Post 203.

We spent Sunday morning carefully observing wildlife in Chaguaramas, all the while grieving their demise under Dr. Bhoe Tewarie’s leadership as Minister. Getting home wet from a spring, I felt it was a miracle that Ziya could walk amidst such great biodiversity, and Trinidad’s human and natural history.

Walk with me.

Just to the left of the turn to go into Macaripe Mail Road, next to the sea and along the Cuesa river wetlands, live a family of small crocodilians called Caimans. If you go quietly, you can see them resting. Development is planning for both now and for future generations, so including their habitat in planning isn’t an idealist, environmentalist wish. It is sustainable development and the right thing to do, especially in Chagaramas, for Ziya’s children will never have the experience she did if we submit to Dr. Tewarie’s piped dreams.

Filled-in and concretized land, and a freshwater waterpark are to be established on the same spot through private leases. This will destroy the precious little habitat that those caiman have a right to, and compromise the rights of public open space enjoyed by Baptists, Hindus, and those of all classes who freely access this state land for recreation. It will also exploit an aquifer for the most unsustainable uses imaginable at a time of global water crisis.

As I left the caiman, I looked up at the sign of what was planned, after closed-door conversations Dr. Tewarie had with private investors, and wondered if any of them ever saw those caiman or cared about habitat, future generations, precious fresh water, or Town and Country Planning approvals.

Keep walking.

The view of the sea will be cut off from the proposed new Guave Road, past the military museum, and will instead be accessible through businesses profiting from a mall and marina restaurants. These plans were made before the new Chagaramas Development Authority 2015 master plan was formulated and were forcibly misfit in, under the title of CDA ‘fixed projects’. Yet, the Town and Country Planning (Chaguaramas) Development Order created the CDA to follow the 1974 Statutory land use plan, which should only be replaced by Parliamentary and public agreement, and which clearly classes the coastline here as a public open space. Dr. Tewarie and the CDA know this, but fences are going up anyway. Have all the planning approvals have been obtained? Why not? Why do you think that the Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development is pursuing such an unsustainable dream?

Chagaramas’ forests are intended to be a “National Park”. Will the CDA again allow open-air fetes, such as by Ceasar’s Army, in, of all places, the Tucker valley “bamboo cathedral” in the middle of the wider National Park? If so, what will happen to the howler monkeys Ziya watched, not caged in the zoo, but free? Will businesses continue to operate as if the garbage growing around them, filling the streams, is in the Park’s best interest? Will extending the golf course from nine holes to eighteen plus high-density residential housing provide the buffers this national park needs? And imagine the military establishing a panorama of bright industrial level lights around its fenced off football field at the Tucker Valley youth camp, in the last “dark zones” in the western Northern Range. Such human hubris is disallowed because of the harm it causes to species in this ecology, but it continues, unregulated and irresponsibly.

Zi ecountered a furry, placid, pink-toed tarantula, Blue Emperor, Postman, Bamboo Page and other butterflies, two Green-banded Urania moths, a plica plica lizard, a tiny black and white striped frog, bats, a yellow and green ladybird, a hawk and cornbirds. Yesterday she told me, trees are a kind of school.

Is the next generation voiceless in the face of Minister Tewarie’s elite model, out of time with the publicly accessible heritage and biodiversity of Chagaramas, and sustainable planning across the planet? The Minister could have extended rather than destroyed biodiversity along the coast, and been sensitive not to big money, but the long-term interest of people of Trinidad and Tobago.

As Zi also now knows, it’s under Dr. Tewarie’s leadership that those caiman will be no more once tractors start to roll.

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Post 184.

Daily I grow more fed up with the People’s Partnership’s door-in-your-face approach to public accountability.  Whether in relation to the complete lack of consultation or transparency regarding the Miami Vice-inspired concretization of Chagaramas, or Jairam Seemungal’s bizarrely negligent statements in relation to SIS land grabbing in Couva. Or Minister Ramnarine’s apparent willingness to oversee disquieting disbursements through NGC’s Corporate Communications Department, finally explaining those vacuous full-page ads about ‘happiness’ conjured up by the government’s most expensive spin doctor. Or public servant revelations of ‘Prisongate’ plagiarism and lawyer-garbed tiefing, which were connected directly to ex-AG Ramlogan’s office, and which the PM dealt with herself, Lady Macbeth-like.

Amidst such untrustworthiness is the shutting down of one of the Green Fund’s most successful projects, Plastikeep, which has made citizens of all classes, business owners, and forty-two schools of children as passionate and committed about recycling as one could ever dream.

