October 2018


Post 305.

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Standing ankle deep in the gentle waters of Point Sable beach, with miles of thick mangrove behind, all of Trinidad’s west coast curving ahead and families of pelicans soaring between, it’s hard to imagine that the fish in the Gulf of Paria are so poisoned, by oil spills and the toxins used in clean up, that they are not safe for consumption.

Indeed, dead fish and birds lie all along the shore. These are examples of how Petrotrin has devastated one of the island’s main fish nesting and catching grounds with multiple leaks of hundreds of thousands of barrels, with about two hundred pipelines with slow leaks which are unlikely to ever be fixed, and with chemicals that disperse the oil, but have toxic effects lasting years.

I saw the marks left by oil on the old jetty nearby. I met a fisherman who won’t eat the fish, but who can’t find another livelihood, and so is prepared to return to the Gulf after four years so that he can survive.

Fishing as traditionally practiced is a noble industry. Fishermen go out with their nets and exercise the kind of individual entrepreneurial spirit that state managers are now cajoling out of ordinary people, as if it isn’t how we have survived all along.

The footprint of working class fishing communities is relatively small compared to the trawlers and fishing boats of big companies or even boat owners who are minor millionaires, and it is the small man and small woman and small children in these families who will be worst affected by both the decline of the fishing industry and the poisoning of our marine environments. Dead fish mean, one day, dead people, for we are not immune to pollution in our air, land or seas, nor its impact on any part of the food chain.

I was walking the beach with Lisa Premchand, a young woman once working on seismic surveys, with a graduate degree in environmental management, for whom it one day clicked. She joined Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an organization which has been working on issues from mangrove protection to squatters’ rights to marine pollution for decades.

I admire them because I admire citizens who take risks to protect our ecology, which includes humans, for we are part of nature, from corporate irresponsibility and state-managed harm. For the record, I have more time for FFOS than its critics, if those critics themselves are not stepping in to do better.

Lisa realized that the global data suggests that seismic surveys also kill fish, driving them away for years, and she turned her sights instead to learning how to legally defend nature and its inhabitants.

Listening her talk about the governments’ plan to build a highway mere feet from the Aripo Savannah, which is the only ecosystem of its kind in Trinidad with species found nowhere else in the world, makes you appreciate citizen investment and sacrifice to resist the unholy trinity of private contractors, state planners and the EMA, none of whom care about the rest of us as much as one young woman with her boots on.

I identified with her. Twenty years ago, I was helping hand out fliers to protect the mangroves from plans for Movietowne. Those mangroves and the biodiversity they contained took millennia to form and had a vastly complex relationship to the entire western coast, to migratory species, and to marine life and its food systems. For our entertainment, they’re now gone.

The ones on Point Sable beach will themselves be destroyed for a dry dock facility being built, using Chinese loans, in collaboration with a company, CHEC, globally considered corrupt. Bangladesh won’t let them in the door. The PM said there were 2700 direct jobs to be had, but Caribbean maritime industry lobbyists put this “bright new dawn” for La Brea at between 600 and 1200.

We don’t yet know the final cost to the nation for this facility, though it’s expected to push GDP up by 2.4%. How fisher folk and fishing traditions will endure, no one knows.

Standing ankle deep with Lisa, in this nesting ground for scarlet ibis for thousands of years, all I could think is that we understand money, but not wealth.

As I said goodbye to the 900 acres which will forever be turned into or contained by concrete, in another irreversible industry footprint, all I could think is that we cannot eat the money. Already, we should no longer eat the fish.

 

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Post 304.

The PNM’s Stuart Young appears more frightening than Monday’s call to block the nation’s roads.

The social media call tried to mobilise citizens fed up of “poor governance” and “secret deals” to “shut down the country” by shutting down their cars at major locations.

It’s a great idea, simple and potentially effective, if it actually reflected the emotions pulsing through the nation. But, it didn’t. Not yet.

School children and workers are already frayed on mornings by endless traffic, which reflects poor transportation planning, and poor governance of land use.

All this has been overseen by the PNM, which has governed for more than forty-five years, and has primary responsibility for our problems today.

Families just want to get where they are going and get on with making ends meet amidst increasing unemployment, crime and debt, all reflecting similar decades of poor diversification of a petro-economy, poor levels of crime convictions, and poor levels of savings in our Heritage and Stabilisation Fund.

As both Minister of Communication and National Security, Young had zero sense of the nation’s pulse, and resorted to strong-arm state muscle to deal with a threat in which citizens had little investment. Too much sense of power and too little clue.

However, it gets worse than warning police would be out “in full force” to make arrests as if it was the water riots of 1903, which burned the Red House to the ground, for similar reasons of “poor governance”.

First, Young’s signature authorised government communication which declared the ‘gridlock’ call was the work of Opposition. When a government accuses the ruling party’s opponents without facts, on official letterhead, not only is there a disturbing mix up between state and party, but also worrisome use of state power for party politics.

Second, the public release unwisely confused ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unpatriotic’. Blocking the nation’s roads would have been irresponsible, but what would have made it unpatriotic? Is public protest against a government unpatriotic?

Our history is filled with pivotal illegal protests against inequity and unjust rule. Contemporary politicians mimicking colonial governors should note that the goal isn’t to repress such protests, but to prevent them with good governance in the first place.

Protesting can be necessary as is blocking tractors when they are razing mangroves without a proper certificate of environment clearance or without necessary social impact and cost-benefit analyses, even when Jack Warner illegally brings the army with him to intimidate you.

