their hard-earned capital in our island. They do not have to come here to invest. Money can go anywhere it chooses in the world. So we need to do the hard work to convince them that Tobago is the place to be.”
But the fear that the People’s National Movement in Tobago has been able to engender in people is that if the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) were to win the election on Monday, the people who financed the TOP election campaign—who are some of the same investors who financed the People’s Partnership campaign in 2010—would be favoured by Port-of-Spain in the biggest land grab since the Gunfight at OK Corral.
Some Tobagonians clearly fear that money is being poured into the TOP for the express purpose of positioning a certain group to benefit from the distribution of land.
There is an argument that while some land will be distributed to Tobagonians for expansion of agricultural possibilities and for sub division into housing lots, the majority of land will eventually end up being sold or leased to bidders in procurement exercises that would be programmed to achieve pre-determined results.
This point resonates with some Tobagonians because the THA has spent a significant amount of money in the last decade acquiring estates from private owners and is by far the largest landowner in Tobago.
This means that there is much land that is potentially available for distribution and there is a great deal of money that potentially can be made from the development of land in Tobago.
Due to the bureacracy on the island, much of the acquired land has not been put to productive use and the Tobago economy has suffered as a result.
Will Tobagonians vote to keep their land or will they take a chance on “foreign” investment?
User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff. Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.
Please help us keep out site clean from inappropriate comments by using the flag option.
Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments. Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.