The excavator's claws slash through the earth, ripping at layers of soil and sand until it hits white gravel. Like a giant steel insect, the excavator scoops up the mineral, then swings its bucket around to fill a line of 20-tonne dump trucks.
The material from this quarry in Orosco Road, Matura will be sold for millions of dollars to contractors, hardware stores and homeowners who will use it in construction projects across the country.
Even though this unnamed quarry—which encroaches on a sensitive turtle-nesting beach—is partly on state land, the Government will not receive a penny. That's because the Orosco Road operation is an illegal quarry.
It's not the only one. The overwhelming majority of the sand and gravel quarries in the country are operating illegally or without licences.
A two-month Guardian Media investigation has discovered that:
•Illegal quarries are robbing the nation's treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Instead, the money is being pocketed by private businessmen and criminal networks.
•The Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, which is responsible for regulating quarries, and the Commissioner of State Lands, the enforcement agency, have virtually abandoned their mandates, allowing the quarry sector to turn into a free for all.
•As of March 31, 2018, licenced quarries owed the treasury outstanding royalties of $196,432,478. Royalties are based on an honour system in which operators self-declare how much aggregate they produce, a practice that encourages under-reporting.
•Extraordinarily high profits combined with a low risk of prosecution have attracted organised crime to the quarrying business.
•Corrupt law enforcement officials run protection rackets for illegal quarry owners. By many accounts, the lion's share of the profits from illegal quarries is paid in bribes to police and employees of government agencies responsible for protecting state lands.
•The state-owned National Quarries Limited is not among the eight licenced quarries in Trinidad and Tobago, which means that it is ostensibly operating an illegal operation.
•Illegal quarries destroy sensitive forests, kill wildlife, threaten endangered species, pollute watercourses and affect the health and well-being of nearby communities. Mud and slush run off from the quarries into rivers ensures that no light can penetrate, killing most aquatic plants, and eventually everything that depends on them. WASA pumps and filters are affected by the same silt, resulting in equipment failure and water shortages. Many quarrying operations result in devastating flooding.
Senior government ministers would not accept responsibility for reining in illegal quarries. Repeated calls over the last two months to government officials resulted in finger pointing and no clear answers why they were allowing illegal quarries to operate with impunity.
Asked why his Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries was tolerating illegal quarries in plain sight, Minister Franklin Khan said: "We are currently working closely with the police to stop this illegal activity."
Khan did not answer why illegal quarrying was occurring in close proximity to the Matura Police Station.
Asked why only eight of the 131 quarries were licenced, Khan said: "We are working to renew licences. It's a cumbersome process. But we are making progress."
Asked why unlicenced quarry operators were not paying royalties, Khan said, "They have to pay the back royalties to get the renewal."
Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat has often visited the Matura area for photo-ops involving turtle conservation events. Asked why illegal quarrying was being allowed, he said via Facebook Messenger: "I have made several reports to the Ministry of Energy. Reports on what's happening [with illegal quarries] in Matura and in Wallerfield…we are the Government but not the police.
"I can only work as fast as the Minister of National Security and the TTPS works," he said. "The last two raids were my work because I got officers I know to cooperate. So, I have to keep giving them info and waiting until they act. Last night I arranged to meet Minerals Division of Ministry of Energy to find out why they are not acting."
Asked why his Ministry of National Security tolerated the existence of illegal quarries, Minister Stuart Young responded: "Firstly, the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries is responsible for quarrying. Secondly, the enforcement agency for protection of State lands is the Commissioner of State Lands. Accordingly, the Ministry of National Security is not responsible."
Young said the police service has "a level of autonomy and the Commissioner of Police has the complete power to manage the police service."
Police Commissioner Gary Griffith did not respond to several requests for comment.
As director of minerals at the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, Monty Beharry is responsible for the licencing and enforcement of the quarry industry. He earns $229,464 per year while presiding over a failing Minerals Division. Only eight out of 131 quarries known to the Ministry are licenced.
Despite assurances that they would respond to Guardian Media's requests for information, Beharry and Choy Felix, senior communications officer of the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, declined to do so.