Without justification, Plastikeep has been given until the end of the month to pack up its collection bins and to tell all, who now wake up with new feel good routines of environmental care, that their plastic will no longer be collected from next month, despite Plastikeep having a system in place to collect and export it. Now, where will it go? Again, to our landfills, poisonously and purposelessly.

The EMA says it is going to introduce a national recycling plan, but no citizen has ever seen this plan detailed on paper, knows when it will start, has been assured that it will be done through door to door collection as it must, or can be shown an accountable and ready infrastructure in place. Such a plan would also require tax incentives and legislation, currently non-existent.

Maybe the EMA will build on the well thought out plan being championed by local government officials, but there’s highly suspect jostling for Green Fund money, between SWMCOL, and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, headed by Ganga Singh.

It’s Minister Singh, of desalination plant notoriety, who needs to immediately account for why he hasn’t yet approved a third phase, and even expansion, of a project that the Green Fund’s own Executing Unit and Advisory Committee support, and why his Ministry is hungry to make Green Fund cash available at this moment to administer well, nothing, when refuse collection isn’t even under his Ministry’s portfolio.

The fact that Plastikeep has created community happiness, togetherness and hope without giving Ernie Ross a dollar, and has inspired communities across the East-West corridor’s ‘marginal’ constituencies, may mean little on the road to victory that follows Persad-Bissessar’s index finger.

Every one of our votes counts, however, and a genuine groundswell is more personally and emotionally connected to this programme’s closure, without proper accounting for why, why now and why with nothing else in place, than politicians realise.

Plastikeep gets 1% of the Green Fund’s yearly income of about $300 million, and makes more difference to our lives than the unaccounted millions wrapped up in NGC, and Chagaramas’ questionable development.  This can be an election issue if we decide.

Additionally, every political rally until September should end with properly collected plastic being dropped into available collection bins the next day. Minister Singh, how about non-partisan advocacy to make that both parties’ reality, from next week? Rowley, surely you agree?

Which party does it, if any, would show who really loves the little children inheriting our garbage ridden coastlines and country, and it would show more care for future generations than any platform robber speech. School children are learning a lesson in civics, and are ready to protest to protect Plastikeep.

Post 180.

Now that the government has collapsed and a general election should be called, people will start asking ‘who we go put?’

Elected to power in May 2010, a collaboration of parties and principles was formed to oust Patrick Manning, but nonetheless brought the UNC, COP, MSJ, NJAC and TOP into a hopeful coalition. COP is at odds with itself and the government. TOP and NJAC bring no votes. MSJ has left never to return and the UNC, which cannot by itself constitute the People’s Partnership government, has spent four years destroying its own legitimacy from within.

Those who are left, from Speaker Wade Mark to Minister Howai, have also lost public credibility. Vasant Barath’s unholy alliance with propagandist Ernie Ross, which conjured up such ill-begotten campaigns as the ‘Kublal’ lizard, the belligerent attacks on media for censorship, and the entirely vacuous Petrotrin-funded ‘happiness’ full page ads, seems to have been involved in both setting up Gary Griffith and attempting to hoodwink the population on official letterhead. The UNC’s only political capital is Kamla Persad-Bissessar herself, her strategy of endless direct patronage, and her Faustian deals with financiers who can bling her back into power.

For those willing to assume office for the next few months, the first Cabinet meeting could only be compared to Alice’s entry to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or newbie skiers leaping recklessly onto a snowballing avalanche or a relay race where the runners enter from anywhere and run in any politically expedient direction. Sorry to mix metaphors, but it is that kind of pretense at coherence going on.

Then, there is the PNM. Amongst other factors, if Patrick Manning somehow makes it through the nomination process, gunning as he is to undermine Rowley, then that too will render the party completely unelectable to anyone who voted precisely to get Manning out in the first place.

So, who we go put? Perhaps, these reflections will stop us from asking this.

Perhaps, taking a break from brilliant mauvai langue memes, radio callers will push discussions on what in our political culture creates such lack of options for leadership. We’ve been having this conversation for the last decades so there is much for a new generation to draw on and this is no time to give up.

What needs to change in our constitution, state institutions and civil bureaucracy? What is the first step in our own national campaign to create more focused questions and answers about responsible government? What constitutes accountability? How is that best ensured? How can Parliament better prevent both corruption and maximum leadership? What policies and democratic practices do we expect from political parties? What must we all change in the way we relate to state resources and power across every community?

