Post 343.

Our current problems, from last week’s heatwave to this week’s flooding, are created by us – globally, regionally and nationally. Hurricanes and flooding are natural processes in our part of the hemisphere. Even with the expected increase in storms, it is poor land planning and development which really put us at risk.

The solution to this is public vigilance. We must pull ourselves together to insist on the information and power needed for our new reality. Citizens have to start developing an expertise on their watershed: where the rivers flow, how to prevent garbage clogging them, what settlements are planned, what inequalities exist, and how to reduce neighbourhood footprint. It’s like every community and local government needs an environmental impact assessment to operate from a plan.

I think of how no one cared when the mangroves were razed for Movietowne, but when the ocean washes over it all, we will act surprised. Or maybe, we can wake up and insist on changing what we can now.

I think of when activists stage sit-ins in the EMA to get social and environmental impact analyses, and people call them crazy. Every one of us should be insisting on those analyses for housing settlements and highways, for when the impacts hit us, does it help to hold our heads and bawl?

The area by Grand Bazaar flooded exactly as expected. If the engineers knew this, why didn’t we? Greenvale was always going to flood. Town and Country planners told the PM so when he was Minister of Housing, and he went ahead because regulatory agencies and people’s lives be damned.

There’s a reason why people used to build their houses on stilts through the Caroni plains. This should have been insisted on for all housing developments, and would have spared ordinary, hard-working people endless loss. It should be insisted on now.

The loss from floods is only part natural disaster, the other part is wholly man-made. It’s convenient when we can cut whichever hillside we want or fill in whatever watercourse or throw away a stove in the river or build our house where and however we choose. It’s agony when our folly comes back to us. We are being told to pay attention. Take responsibility.

Forget whether the Prime Minister wades through water in his boots, it’s not the political leadership we should be looking to for empathy and compensation. Rowley or whoever replaces him is irrelevant. Instead, we have to take ownership of the institutions and regulations meant to protect us.

We’ve been inattentive for too long because we can’t be bothered with rules or stopping corruption when it’s our friends or mobilizing across race and party. Institutions that tell us what we can and can’t do to land and watercourses are treated as an inconvenience to be ignored.

While the terrible devastation of people’s homes, cars and livelihoods grabs headlines and hearts, we have to use this moment to demand a different kind of news and public life even after rainy, and hurricane, season passes.

In her Tedx speech last year, Greta Thunberg makes the point that, though the climate is in crisis, we hardly hear anything about it in the press and from political and economic leaders.

If it mattered, if it was understood to be a war against all living species, our countries and our children, from a global economy driven by consumption, growth and fossil extraction, the solutions would dominate all our news.

They would dominate every political platform in every election with parties competing to convince voters they have the most commitment to the best plan for both preventing and addressing climate-related disasters. Will that happen? Only if we demand it.

What we need is a news cycle that doesn’t focus on the crisis, but on prevention and protection, making them the most important story of our time. Citizen oversight of land use planning, new housing specifications, the start of national recycling collection, a near ban on plastic or insistence on the polluter pays principle for importers and producers, a demand for clean, drinkable water as a public right, replanting of mangroves, and more. Our public institutions should be flooded by citizens wanting oversight and say over the plans and the books.

All of this is possible, making the man-made part of our crises preventable. If hope is what we think we need to weather this new normal, Thunberg says, “The one thing we need more than hope is action…once we start to act, hope is everywhere”.

Post 230.

Weekends are for rivers and forests. I want Ziya to value the place within which she is growing, and all that it bequeaths, as part of learning to value herself and her identity. Getting out of walled buildings and urban spaces is important for emotional and mental health, and though Zi may wonder why I’m dragging her around the country, when she’d rather stay home and snack her way through the day and the cupboards, I know that familiarity with our landscape will define her self-understanding in ways that school cannot.

We were at Turure Falls, walking reverently through the river collecting natural crystals. There were no others tramping through the bush, just breeze and light. Then, we came to the rockface where water cascades into pools. There, scrawled across the entire rock were the names of men who thought it was right to scar a natural setting, an hour’s hike away from civilization. Their names were everywhere, chiseled deep, like the defacing of a cathedral.

This happens because the state has no regulatory mechanisms for monitoring who goes into our forests and what they do while there, no records of names, no permits, no penalties, and no real conception of protection of our natural resources. That is a fact,  discernable whichever coast one is on in the country. We collected a bag of garbage on our way out, and there was more we left behind.

What did Zi learn from this? She could look around her and see for herself why the environment needs protection. She could read the details of how governments fail. She could be confronted with how quickly pristine spaces can be destroyed, and therefore the urgency with which her generation must act to change everything from education to policies.

We were in Caroni Swamp yesterday, impressed with the incoming flocks of scarlet ibis, which are truly wondrous to see, along with all the other wildlife, from boas to silky anteaters to a range of birds, from cardinals to herons, egrets, owls and more. But, from the dilapidated entrance sign to the badly kept Visitors’ Centre, what was clearly a site for preservation for seven generations, was suffering from sheer neglect of adequate ecological consciousness and government oversight.

For one, the boats of the tour operators should not produce so much noise or gas fumes. On a boat with about forty persons, at $60 per person, and at least three boats out simultaneously, the main tour operator is making enough to invest in ecologically friendly engines, and those managing the site should insist on them. No wonder the guide said that all the human activity has driven most wildlife to inaccessible sections of the swamp, boatloads of people go in every single evening. There isn’t a day when the Swamp is closed to visitors to allow the animals some respite from the noise, and wardens for the swamp should engage in regular cleaning up of the garbage that hangs from mangrove roots like shed snakeskin. Sitting quietly watching the flocks come in for the evening, I wondered how many of those 18 000 birds will still be there in twenty years, and whose responsibility will it be if they are not. Ours, right? So, I told Zi. Mine, hers and our responsibility.

All along the North Coast, there is garbage, mostly plastic bottles, but also wrappers of all kinds. Along Icacos, there’s a photographic exhibit worth of garbage. Maracas’ ‘upgrade’, seems to have forgotten that a river exists behind the beach, and that this too, not just the range of fish you can fry, is a sign of ecological diversity. Can you imagine if there was a children’s education centre at Maracas? Children could run through, in their sandy feet, while learning about rivers, forests, watersheds, and all the wildlife, from caiman to sharks, that deserve protection from endangerment. Until then, in horror at the ‘development’ of Maracas beach, Zi and I only drive through.

Lloyd Best once said to me, to understand Trinidad and Tobago and what it needs, just walk around with your eyes open. So true. Weekends are therefore for teaching Zi that observing her precious world is what she must first learn to do.