Machines Versus Vulnerable Monkeys
On a recent visit to the illegal Orosco Road quarry, a male red howler monkey swings through the forest. Red howlers, among the country's vulnerable species, are the loudest animals on land. Their dramatic vocalisations can be heard three miles away, but on a recent day the red howler's growl competed with the roar of chainsaws felling mora trees so that excavators can get to work on ripping up the forest below. The howlers proved no match for the sounds of diesel engines, the grating sound of metal on stone, and metal on metal.
The forest, which abuts Matura Beach, harbours mangroves and some of the last stands of centuries-old mora trees on the island. The moras are towering evergreen trees which can grow up to 45 metres high with a girth of 12 metres. Because the wood is hard, heavy and tough, mora trees are prized by builders who use them for supporting beams and durable floors in houses.
Inside The Illegal Quarry
Guardian Media spent several weeks monitoring the illegal quarry on Orosco Road.
The forested areas of Matura and Valencia are highly sought after by quarry operators because they are among the few places in Trinidad where the so-called Cunapo conglomerates, or gravel beds, are near the surface. In other parts of the island, these mineral deposits, formed by erosion of the Northern and Central Ranges, are too deep to be dug economically, said Xavier Moonan, a senior geoscientist with Touchstone Exploration.
Drone footage commissioned by Guardian Media shows that the illegal Orosco Road quarry intrudes on the 500-metre reserve zone which protects Matura's turtle-nesting beach, a site of global importance for leatherback sea turtle conservation. Google Earth pictures show that the site was not quarried prior to March, 2016.
On a recent day, the quarry was a hotbed of activity. The excavator's operator digs furiously and loads the line of trucks coming and going. Gravel worth tens of thousands of dollars is extracted from under the forest floor daily.
A 20-tonne truckload of the Cunapo gravel sells for about $2,500. At least 30 trucks haul away gravel from the site each day, which means the illegal quarry operator could pocket about $13 million a year. No royalties or VAT are paid, nor is damage to the ecosystem assessed or repaired.
Workers at the quarry refused to say who ran the operation. Guardian Media Limited followed trucks from the quarry site, where they were loaded with aggregate, to a wash plant off the Valencia Main Road where the aggregate is processed for sale.
The Matura Police Station sits near the junction of the Toco Main Road and Orosco Road. It's the only way in and out for trucks laden with gravel from the illegal quarry. These large trucks must rattle the furniture inside the station when they pass. There's also a large wash plant for quarry stone near the junction. Research at the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) revealed that there is no certificate of environmental clearance for this wash plant.
Illegal quarrying is so lucrative that operators can afford to drive unwashed aggregate long distances to licenced quarries or wash plants, where the aggregate can be processed and sold "legally," according to one prominent quarry operator, who asked that his name be withheld. (He said that after a policeman tried to extort money from him for "protection," he no longer visits his quarry business as he now fears for his life.)
A Confrontation With Illegal Operators
After several days observing the Orosco Road quarry with a drone and camera, a Guardian Media reporter and photographer decided to ask people why they were engaged in an illegal operation. The journalists observed a truck being loaded with gravel at the far end of the quarry, which is within the reserve boundary of the protected turtle-nesting beach.
When three truck drivers on the site spotted the journalists wielding video cameras, they hurriedly started their engines and drove off. Under the Minerals Act, people engaged in illegal quarrying can be fined up to $500,000 and face imprisonment of up to five years.
After spotting the journalists, the excavator operator swung his equipment around in what seemed like an aggressive manoeuvre. Later, it became clear that he tried to keep the rear end of the excavator cockpit to the camera, so he couldn't be filmed.
Upon leaving the illegal quarry, the journalists observed a new line of truck drivers who waited for the confrontation to end so that they could get their loads of the illegal mineral.
Little Or No Enforcement
The Minerals Act gives Beharry, the director of minerals, the power to terminate illegal mining on both state and private lands. By many accounts, Beharry seldom uses these powers.
Among the unlicenced quarry operators is Ishwar Galbaransingh, owner of Aggregate Industries Limited, who is wanted for extradition to the United States on corruption charges. The licence for his 238-acre quarry on private land in Matura lapsed in 2014 but the quarry remains in full operation. Galbaransingh said the process for renewal of his licence was complicated.
