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Debe-Mon Desir residents: It will destroy our community

Sunday, October 13, 2013
A house nestled on the bank of the San Francique River. The house is one of many that are in the path of the highway extension and will have to be relocated. PHOTO: KRISTIAN DE SILVA

The ongoing state project to build a connector highway from Debe to Mon Desir is part of a much bigger highway construction project in the south, estimated at $7.5 billion, with a main component being the extension of the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway southwards to link San Fernando to Point Fortin. 


Though there is agreement by all stakeholders on the need for the main highway to link San Fernando to Point Fortin, there is no such agreement in the case of the Debe-Mon Desir Highway. This story, the first in a series, shares the feelings of residents of the Debe to Mon Desir area who do not feel the State has the right to impose this costly mega-project on them, a project which they say will break up their community and uproot residents from homes they have worked hard to build for many years.



Towering mango trees, rustling bamboo groves and beautiful green space form the backdrop to the 13 peaceful communities who live in the Oropouche Lagoon area and environs. Driving on the existing, traffic-free roads from Fyzabad through Ghandi Village, Debe Trace, San Francique Road and surrounding areas with community activist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh on Wednesday morning, it is easy to see that homes are well taken care of, whether they be older wooden structures or more recent concrete homes. 


Multicoloured jhandis or prayer flags flutter on tall bamboo poles in yards. There is no garbage anywhere around, and none of the squalor, congestion and traffic pollution typical of more urban centres.


A system of sometimes large extended families is part of a Hindu-based culture very much alive in this area. The culture is very supportive; no one, for instance, ever worries about childcare, as the network of families takes care of children. Orderliness and pride in the homes is evident, and there are thriving small businesses, recreation areas, small farms, schools, temples and mosques in this quiet, well-ordered, balanced system of villages, which has evolved organically for more than 100 years in harmony with the land.


There are about 300 homes in the area. The entire catchment area has 40,000 people; those who would be more directly affected by the Debe-Mon Desir Highway number about 3,000, said Kublalsingh. It is clear that the existing road system in the area serves the residents very well (although parts could be repaved).


Kublalsingh took me to a resident’s home in Mon Desir, where seven members of the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) were gathered that day, on the lookout for bulldozers and other intrusions into the community. Residents spoke to the Sunday Guardian about their concerns. Most, saying they had experienced what they call “state-sanctioned bullying” by police and construction workers in the past year or two, were reluctant for their names to be used.


The Chaitoo family have lived in the area for more than 100 years. A female Chaitoo family member, 67, spoke of her fears: the proposed Debe-Mon Desir Highway will “pass straight through my house,” she said. She does not want to relocate; her roots are here, in this land, and have been for generations.


There is some confusion among some residents about their rights; fair, open, balanced community consultations were not properly done, they say. In 2006 there were public consultations, as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process; residents rejected the proposed route. In February 2007, four public meetings were held. By 2011 and 2012, many residents started receiving abrupt letters in the mail, informing them of the need to move, creating widespread panic and distress.


Last year, said one Chaitoo family member, representatives of the National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco) came to residents’ homes “like ants in droves, asking questions, talking in circles, being misleading, and asking us to fill out forms. They said they were just talking about the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway, and then asked my husband to sign a document, trying to convince us to relocate. 


“But there was no dialogue on the time frame we were expected to move, no talk back then of compensation, no details or explanations.” Indeed, many residents say they were approached as if relocation were inevitable, and as if they had no choice in the huge matter of leaving their homes.



The Chaitoos have already lost one family member through a heart attack, which they say was caused by the stress of the impending destruction of his home and way of life. “At 81, he couldn’t cope with the idea to move and rebuild,” a relative said. 



“We don’t need a highway through here,” said a male resident. “With existing road networks, it takes just five to seven minutes to get to a main artery. It takes five to ten minutes to get to the intersection at South Oropouche, and five to seven minutes to get to Dow Junction. So why break up our villages and homes? “We don’t need a highway here. We can’t keep adding cars to the roads, to add to more congestion. What we need is major bus terminals in each county.” 


“Mosquito Creek floods every year, once the tide is high,” commented a female resident. “With this new Debe-Mon Desir Highway, cutting right through the lagoon, where will the water go?”  “Trinidad is a small country,” said another resident. “So the land is valuable. Price and valuation is based on land use. The first thing the authorities should have done is to acquire the land properly. They did not do that.” 


In any event, many if not most residents do not want to sell their land, he said. “Some people here have land titles from 1931, from 1942, even from the 1800s…God ent making no more land. Indian people does fight for their land!” he said passionately. “Right now it seems the authorities are trying to manipulate land acquisitions and private treaties to have the leverage of investors to swing money back into their own pockets,” commented one man. 


Residents feel deeply betrayed by the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led Government for imposing this highway project on them, depriving them of their homes and their community way of life, and expressed this in strong language. A member of the Boodhai family, who lives in the Salt Mine Trace-Timital area, shared: “My husband has ten acres of land. The land was shared by my father-in-law to all his children. 


“Now they send us Section 4 Land Acquisition papers. They posted it to us. The first letter said surveyors were coming and we had to show them our deeds.” It’s made the family angry and upset. “We had sleepless nights. Around October 2012, they would bring tractors in the middle of the night, trespassing on our private land. One night they came in at 10 pm, and left equipment. So we moved it out! Tractors, excavators, everything: we broke down their tent and we moved it out,” said another female resident.


Suresh Chaitoo, a 53-year-old landowner, said of the Government: “They have not contributed anything to this community. They are just trying to take things from us. “Truly watch this area, from Mon Desir to Fyzabad straight up to Debe. We have been historically neglected, for generations. Fyzabad used to be a country within a country: one part, with good facilities and manicured lawns, for the oil expats; and the rest of the area, with almost nothing developed, for the rest of us. 


“So we did for ourselves…. Whether Hindu or Muslim, our ancestors came here and united as Jahaaji Bhai—boat brothers—to build our communities for ourselves. “We never asked the Government for anything. We built our own temples and mosques and churches and roads, we built our own houses. It’s not just our homes; it’s our ancestral homes. We had to live in dirt and thatched roof at first, and we suffered, but we built our communities up for ourselves over many years. 


“The only government man who ever did anything for us was Arthur Sanderson, under the NAR. He helped with roads, and assisted in providing pipe-borne water…our supply was terrible and we had to use water pumps which kept burning out. He helped us.” “But now,” said Chaitoo, “Kamla wants to be the Maharajin (great Hindu queen). She is playing queen to break up the area. She is showing us total disrespect.”



NEXT WEEK: Government’s rationale for the project


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