Point Fortin has birthed some amazing Trinis, from multiple soca monarch winning father and daughter Austin Lyons and Fay Ann Lyons-Alvarez to sportsmen like Avery John and Kenwyne Jones. But the borough has always been largely isolated from Trinidad's metropolitan centres of San Fernando (which is nearer) and Port-of-Spain.
Poor roads and high levels of traffic make it difficult for Point Fortin people to mix with the rest of the island. The solution? A highway extension from San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway, which has been in the pipeline even before T&T gained its independence. But actual construction only began this year.
Minister of Works Jack Warner started the process when he handed over a $1.5 billion cheque to the National Infrastructure Development Co (Nidco) in June 2011. Right now, tractors and other heavy equipment are preparing the land for building. And many Point Fortin and south residents welcome the progress that the highway will bring.
"I will highly appreciate the highway because it takes me hours to come from Port-of-Spain to Point Fortin when I go for goods," said shop owner Harold Maharaj. "And we have no other alternative route unless we go all the way around through Penal, which takes an hour and a half."
Point Fortin to San Fernando route taxi driver Augustine Francois said: "The amount of cars that there are now, the existing route can't really cater for. ...The highway will be a good thing." Kafarah Downing who goes to school in San Fernando said: "If have to leave to go to San Fernando, I have to leave two hours before, just to reach on time."
Unemployment is also high in the borough, so Albert George is glad that the highway project "is providing work for people. "These young people don't have work," he added.
Re-route the highway
But along the planned highway construction route, a group of concerned residents and stakeholders in Debe, Penal and San Francique communities are protesting the highway's construction. They've organised into a group called the Highway Re-Route Movement, and are calling for the Prime Minister to hear their concerns.
Wayne Kublalsingh, a well-known environmental activist, is lobbying with the group. "This highway is one of the most flawed engineering concepts in the history of Trinidad and Tobago," Kublalsingh said. "They want to build a 9.1 mile stretch of highway across a flood-prone area. "Three hundred families live there in well-established communities.
"They want to move an orphanage, which cost between five and six million dollars, community funded...They want to alienate thousands of acres of agricultural land. "They haven't properly consulted with the residents, and most of them are against it." The Re-Route Movement's members all have homes and land which may be appropriated by the Government during the construction of the Golconda to Mon Desir section of the highway.
They are concerned that the construction of the highway will decimate their tightly-knit communities and divest them of heritage land owned for generations. Kublalasingh said 250 of the 300 families that would be affected had signed a petition addressed to the Prime Minister, asking her to reconsider the highway route.
Pinky Subrath is in her 80s and has owned her two acres of land for 25 years. It was marshland when she bought it. "People gas tank used to float away here," she said. After years of gradually filling the marsh with dirt and just a few months shy of completing her house, she has stopped building. She was told that her land and new house fell in the path of the proposed highway.
"We don't want the highway here at all," she said, her restless bird-like figure fluttering back and forth as we talk near the edge of her property. "We've had many sleepless nights," said Crystal Boodhai, another resident of the Penal area that the highway is expected to cut through. Her sister and cousin sit silent beside her; her young son plays with his father a few feet away.
"Very little has been said to us...We've had very little consultation on this matter," she said. Alfred Sookal, a member of the movement, said: "We are not against development. "We are not against the people in Point Fortin wanting to get connectivity from San Fernando," he said. "But the manner in which you do it is what we have a concern with."
But Nidco president Dr Carson Charles says that residents have never voiced their concerns with Nidco and at present the company had no intention of re-routing the proposed highway plan. Contrary to residents' claims, Charles said Nidco had been in talks with all the community groups and their "genuine representatives" and was willing to listen to any group that approached them.
And he maintained that the highway project would move on as planned. "The idea of re-routing the highway is not re-routing at all," Charles said. "In other words, they don't want a highway from Debe on." He also claimed that the relocation process for this highway project had unprecedented benefits for the residents.
"We have an outreach centre established in the Debe area, specifically for the people," he explained. Charles said the centre had been open since last year, and was staffed with a psychologist and a community leader who could address the residents' concerns. He said Nidco consulted with the residents to ask them where they would like to move their community to and they were to receive compensation through a private treaty with the company.