Late last year, Winston Dookeran admonished me about the importance of getting involved in politics, which in his view was the only way to change leadership and governance. You civil society activists create a lot of noise and little impact, and mostly gain a feel-good sense of self from complaining outside the walls of authority, he said. I couldn’t see how his getting into Cabinet gave him any more voice, relevance or influence, and had already chosen to invest in civil society because building power by, of and for the people from the ground up is what remains necessary.

We will ask ‘who we go put?’ for another fifty years if we don’t think of what vox populi, vox dei means beyond voting in an election. Our demand a fresh mandate should kickstart our campaign for answers to far more transformational questions.

Post 171.

Amidst signs from Guave Road farmers showing government’s crop destruction in Chagaramas, banners from Tacarigua, increasingly intoxicated folk singing about Kamla drinking puncheon, and a cute Indian rasta with long dreads who danced spiritedly the entire way, last Friday found me in Port of Spain marching against corruption.

Amassing with unions can be pure joy for their unique sense of collectivity and reminder of popular strength. When else will exuberant songs and drums echoing through the street remind you that labour needs to hold the reins of power and that we might indeed overcome economic inequality and exploitation. Someday, someday.

As an anthropologist and activist, my instincts were to read all the handmade signs, walk within the energy of the unions represented, from contractors to oilfield and communication workers to UWI staff, and, as I was to speak on the platform later, give voice to protestors’ own ideas.

I especially tried to talk with women. One carried so much heavy determination to survive domestic violence and current unemployment that I couldn’t imagine how to begin to talk about politics. I could have connected her with a job, but despite having a computer, she didn’t have typing skills. Feeling her defeat, I could only think, may Jah provide the bread.

As I moved through the ranks, asking people how they would end corruption, many weren’t interested in talking, maybe because they wondered why an Indian like me, maybe ah UNC, was asking such questions. Such reticence wasn’t surprising. Dishonesty is the historical modus operandi of every party, yet this was opposition not national politics, personalizing corruption with a capitalized, yellow K.

Some women I spoke with lamented that race was holding back the country, but were clear that racism was worse now than ever before. One man said he’d end corruption by bunnin down Port of Spain. Most just said the solution was to vote out Kamla. I countered that PNM history tells us corruption isn’t because of this Prime Minister. Remember Tarouba Stadium? But, that mood wasn’t there amongst unionists, MSJ supporters, ILP members, PNM faithful, San Fernando workers wanting their back pay, and others wronged and disappointed by a Minshall-named ‘Mama of Mamaguy’.

A number of women told me that we can’t end corruption, we doh have no power. But then why march? On the platform, I hoped they heard me honour Caribbean women’s long tradition of resistance against oppressive systems which used sexual and other kinds of violence, including the law, to control their rights, bodies and fertility, paid women less than they paid men for the same work, and assigned them tasks worth less pay. This is why our great-grandmothers fought in their numbers, to give us this capacity we have today.

I didn’t expect marchers to bring up procurement legislation, political party financing reform, whistleblower protection, increasing police convictions for state fraud, reviewing operations of our tax department or strengthening the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) process. Yet, it’s also clear that unions need to make such specific solutions household words as well as call workers to the streets. They need to show how corruption bankrupts the treasury, and undermines the quality of schools, roads and hospitals, leaving the poorest the most hungry.

My speech emphasized that communities must be connected to each other, not to political leaders, and disrupting any myth of Indian women’s docility, I was clear that Jack Warner doesn’t have the moral authority to be on any anti-corruption platform with me. I then left early for a date with my husband, to give enough time and thought also to marriage and family.

Post 168.

I was unapologetically proud when Kamla Persad-Bissessar became the country’s first woman Prime Minister. I loved her clean election campaign in comparison to the PNM’s labeling their opponents ‘skeletons’ and throwing insults for cheap political gain. I was completely excited that this astute politician could defeat lesser men and lead a complex coalition, unlike any other Caribbean leader before, and miles ahead of PNM’s go-it-alone politics. I’d watch Persad-Bissessar on TV and teach my daughter the name of the first Indian woman to crack that glass ceiling.

At one meeting, along with feminist grandmothers like Hazel Brown and Brenda Gopeesingh, I breastfed Ziya while the PM talked with us and I took notes. I wondered who before had breastfed while with a PM in a Cabinet meeting room, and of course Persad-Bissessar didn’t even blink, knowing that this is what women can do in boardrooms when grandmothers and mothers hold office.

I liked little decisions the People’s Partnership made, for example to ban hunting despite a myopic ‘no hunting, no vote’ campaign, to actually answer the parliamentary questions put to the government, and the initial choice to put the gender machinery in the ministry of planning. I took heat from all kinds of people because I was seen as too silent and too uncritical in Persad-Bissessar’s first years. It was because, perhaps naively, I had such hope.