Patriotism means loyalty to one’s country and its people. This has been twisted to mean loyalty to the government and state, but don’t get chain up. It takes patriotic citizens to resist secret deals and government irresponsibility.

Third, CoP Griffith, who once recommended rolling military tanks into Laventille, also warned against communicating and publishing any statement with a seditious intention.

Under Section 3(1a) of the Sedition Act Chapter 11:04, “a seditious intention is an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or excite disaffection against Government or Constitution.”

This 1920 law has long been wielded against labour leaders and workers. Maybe the ‘mother of all marches’ worried Minister Young, the way worker unity worried Dr. Williams.

Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, hero of the masses, was charged with sedition in 1937. Colonial police attempted “full force” in Fyzabad and Corporal Charlie King, who misunderstood the mood of protesting oilfield workers and who wanted to be hero, was burnt to death.

Months later, Elma Francois, a labour and pan-African organizer, with only a primary school education, was also charged with sedition. The first woman in the country to be so accused, she defended herself, discussing workers’ poverty and increasing taxation in her speech, and was unanimously found not guilty.

“Not a damn dog bark” has defined a PNM approach to dissent. I remember PM Manning sending the riot squad, in full military war gear, to unarmed, peaceful, responsible, legal and patriotic civil society gatherings. It was dark and undemocratic, and not a damn dog in the party barked.

“I don’t know that my speeches create disaffection, I know that my speeches create a fire in the minds of the people so as to change the conditions which now exist”, said Elma Francois at her defense.

Both Minister and CoP should refrain from macho brandishing of law and police boots. Such authoritarianism is a red flag. It poorly chooses fear and obedience over mutual respect and trust.  Luckily, there’s time for both men to learn from history, for people are not ready to shut down the country.

Not yet.

Post 303.

A family can buy a sofa or a washing machine.

The sofa will benefit everyone, will be shared by all and will be in the collective interest. However, without a washing machine, the woman who has unequal responsibility for laundry will be laboring outside, with less time for sharing leisure with family, and unequal benefit from the sofa. Buying the washing machine will mean she has more time, and the whole family benefits from being together.

Of course, everyone could fairly share the household burden, but as life isn’t yet like that in Trinidad or Tobago, the financial decision both recognizes and addresses inequity, seeing its greater benefit to all. The sofa seemed like a development that could be equitably shared, but its wealth would not have been distributed that way.

Gender responsive budgeting, or GRB, brings exactly this lens to national budgets. It recognizes that women and men unequally experience development and wealth.

Globally, even women who work in the labour market put in more unpaid care labour than men on families, children, the elderly and the ill. This affects their career advancement, incomes, employment choices and expenditures. Women are also more vulnerable to a wide range of forms of violence, which affects how they experience transportation, and their needs from health and social services.

On average, in Trinidad and Tobago, women earn about $100 000 less than men each year, and they own significantly less property in their own name. Agricultural funding increased from $.054 billion to $.078 billion, but grants and programmes that rely on land ownership won’t be as accessible to women, even if they seem to benefit everyone.

This is because our beliefs and values about manhood and womanhood are not add-ons. They shape every aspect of our lives – from how we labour in our households to the decisions we make at home or in the Ministry of Finance to our work in the economy.

What are the implications of a budget that doesn’t recognize this?

Stimulating the construction sector, in which 80% of workers are men, puts wealth directly into men’s hands.

An apparently gender-neutral stimulus strategy could worsen women’s economic dependence on men, reduce their power in negotiating money and household decisions, and increase their vulnerability to violence.

A ‘game changing’ government should track the disbursement of such resources and their impact because money shapes gendered power relations. A GRB approach would transparently trace whether revenues and expenditures improved gender equality and justice, fail to do so, or make it worse.

No government ministry systematically tracks, from planning to implementation, whether every dollar is advancing equal benefit from public funds among women, men, girls and boys. Fuel subsidies are not sustainable, but responsible fiscal policy should anticipate how its social costs will land on man-woman relations, and children’s lives.

Allocations to the health sector dropped from $6.02 billion to $5.69 billion, and we have to see where was cut, but a balanced budget often transfers burdens for care of the sick to households and women, from having to stay with patients while they wait two days for a hospital bed to greater reliance on private tests for quicker diagnosis.

The Petrotrin lay-offs will cause extreme social dislocation and economic insecurity. Yet, the national strategic plan to end gender-based violence is still not approved or resourced by government. How will it ensure the Petrotrin refinery closure doesn’t worsen intimate partner violence and injury? Increased fines for child abuse are mere lip-service.

The maid and gardener jobs to be created by Sandals are globally considered stable, but low-income and dead-end, without opportunity for upskilling or advancement. Indeed, women still dominate in such low status work in the service sector, and this doesn’t change such labour market distribution.

In contrast to a gender-blind budget, and small spending targeted to women or men, GRB would ask:

What is the labour, health, mobility, security and equality situation of women, men, girls and boys? How will all budget proposals impact their specific and persistent vulnerabilities? What data will track and measure this impact? Are there any proposals which, from a GRB perspective, should be changed or accompanied by other necessary strategies? How can government be held accountable for proper implementation of this ‘better budgeting’ approach?

A Finance Minister should be able to explain his understanding of gender inequities in the national family, and how his budgetary decisions account for these. Just as it takes understanding of and commitment to gender justice to decide on a sofa or washing machine.