Criminal Networks Versus Regulators
Enforcement officers at the Environmental Management Authority, Forestry Division and the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs told Guardian Media that their lives have been threatened for entering illegal quarries to do their work. The threats have prevented them from taking further action, said the officers, who asked that their names be withheld.
In a separate case, Guardian Media learned that a police sergeant had to request a transfer to another police district after his attempts to stop illegal quarrying in Matura resulted in threats from his own subordinates.
In a telephone interview, former minister of energy and energy affairs, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan insisted that illegal quarries were "a police matter." During a visit to the Matura Police Station, a police officer who only identified himself as acting Corporal Williams said that the police must get orders from the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries to act against illegal quarries. He said police cannot act on their own as "these days everybody likes to sue."
Asked about the dozens of trucks that haul gravel from illegal quarries, then rumble by his police station almost every day, the acting corporal laughed and said that he had no knowledge of illegal quarries in the area and had no reports about such activities.
Locals in Matura recounted how criminal elements had taken over a substantial part of the quarrying business. Jagdeo Jankie, who said he once operated a legal quarry in Matura, said an illegal quarry operator, Mark Mohammed, had set up an unlicenced quarry next to his plot.
Jankie said in 2012 Mohammed had a boundary dispute with him and tried to settle it by setting fire to his bulldozer and excavator, valued at over $2 million. Jankie said he abandoned his own quarry activities after the incident.
In 2012, environmental groups lobbied regulators to shut down Mohammed's illegal quarry in a mora forest near "Ice Cream Corner" in an area called Rio Grande. Mohammed later lost control of his illegal quarry to a more powerful operator linked to a host of illegal quarries.
In April 2015, Mohammed, then 26, was shot dead in his white Mercedes Benz. Media reports described him as "a Central businessman" and "a car dealer." A Guardian story said, "the killing…may have been as a result of a land dispute."
A recent visit to the site of Mohammed's quarry showed that the site is now abandoned and overgrown with weeds. On the side of a ramshackle building, painted in red letters are the words: "RIP Mark from Gums."
I'll Sue You For Raiding My Quarry
In one of the rare raids of a quarry, the Government was left with a multi-million dollar bill. That case involved Danny Guerra, reputed to be one of the top quarry operators in the area. In addition, Guerra operates a real estate business, D Guerra & Company Limited, which sells million-dollar homes in a gated community in Sangre Grande.
In January 2013, police and other authorities entered Guerra's quarry near St Andrews Trace in Matura, seizing 12 dump trucks, a concrete mixer, a tractor and an ATV.
Guerra had previously been arrested for illegal quarrying activities, according to court documents. The equipment was found in an illegal quarry, but the State's case collapsed after police failed to press charges against Mr Guerra, or to inform him of any prosecution involving his equipment.
Guerra sued after hiring some of the country's top lawyers, including Wayne Sturge, Lemuel Murphy and former UNC senator Gerald Ramdeen.
In 2015, High Court Judge Ricky Rahim ordered the State to pay Guerra $4.2 million.
Through his lawyers, Guerra declined an interview. Sturge responded that "I will advise against it for obvious reasons."
Ramdeen said via text message that Guerra has "ongoing matters before the court" and "it would not be appropriate for [him] to make statements in an interview that may find their way into a report that may be prejudicial to his case."
Why You Should Care About Illegal Quarries
• Destroy sensitive forests
• Kill wildlife
• Threaten endangered species
• Pollute watercourses
• Affect the health and well-being of people
Senior government ministers pass the buck
Guardian Media asked government ministers, police and other enforcement agencies why illegal quarries were being allowed to operate in plain sight with impunity:
Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat:
"I can only work as fast as the Minister of National Security and the TTPS works. I arranged to meet Minerals Division of Ministry of Energy to find out why they are not acting."
Minister of National Security Stuart Young:
"The Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries is responsible for quarrying. Secondly, the enforcement agency for protection of state lands is the Commissioner of State Lands. Accordingly, the Ministry of National Security is not responsible."
Energy Minister Franklin Khan:
"We are currently working closely with the police to stop with this illegal activity."
Director of Minerals, Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries, Monty Beharry: No answer
Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith: No Answer