Since then, I’ve found myself ending up and again on the side of citizens, led by other women, mothers and grandmothers, protesting through media and on the street. My hope has tumbled, knocked down by bad appointments, murky state spending, the homophobia of the Children’s Act, patron-clientelism, mishandled electoral changes, and reliance on PR and attacks.

In the PM’s showdown with Wayne Kublalsingh, popular sentiment that he is mere nuisance is on her side. Regardless, his death will leave no escape from unexpected kinds of regret. By first marching against the highway and then switching position once in power, the PM created the path that led to such reckoning. Her own supporters, or advisors with their own agendas who want her to fail, may spin around and say why not have chosen mediation, and why not just agree to properly done hydrology and cost-benefit analyses? What about compassion? As we grow more committed to accountability, which we will with each decade, the principles at stake here will grow less personalized to one man and become more publicly and historically clear.

I wish I could thank the PM for setting the standard for how development should best be done, through consensus rather than division. I wish I could ask her what her grandmother would advise. I wish I could congratulate her for ending this impasse as an informed, transformational leader would. After all, a patriot is one who wrestles for the Soul of her country. I wish that, as woman, she would roar at puppet master financiers. I wish her decisions meant no future struggle over the same issues, taking up time for committed, concerned citizens like you and me.

Being a woman is public and personal, for government sets the context for the intimate, for love spans ecology, neighbor and nation, justice and future, just as it does family. Knowing more than wishing is necessary, I wake up wondering which words and deeds can make the world right. These days I awake almost holding my breath, wondering how stories I’m telling are going to end. Knowing that every decision made for the country I love feels like a turning point, I wish the PM would inspire again the hope I felt in 2010.

 

Post 166.

I told myself that I’d be there to support Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, even if I disagreed with it as a strategy, because you don’t leave soldiers to fight on battlefields alone.

You might disagree with their battle plan, wonder at their choices, get vex that they don’t follow your suggestions, and anticipate the victories as well as onslaught of wounds, but soldiers who decide to die fighting deserve more than dismissive derision.

I mean soldiers who put everything into the trenches of citizen organizing for more than a decade for no personal gain, and who have fought without guns, mudslinging or dogs of war for communities’ sustainable needs. Soldiers who ran out big polluter industries which would have gorged on our precious island resources, exported the profits, and left our children along the South-West peninsula mired in waste. I mean soldiers who won’t give up our rights to state accountability for any version of development, and who won’t let politicians conveniently and falsely make us choose.

While these soldiers step into the deep fog ahead, steeled by will, experience and principle, there is work for us to do.  This is my tenth column on the HRM since November 2012, every word as personal as it is political. I’ve often visited the handful of older folk, sitting peaceably outside the PM’s office for more than 200 days, forever imprinting in my mind that image of their little tent facing the façade of prime ministerial authority.  Listening to the women of the HRM marvel at never imagining quiet, rural mothers could challenge the PM, I’ve seen examples of empowerment for young Indian women.

I came of age under citizen soldiers like Sheila Soloman, Angela Cropper, Norman Girvan, Norris Deonarine, Rhea Mungal, Desmond Allum, Michael Als, and more. Their ghosts stalk our apathy. They remind that history is made by individuals handing on a sense of people power to another generation. They forewarn that some successes may only be an edging back of government secrecy and domination, some will take more than our lifetime to achieve.

Through these weeks, I’ve listened to people saying the ‘environmental movement’ should just give up on this as if giving up is what Caribbean people do, as if one tenth of our budget isn’t a public issue. I’ve listened to others divide south from north Trinidad as if a nation is best guided by the spin of divide and rule. I’ve seen million dollar government propaganda distract from the billion dollar questions.

Perhaps naively, I hoped that, against such a Goliath, we could win with our little slingshots of truth.  I’ve also listened to Sunity Maharaj sagely caution me that, if I think back to the Amerindians, to the long struggle since colonization, I’d also remember that crushing, arbitrary defeat after defeat is part of our legacy.

I could write about the dilemmas of choosing a primary school where teachers will not beat my child, and the worry of sitting in parent-teacher meetings hearing that her confidence doesn’t match her vocabulary, but I find myself more concerned with the complexity of power and its hidden curriculum, less likely to produce solidarity than indifference and cynicism.

Our work ahead is to decide what this moment will mean.  When mega projects cost us more than they should, ecologically, financially and socially, I ask myself what Ziya will think of the sides I took, and my own accountability.

