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 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.