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I challenge State—Kublalsingh
In this part three of our series looking at the Debe-Mon Desir Highway issue, we interview Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, activist, who joined the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) in November 2011 on the residents’ invitation. Kublalsingh is advocating for 13 communities’ rights to resist highway construction in the Debe-Mon Desir area.
Last month, he lost his UWI part-time lecturing job of 16 years, because of UWI’s concern at the possible impacts of his protest action on students. Kublalsingh, with Debe-Mon Desir residents, has been continuing peaceful protest action in recent weeks—blocking bulldozers from grading lands in the Mon Desir area. This has led to arrests and charges laid on Kublalsingh and several residents; they are currently out on bail.
In a separate matter, the HRM is challenging the Government, questioning the constitutionality of the Government’s proposed actions on the Debe to Mon Desir Highway in the High Court. The HRM is seeking an injunction to stop the Debe to Mon Desir segment. On October 18, in the High Court, Justice James Aboud was expected to deliver a judgement after listening to arguments by attorneys from the State and the HRM. However, the HRM’s arguments took five hours, and Justice Aboud adjourned the matter to November 8.
Meanwhile, the Government is proceeding with construction until a ruling is made—which could take quite some time. Job loss and police charges have not affected Kublalsingh’s resolve to continue his protest action. He believes a misguided public policy is propelling the destruction of an integrated community system, with its own viable social, economic and ecological heritage and assets.
Q: How would you describe yourself?
A: I am an activist. In T&T, we have a fear of challenging authority, challenging the police, or standing up to a bulldozer. Even big men have a fear of being arrested. How do you combat that fear? People don’t challenge the Government with strong, purposeful ideas, or with direct action.
So part of what I do is challenge states which act as facilitators of global companies to fleece community resources and monetise them so it becomes easy to transfer these assets into foreign entities or into the hands of the “contractocracy”—local or foreign corporations.
That’s what governments facilitate in many of these mega-projects: they facilitate theft of local resources. They undervalue community resources, ecological resources, social and economic resources. They tend to not put the real value of these resources into the accounting books.
What led you into the world of activism?
The closing of Caroni Ltd in 2002. I became involved in that…It opened up 70,000 acres of valuable port land. This port land stretched along the western coast from St Augustine to as far South as Barrackpore, Debe, Penal and Rio Claro. Here was an opportunity to use these lands as well as the myriad assets of Caroni, for example, its programmes in animal husbandry, horticulture, its research facilities, for example in rice cultivation, its human resources, to create a new development platform for the republic.
I organised a symposium at UWI. I invited a number of persons who had done research into diversification of the sugar industry. Out of this symposium, UWI organised a Task Force and produced a paper called The Caroni Position Paper. The paper provided a vision for development in the areas of heavy industry, light manufacturing, food parks, transportation, model villages and towns, recreation, timber and fruit production, and so on.
The government of the day looked at it and ignored it, and went for things like smelters, a steel complex, an industrial port in Claxton Bay and a chemical plant. Many of these projects were following the basic pattern of locating industries within industrial estates and sometimes creating these estates within communities and undervaluing the indigenous resources which needed to be destroyed to facilitate them.
Because it is easy for politicians to do those things. Simply bring the foreign corporations, exploit, and you collect a rent at the end of the day. So that is the beginning of my activism. In 2002. It is really a revolution for authentic development.
So you have a history of being ignored by the Government?
Well…You just realise that if you want good development, you have to fight for it. It’s not going to just come. The politicians are not going to give it to you. People have to fight for it.
Would the Debe-Mon Desir Highway not help to develop communities by improving road access?
These communities are already developed. They have their own street systems, systems of connectivity, their own landholding system of parceling heritage from one generation to another, which is very sophisticated. They have their own business culture, their own agrarian system, their own religious network.
This is a kind of garden city. You wouldn’t find such communities anywhere else in the western world. They are independent, empowered. They are not poor by any means. They don’t ask the State, really, for any goods, just some services (which the State still doesn’t provide).
So why disrupt that community? We fully support the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway. But we do not support a connecting highway cutting straight through the lagoon. We are saying: connect through empty Caroni lands.
Commons are important sources of wealth. You should not interfere with them glibly, as this Government is doing. Commons are resources that really belong to everybody, like a lagoon. That’s where you fish, get water, have seasonal agriculture. Governments facilitate the capture of these resources with projects like the Debe-Mon Desir Highway project.
About how many people do you represent?
The Highway Re-Route Movement has a core group of about 90 people. In the whole of Debe to Mon Desir the catchment area is about 40,000, but directly involved are 300 families. Many feel they have no choice and no rights. A few, because of political sympathies, are willing to give away beautiful, beautiful estates because they believe this Government has their best interest. And latterly, many of them are realising that they are not getting a fair compensation and they have become very despondent.
Ultimately, the Highway Re-Route Movement represents all the people here, because the resources of the area—its businesses, temples, mosques, church, road systems, agricultural lands and the most substantial asset, the Oropouche Lagoon, belong to everyone.
Do you or any of your family own land or property in the area related to the proposed highway project?
No. I started this because the community invited me two years ago.
Do you have any regrets about the 21-day hunger strike you did last year?
No. It helped produce the Armstrong Report. The Armstrong Report is a landmark document. This is a social document produced after much sacrifice and struggle, and it should be respected. The Armstrong Report really does give you a method, a process by which all governments should abide when committing themselves to these mega-projects. These projects involve huge expenditures and can get complex.
The report advised the Government that in view of the permanent negative destructive impacts that are likely, a number of substantive studies ought to be first concluded in order to determine the way forward. According to the report, the Government has a flawed certificate from the EMA. They never did a hydrological study of the Oropouche Lagoon. There would be so much social disruption, yet they never did a social impact analysis. And they never did a cost-benefit analysis.
How would the Debe-Mon Desir Highway disrupt the communities?
The highway would pass through an area where right now there is virtually no traffic, in places like Ghandi Village, Debe Trace, Gopee Trace, San Francique Road. The highway would split existing community connectivity, split families, fracture 170 plots of fertile agricultural lands.
It may also increase flooding: they propose to build a huge embankment across the lagoon, 8-12 ft high, involving 1.4 million tons of aggregate, with huge off-site impacts in the Northern Range and in Sangre Grande; and all without a hydrology report. Nine rivers cross that highway: the flow of surface water is the worrying thing.
And they plan to have five huge interchanges in such a small space: Debe, Penal, Fyzabad, Siparia, and Mon Desir. And huge ramps and connector roads. So that’s why the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) suggested that they did not want to fund the project—because it is overbuilding, overdesign. Instead, the IADB suggested improving the existing system of roads.
The Armstrong Report basically says: stop the Debe-Mon Desir Highway project until you do the proper studies. We are saying, please build the Point Fortin to San Fernando Highway and make that a priority.
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