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Global warming threat to T&T

Published: 
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Attorney Chaitram Sinanan. PHOTOS: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

Chairman of the Environmental Commission Chateram Sinanan is not convinced that Trinidadians and Tobagonians are generally interested in environmental matters. He warns, however, that as a small developing country T&T is highly vulnerable to the dangers associated with global warming. Conceding that the Government is playing its part in dealing with the environment, Sinanan argues that we cannot wait for the large countries to tell us what to do—T&T must lead the way.

Q: Mr Chairman, what has the Environmental Commission (EC) been up to in recent times?
A: (Responding in his Upper St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain, office): Well, we have been very active in that we are preparing a brochure to edify the public on how they can access the commission because what we have discovered is that under the direct private party action (DPPA), people seem not to be too aware how to access the commission. When I looked at the history of the matters before the commission, a Superior Court of Record, over the last few years there have been absolutely no DPPAs.

For the benefit of the layman, please tell us what exactly is a DPPA?
A DPPA is one where members of the general public can bring certain grievances to the commission to find a resolution. Because as it stands right now, the only persons who bring actions to the EC are those who have been refused a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC).

I always thought the average citizen like myself could not have gone to the EC to resolve differences with the EMA?
On the contrary, the average citizen is not aware of its existence and a lot of people are not aware and when they hear the word “commission” they think it is the EMA (smiling ironically).

Doesn’t that say the organisation, perhaps, has not been promoting itself in the past?
I would not say what may have been done in the past, I can only tell you what I have been doing since I came here less than two years ago. We did things like informing the public how the commission can be contacted, what remedies are available to them through the court, how they could file actions and so on.

Mr Sinanan, in terms of national development, how important is the EC?
Its place is crucial in that context because one of the most sensitive issues affecting the entire world right now, not only Trinidad and Tobago, is the issue of global warming and that has to do with what we do with the environment, how we treat our environment; hence, the reasons why persons go before the EMA for the CEC. Appeals will come before us.

Persons who have breached the conditions of their CEC, these matters would come before us. So the extent of our function thus far is dependent on the extent of the enforcement by the EMA. We cannot go out there and solicit matters and my concern is that members of the public can access us. I am sure you would have heard the debate on the Planning and Development Bill in the Senate.

What impact does that legislation have on the EC?
The EC is set to play a pivotal role in the effectiveness of this piece of legislation because different bodies will be set up where persons have to go to get the necessary approvals for land and building developments.

So in the event that these people’s applications are rejected they can appeal to the commission?
Yes. Then there is the Beverage Containers Bill which should go to Parliament pretty soon. Matters in relation to that would also come to the EC.

The ambit of the commission is being widened and its work is to be greatly increased, and at the same time you would want the public to know that we are here to resolve any resulting appeals. We are not an institution that is alien from them and this (interview) is part of an outreach programme we are conducting for the first time in the public domain.

From where you sit, Mr Chairman, are you convinced that the public is generally concerned about the state of our environment?
(Shaking his head) I don’t think so. I recently attended a climate sustainability workshop and one of the presenters there asked the students how many of them would be prepared to go to school riding a bicycle instead of arriving in their fancy high-end vehicles. Everybody went silent. You see they were ready to talk it but no one was ready to do something to make a positive difference...no one was prepared to do that. And that attitude is, unfortunately, the society in which we live.

We have to learn to be a society where we know what is wrong must be put right in all matters. We need  to have the courage to make the difference and we have to lead the way.

Is the Government taking a sufficent lead on the issue of global warming?
The Government is doing its part in putting legislation in place, alright. Look at the Beverage Containers measure. Another good example is the EC. Do you know that in the western hemisphere Trinidad and Tobago was the first country to have an environmental court? And those things are some indicators of the Government’s positive participation in the awareness and doing what is necessary to sustain the environment.
 
Industrialisation does play a major part in this scenario doesn’t it? 
Yes. Now Clevon, T&T is one of the SIDS (Small Island Developing States) and all the SIDS account for less than five per cent of the entire world greenhouse gas pollution and carbon pollution. We in T&T account for, I think, approximately half a per cent and if you compare us with all the SIDS alone and nobody else, we are a significant producer and we are significant by virtue of the extent of our industrialisation, especially when you have oil companies.
And where you have subsidiary companies selling out of the oil companies you are going to find a fairly high level of carbon pollution. So amongst the SIDS we are probably one of the highest, but then when you put that figure in the global perspective it is a mere speck. That should not be a reason for us not to be conscious and not do our part because at the end of the day it is the SIDS who are most affected by the negative impact of global warming. When the glaciers of the North Pole and South Pole melt, and the sea levels rise, who are the ones to be affected? The small islands and the smaller you are, the more vulnerable you are.

Are we in the Caribbean facing any imminent danger from global warming and related phenomena?
(Pausing to take a cell phone call) We are indeed. We are most vulnerable because although the ice is melting in the Arctic and the Antarctic—where this water goes? So let’s say a one-metre rise in the sea level could devastate most of Trinidad, if not all of it. Whereas if you talk about a place like North America and so on [there is] very little impact. Where would we put our one million population?

We need to set the example for the rest of the world to follow. We cannot wait upon the First World nations or the larger countries to set the example for us because although they may be the biggest contributors as far as the effects are concerned they would be the least affected. Look at the structure of Trinidad. If it rains and we have high tide what happens? All through the land floods. Could you imagine a one-metre rise in the sea level and the water backs up in the land? This is reality. 

What about your budget, are you satisfied with the quantum?
In that area we have been able to make do but I could tell you that for the next financial year we would need far more funds, the reason being we are presently looking for a new location for the commission and it is turning out to be a very difficult task. My intention is to take it out of Port-of-Spain to perhaps somewhere in central so that the public can have easier access.

So, Mr Chairman, what is the prognosis for the commission as you see it?
We know the word is getting out there. We know we are achieving our goal at the end of the day. The commission is on a very good footing, the commissioners meet regularly, an average of once a month. We have seen how we can improve our service delivery, we have staff training. All the matters before the EC are current matters, we have no outstanding matters. [We have] 100 per cent success rate on our mediation efforts—something which we are very proud of.