Nidco was paying for the properties to be valued as well, he added. "This is unprecedented," Charles said with a broad smile.
Concern over flooding
The Re-Route Movement also has a wider concern, one that will affect everyone who lives and works in the area of the Oropouche Lagoon. Flooding has always been a major concern for areas along the swampy lagoon in south Trinidad; it is a basin for tributaries that flow down from the Southern and Central mountain ranges, and facilitates the water's flow out to the sea.
The Re-Route Movement members fear that as the highway cuts a swathe across the lagoon, it will obstruct the free flow of water from the swampy land out to the sea and even worse flooding will occur. And according to correspondence between the Ministry of Works and Transport and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), these fears do have some scientific merit.
In October 2009, the Director of Drainage wrote to the CEO of the EMA about his observations on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by the then Ministry of Works and Transport in application for a certificate of environmental clearance (CEC) for the highway project, stating that the document from the Works Ministry only addressed immediate drainage from the proposed highway and not the impact of additional runoff.
Later in October 2009, the CEO of the EMA wrote to the ministry, identifying "several deficiencies" within the Environmental Impact Assessment submitted to the EMA: a need for further information on the natural and artificial drainage systems in the areas where the proposed highway will pass. It calls for responses to these shortcomings before the CEC can be granted.
The Water and Sewage Authority also weighed in on the EIA via a letter to the CEO of the EMA in November 2009. "One gets the impression that there is no commitment to definite mitigation measures. This conclusion is on account of the 'language' used throughout the report, namely '...should be avoided,' '...the contractor should take all that is necessary...' There is an absence of the word 'will'"
On February 17, 2010, the Ministry of Works and Transport sent its response, without the additional drainage information requested by the EMA or additional commitments to mitigate the negative effects of construction, as requested by WASA. According to the file, the certificate of environmental clearance was granted on April 20, 2010.
The EMA defended its decision to grant the CEC in a statement response to questions posed by Guardian Media reporters: "The Ministry of Works and Transport generally satisfied all the requirements for the EMA to grant a CEC with conditions to the ministry, since it felt that all potential negative impacts identified through the EIA could have been reasonably mitigated by the mitigation measures put forward."
Charles claimed that the highway project would be built in such a way to engender less flooding, not more.
Heritage site may be affected
It seems that the San Fernando to Point Fortin highway extension, not satisfied with only displacing the living, may also disturb the resting place of those long dead. Banwari Man is the oldest, most intact skeleton found in the Latin American and Caribbean region; a brilliant archaeological find that most countries would enshrine in a museum and celebrate as part of their heritage.
Archeologist Peter Harris said: "The Banwari burial is about 6,500 years old. And a lot of people feel awe from that. Whenever I go to the excavation, it's like looking through time," Harris is the one who found Banwari Man, almost by accident he says, more the 30 years ago. The skeleton is now housed at the University of the West Indies St Augustine Life Sciences Museum and draws curious visitors as well as members of the Amerindian community who still leave offerings to this sacred ancestor.
Sites like these, Harris explained, should be protected by the Government. "We don't have a history of heritage sites," he said. "If there was a decision by the (Siparia Regional) Corporation to make this a heritage site, it's the first of its kind." Harris is concerned that the same prong of the proposed San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway that will affect Re-Route Movement members will also pass within 200 metres of Banwari Trace in San Francique, the site where Banwari Man was found and where unknown archeological treasures may still be buried.
"The proposed highway will cross Banwari Trace, about 200 metres from the site, and cause a buildup of flooding in the area," said Kublalsingh. He added that the construction and possible resultant flooding may also have an impact on other, as yet undiscovered archaeological sites in the area.
However, former San Francique Village Council chairman Ken Jaglal said he doesn't believe that the highway project would affect the Banwari site. He said the Government of T&T purchased the Banwari site from his father in 2000 and the site was now being developed by the Siparia Regional Corporation, Jaglal said.
He maintained that he was on the side of the Highway Re-Route Movement; he even did some lobbying on their behalf while he served on the village council. "But I don't see how the highway would impact on the site," he said. "There are a lot of houses much closer to the proposed highway."
"The site is well protected...It's now fenced and they are beginning to put in facilities. "And for me, knowing the facts, it weakens the argument of the people who are against the highway."