It’s common knowledge that although you may try, you can’t please everyone. One of the biggest challenges facing the Government, as they attempt to further develop the physical infrastructure and capacity of the economy, is finding the right formula to balance environmental protection with the demands of all stakeholders—from investors and residents to interest groups. It’s really a “chicken and egg” situation when it comes to a nation’s economic development and the environmental conservation effort. Can the two work hand in hand, or does one need to be sacrificed for the other?
There are other relevant issues which are not made known to the general public. T&T’s waterways are very polluted. Commendably, Environment and Water Resources Minister Ganga Singh has started on the field, intervening at the site of lead contamination in Arima, and the “turtle affair” in Grande Riviere. The minister’s presence signalled a change in the modus operandi of the ministry. The control of dumps and the amount of toxic pollution reaching the waterways are major issues facing the country. The watersheds that our livelihoods depend on are being heavily polluted by the dumps, quarries, and the human impacts involved in farming in the valleys for example. Debates concerning development versus environment is premised on the fatal assumption that the two are in contradiction with each other. The background to the debates are the recent activism of the Highway Re-route Movement, and the groups involved with preservation of the endangered leatherback turtles, as well as political propaganda.
There seems to be a necessary evil lurking behind the activities of the Government. We must be able to differentiate and explore the benefits and losses independently. If the Government made no attempt to intervene at Grande Riviere, properties would be destroyed. If human lives were in danger at the hotel, as well as the same turtles nested on the beach, what would have been the headlines? What would the lobbyists say? They would rant about no care for people who elected them, no care for the environment, no care for tourism, no care for the leatherback turtles. While many environmentalists and activists are lobbying the Government to reject certain development projects in favour of the sometimes poor, but long-existing communities, others contend that if productive capacity is developed close to its main source, prices and access to employment, goods, and services would be different. This would be especially so if commercial development of south Trinidad is pursued. The disparity of development within our small island state is amazing. After 50 years of independence and massive fiscal budgets, I would certainly like to see the decentralisation of services and equal opportunities for communities within the deep, rural pockets of society. If we begin to think of development in this manner, it will certainly be a decision which goes in favour of the poor and marginalised people in rural communities.
There are other groups in T&T that have lobbied for the alleviation of poverty in rural areas; the media would highlight some of the socio-economic issues that destroy livelihoods, sexual and other forms of abuse that are rampant among the young. Poverty and deprivation are competing against exalted ideas of cultural heritage, the place we know as home and other interests. If the Government succeeds in bringing schools, hospitals and employment to south Trinidad, it would have transformed the bleak, hopeless lives of some of the people who live here. Given the dwindling world economy, as I alluded to in my last article, it’s time that we develop mature social dialogue to push our national development agenda. The large annual budgets on social programmes and relief remedies are not curing our ills and wounds. The need for economic development to meet our most pressing challenge of bringing citizens out of poverty and deprivation is unarguable.
It’s not necessarily right, but it reflects the priorities as people see it. It’s difficult to build highways without some degree of environmental damage and, empirically, it’s impossible to develop and sustain our economy if we ban minerals from being exploited. In rural and isolated areas where development has failed to reach, often the only means of survival is “slash and burn” agriculture. This method involves burning forested and green space for fuel and food. Only when development brings schools, hospitals, roads and public services, does this horrible practice stop. Similarly, the farmers and residents who have been protesting against their land being taken away for a new highway might be more amenable if they could see real benefits. There is no question that they should be given what they consider a fair price for their land.
However, instead of banning projects essential to development, perhaps more focus should be spent on developing an environmental policy that would allow development, and yet improve the environment. For instance, the Government must take responsibility for reforestation elsewhere, or implement sustainable programmes to mitigate coastal and eco-system degradation. Any acquisition of land to build roads and factories must have a simultaneous responsibility for ensuring that local communities benefit from what they do. Perhaps we need to develop an alternate sustainable development model that will empower communities to force developers to consider the potential benefits of economic development, like jobs and taxes versus the potential costs to environment at each stage. This will evolve into different types of development zones. Some may prohibit development completely, others may encourage non-polluting and non-mining investments, and some may encourage mining subject to adequate returns to the local community. What we need is a rapid shift in consciousness, an awareness in people everywhere that we have to shift quickly to a sustainable economy, if we want to avoid damaging our natural support systems; be it natural environment or social support systems which require funding.
For such a shift to happen, environmental organisations need to focus on organising people at the community level and working closely with other social movements, which include human rights; not only the disenfranchised but persons wanting development, as well as protection from shifting land masses, and issues that require temporary intervention. The challenge is to ensure that discontent with issues is not captured by propaganda machines and self-serving interests. As many other issues, the T&T scenario is a bit more versatile, since there are also other unexpressed but equally important motives. Given the changing environmental landscape as a result of global warming and pollution affecting leatherback eggs laid on our blessed shores, what percentage hatch and live to maturity? Or simply, what percentage makes it safely to the ocean, notwithstanding natural predators and other threats? I recall images circulating online with “tourists” sitting and standing on turtles. I’ve also seen different interest groups with videos of poachers slaughtering these beauties to satisfy their appetites. The increase in income and other factors has seen the residential development of coastal areas. Where were these voices and opinions during that time? As a nation, we can neither follow a path that says, “it’s my turn to develop and I don’t care how,” nor can we bow down in the name of environmental conservation and let the economy suffer. Judiciousness would have to be applied to the decision-making, this is the only way we could strike a balance between the various objectives to be achieved. The challenge of balancing development and environment requires some rethinking, and allowing the Government to work in the interest of all. In this case, I flipped a coin, but it fell on the edge.
—Omardath Maharaj holds a BSc Economics and Finance and an MSc Agricultural Economics.