The Angel of History is an insightful inscription written by Walter Benjamin to describe a Paul Klee painting. The painting inspired Benjamin to describe the inequality that accompanies progress, how progress for some is often a series of defeats and oppression for others.
Benjamin's observation fits well into anthropological discussions about development. This is because for all the grandiose, top-down talk of development and its benefits given by international agencies, governments and local authorities, there are many bottom-up accounts illustrating development to be a Trojan horse of exploitation, dependency and destruction.
Reading about the THA's refusal to halt construction in Charlotteville following a recent court order is a useful place to weigh up the issue of development and progress locally and ask who wins from the THA's vision of "progress" in Charlotteville. Now, top-down organisations will often try to discredit those with a bottom-up view of progress.
The standard argument, and it is one the Charlotteville Beachfront Movement has faced in its questioning of the THA's motives, is that those opposed to development are opposed to progress.
Yet what those opposed are actually saying is they want progress to be appropriate and supportive to existing stakeholders and ask, why did the THA ignore the other suggestions put forward for development? For those who don't know the THA's plans for the Charlotteville Beachfront, plans already under way include demolishing all the existing vending huts and replacing them with a massive concrete and glass structure extending across the current beachfront.
In order to do this they needed to move vendors, some who had been there for more than 30 years.By some local accounts, the THA went about this in problematic ways. For example, lacking any legal authority to evict the vendors, the Deputy Chief Secretary allegedly approached local vendors and told them they should accept keys to temporary premises, should immediately vacate their existing premises, and if they did not vacate, would be removed from their existing premises.
Furthermore, the Chief Secretary is on record as saying the development was a done deal not up for debate. He also claimed to have the consensus of the villagers with him, yet, speaking to villagers, there are many not in favour of this particular development.
Pressured, many vendors moved to the temporary spots. At the time none were given information about how long they would have to spend in the temporary accommodation, what their tenancy terms might be, whether they would be tenants in the new beachfront structure, what would be the terms of their contract, and what was the evaluation of the environmental and other impact on Charlotteville.
In what seemed like an olive branch from the THA, vendors were later told the first two years in the new structure were rent-free. This gesture did not disclose what the rent might be in two years' time or that if rents become too high, vendors would be easy to evict in favour of higher-paying tenants. Nor that the vendors previously paid no rent on their huts, or that they've developed certain legal rights by virtue of their long and extensive occupation of the lands.
As their lawyer pointed out: "My clients are being invited under threat of eviction to surrender their rights, earned over two decades or more, in return for nothing more than unenforceable promises. Furthermore, the promises are undefined and at the whim of the THA."The THA has also perhaps bent the rules. Legally, EMA approvals were required before the THA could start work on the beachfront. Yet such approvals were never granted and the THA, after evicting the majority of vendors, began construction work regardless.
The court order against it now is to reinforce a previous government instruction to secure such approvals before any work began. Even in the face of this recent order, the THA refused to comply immediately and it was a number of days before construction stopped.Now, some might suggest that Charlotteville's days as one of the last unspoilt fishing villages in the Caribbean are no longer tenable, that those sorts of idyllic havens for relaxation and protecting wildlife are no more.
But why should they get to decide what happens to Charlotteville?Why should local economies and cultures like Charlotteville, with its small-scale eco-tourism, for which it is known around the world, be destroyed in order to "progress"? Can't progress in Charlotteville be slower, more small-scale and locally determined?Sadly, not according to Benjamin's Angel of History. It describes progress in tragic terms, as storm after storm, smashing through paradise.
Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine