The revelations in the Sunday Guardian about the actions taken by the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries to mitigate the scourge of illegal quarrying are cause for both hope and despair.
The hope is due to reporting by the Sunday Guardian that 57 firms and individuals in this country have been fined for operating illegal quarries and 44 quarrying operations have either been closed or are due to be closed.
The good news, therefore, is that the Government is waking up to the dangers that result from illegal quarrying operations and seems to be taking action to stop them.
The despair originates from the fact that three of T&T’s largest contractors who were listed in the documents–which were obtained by this media house via a Freedom of Information Act request on the Ministry of Energy–denied they were fined. Clearly, there is need for the Ministry to clarify whether these contractors were, in fact, fined, when they were fined and how much they were required to pay.
There is despair, as well, because it is clear the Government has only scratched the surface in addressing the dangers of this dirty trade.
The dangers of illegal quarrying include the fact that some of these operations, according to previous Sunday Guardian reports, are being conducted by gangsters, who view the extraction of T&T’s mineral resources as an easy means of generating revenue.
If gangsters are generating money from illegal quarries, it is obvious some of the proceeds to those criminal enterprises are used to acquire firearms that are contributing to the upsurge in murders T&T is currently experiencing.
Illegal quarrying is also depriving T&T of millions of dollars. It is most noteworthy that the 2022 State of the Extractive Sectors Report by the T&T Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (TTEITI), states that between 2004 and 2019, the Government should have received $222 million in royalty payments from quarry operators, but only received $29 million.
This means only 13 per cent of the royalty payments due to State, over a 15-year period, was collected by the State from legal quarry operators, according to data the TTEITI received from the Energy Ministry.
The amount of revenue foregone from the illegal quarries is impossible to measure because their operations are not being measured or monitored.
The third danger of illegal quarrying is the environmental havoc it is wreaking on T&T. If it has proven to be difficult to get legal quarry operators to remediate the land they have stripped bare of any vegetation, it is impossible to prevent huge swathes of land across this twin-island nation from being exposed to the pillaging of illegal operators.
For the reasons outlined above, it is clear that illegal quarrying has got to go. The Government must immediately set up an illegal quarrying taskforce (IQT) comprising the country’s best special force operatives. This task force must be equipped with the latest in drone, satellite and telecommunications interception technology. And it must be given clear instructions to hunt down and destroy every illegal quarry in T&T.
At the same time, the Government should digitalise applications for, and renewals of, quarrying licences by adding that service to its Single Electronic Window. That act, which can be done quickly, would differentiate the legitimate, royalty-paying businesses from the hustlers and gangsters who pay neither royalties nor corporate taxes.