May soldiers also help her learn how to educate, advocate and mobilize. In your own future dark time, Zi my love, may they still haunt those aiming at your dream.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

On Wednesday 22 October, I visited Wayne at home. Lying in his bed, looking hollow but radiant on Day 36, he pointed to a sketch he had done of three men – Martin Luther King, Walter Rodney and Martin Carter.

I had written this entry the night before, hoping to explain my own involvement, what I understand true soldiers to be, and why Wayne didn’t need to live on to lead another future struggle – for that is our responsibility. It was late when Express reporter Kim Boodram had called to say she had seen Wayne and was horrified at his state. I felt darkness like a weight pressing on my fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders and neck as I sat at my desk listening. I had not yet ended this entry and found an articulation of my emotions in Martin Carter’s

‘This is the dark time, my love’.

His brown beetles are soldiers who trample the slender grass, who produce oppression and fear. I thought of independence as the change to our own forces of authoritarianism and the guerrilla citizens who help us learn how to defend ourselves. I thought of the jumbie Wayne, now in human body, but perhaps moving to another form. I thought of how I carry the formidable commitment of civil society within me, like a pantheon, and my hope that Wayne’s spirit would also usher us ahead.When he showed me the drawing, I read this to him, glad that Carter’s truths continue to haunt us. The next day was a gathering to shed light on the darkness of governmental secrecy and domination. Light, not violence, is our weapon. 

Gabrielle Souldeya Hosein

Post 165.

Sunday was different.
 
After working for weeks to build support for Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike, Sunday’s gathering was the first sign of popular momentum.
 
Individuals had been visiting the camp outside the PM’s office, and advocacy by Merle Hodge, Clyde Harvey and Peter Minshall was visible from early. Union and MSJ folk, led by David Abdullah, had joined, and were part of a larger show of solidarity by civil society. Columnists had begun to write of the Armstrong Report as national issue, and a route to justice for citizens challenging top-down government.
 
Along with women’s NGOs, feminists from UWI were the first to publicly demonstrate collective solidarity with the long struggle of the women of the HRM. For the first time, some of my students who came with me understood the difference between online and street activism, connected to the sacrifices women make to speak truth to power, and faced their own responsibility to be more informed.
 
However, planned only since Friday, through our small but collective effort, Sunday’s gathering of about six hundred was organic and genuine. Nobody was bused in. Nobody came to deny the highway they need to those traveling from San Fernando to Port Fortin. Nobody was paid or pressured. People came with their own flags. They gathered to hear why mediation was a strategy for a mutually acceptable end to this eight-year standoff. They prayed and softly sang.
 
There was an instant of magic when Minshall told everyone to raise their candles and deyas, for all of we is one with such citizen effort, and in that second the only two streetlights near us in Nelson Mandela Park switched off, perfectly on cue. One could have thought it was only Minshall’s obeah if it were not for the fact that Father Harvey was inside the medical centre praying with Wayne. As Harvey said, ‘Let the celestial light…’, electricity dipped in the room, same time Minsh in the park was doing his vodou.
 
Arriving, Mrs. Persad-Bissessar must have been struck by the numbers and the energy, as every politician notices when people take to the streets, and her assistants taking pictures would have recorded citizens like me who are not PNM, ILP, COP or anti-government. Worth noting, the majority of people there probably comprised the sleeping tiger of that ‘third’, untethered force who helped vote in the PM in 2010.
 
Amazingly, even when the vigil was over, everyone stayed waiting for her to emerge from meeting Wayne. People waited, without being asked, hoping that the miracle of a middle ground would be found, hoping for more than a PR play. The waiting led some to shout shame, and to threaten blocking the PM’s car. The women of the HRM began to resolutely chant ‘reroute’. Others stood silently, holding their lights, their peaceful presence voicing their principles and politics. Such multiple dynamics are the risks and strengths of the momentum ahead.
 
Aggressive polarization is also growing. On social media, it’s mostly insult and blame of the PM, Kublalsingh, anybody really.  The irony is that, fundamentally, and in quieter conversation, all ‘sides’ can realize we have shared priorities and needs for the best traffic solutions, wisest use of our budget, state transparency from truthful politicians, and least destruction of our children’s environment.
Despite circulating misinformation, political division, frustration and cynicism, our current lesson as a society is how to weld all these scattered pieces, emotions and agendas into at least one idea, precious and whole, on which we agree. As more join the fray, our challenge is to widen recognition of the common ground that is our reality.