Stung by Opposition criticism of Government spending, deficits and the Moody’s credit rating downgrade, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Communications Minister Vasant Bharath last night p
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Protest in La Brea over highway jobs
Over 100 people from Vance River and Guapo blocked the road with burning debris yesterday protesting mainly for jobs in the construction of $7.5 billion Solomon Hochoy Highway extension to Point Fortin. Yesterday’s action, which began around 5 am along the Southern Main Road, halting construction work in the area, is the second such protest in about three months.
Spokesman Brennon Daniel said villagers also protested on Monday and would not allow any construction to continue until they got a meeting with the main contractor, the Brazilian firm of Construtora OAS, Works Minister Dr Surujrattan Rambachan and Dr Carson Charles, president of the National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco).
At that meeting, carded for next week Wednesday at Vance River Community Centre, Daniel said the protesters hoped to resolve the issues and sign a memorandum of understanding with OAS. Daniel said: “It is a lot of issues but the main thing is jobs for people. People are not getting employment, contractors are not getting contracts. I am categorically saying that only one ethnic grouping is enjoying the contracts on that highway.”
Another issue, he said, was that there was no access road linking the Vance River, Cochrane, Gonzales villages and environs to the highway. “Residents in these communities are saying it is a total disrespect to be building the highway to Point Fortin and between three communities there is no access road to the highway.” Daniel said businesses in those communities would suffer. “The highway is passing behind these villages which will experience an economic downturn,” he noted.
He said other issues included flooding and lack of compensation for residents whose crops were bulldozed. “We started experiencing flooding between Union and Gonzales Villages and it is because of the highway development it is blocking the watercourses,” he added. He said there would be no construction work from the central roundabout in Point Fortin to Guapo until the meeting next Wednesday. The protest lasted for about an hour-and-half.
Outsiders getting jobs
Brighton/Vessigny councillor Gerald Debessette said the Government had failed to fulfil its promises that residents would be given jobs. “The highway is passing between Vance River and Cochrane but no residents in those communities are being employed and about 35 to 40 of the people employed there are from as far as Arima and near Piarco. La Brea and environs have the highest levels of unemployment and the lowest crime rate,” he said.
Residents being employed
Nidco president Dr Carson Charles denied residents were not being employed. “This is a project being done by OAS so of course OAS cannot solve all the people’s unemployment problems. Their job is to build a highway,” he added. He said OAS needed people with a particular set of skills, particularly in carpentry. “They need a lot of people with that skill level,” she added.
He said OAS had provided Nidco with a list of the names, addresses and contact information for over 350 residents between La Brea and Point Fortin who have been employed thus far and after the first protest OAS had hired ten more residents. He said copies of the list were given to the Members of Parliament and the protest leaders.
Charles said Nidco was also sending community workers to some villages which were depressed to lend whatever assistance they could to villagers, including creating employment through small projects. He called on the residents, particularly those leading the protests, to have more dialogue with Nidco and not shutdown the project. “They were protesting that the highway was taking too long to start and now we have the project and we are at loggerheads,” he added.
He said compensation was an ongoing exercise but residents were being compensated for their bulldozed crops. Charles was optimistic that by the middle of next year drivers would be able to enjoy driving from Golconda to Point Fortin on the highway.
MP shocked by protests
La Brea MP Fitzgerald Jeffrey said that was the second protest since May over those issues. He said he was involved in the first and had organised meetings with the residents and OAS to resolve the issues. “I thought they arrived at a temporary truce. I was shocked to hear about this protest this morning,” he added. Apart from the highway, he said Nidco was involved in community projects but they were too short-term.
“Employment seems to be too short, 15 to 20 days. The residents are looking at more long-term projects to run parallel with the construction of the highway, such as the building of bridges,” he explained. He called on OAS and Nidco to resolve those issues as soon as possible so the construction of the highway could continue unhampered.