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 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.

Post 300.

The OWTU’s blustery style of bois hasn’t done itself any favours as many seem anti-union or are in jobs no longer represented by unions or are bosses who consider unions advantageous and difficult.

The union itself hasn’t been done any favours by media representations of it as protecting overpaid welders and carpenters, as if carpenters or welders shouldn’t make $50 000 a year while executive management raked in millions overseeing corruption, nepotism and ineptitude, and threw their hands up at the very political interference that we should have been protected from by those collecting such oversized pay cheques.

In speaking in fiery tones directly to its membership, the union is doing its job, but calmer explanations of the situation, in ways that show the reasonableness of its perspectives to a broadband of skeptics, would build more population empathy, and provide information considered trustworthy.

As it stands, the government appears rational, though regretful, and the union appears unreasonable and opposed to the national interest. Political and economic elites have won the media war when the workers – not the managers from Ken Julien down who have slunk into the past and now seem obsolete to the blame game – appear to be the enemy of the national economy.

The current solution fundamentally misdiagnoses a problem that plagued Petrotrin, which is the ability to impose accountability on those in charge.

Note that not one package of strategies has been articulated by the government to prevent any of the three – corruption, mismanagement and patronage – from further impoverishing the public.

Note, there’s no sense that the Petrotrin shut-down should have involved public consultations, or accessibly presented and truthful data and analysis so that every cook could contribute to such decision-making. There should have been clear projection of potential fall-out, for example across south-west Trinidad, so solutions for managing the social and economic costs could be anticipated together.

This top down process repeats the top down status quo that got us here. A board has to make the final decision, but this affects everyone, requiring an information package in everyday language which builds commitment and capacity to participatory governance – a crucial idea that ordinary people must have all the resources they need for an informed say in decisions which affect our nation.

Such decisions may appear to be about technical knowledge, but when the Petrotrin disaster can be traced back to failures of top-down decisions, working people must powerfully resist such business as usual.

Overwhelmed by unclear facts and spin, and disappointment at the PNM resort to rallying party faithful, points for demanding answers disappear amidst the noise.

David Abdullah pointed out that Petrotrin’s debt was $10 billion less than Clico’s, which we bailed out to avoid sector collapse, and yet it’s unlikely that the ordinary person can explain one decision in comparison to the other. Selling the refinery won’t erase the debts owed, so what happens to those? Which average radio listener knows?

Hamid Ghany pointed out the state is being used to break the unions, which is convenient for privatization, and provides a right wing political platform for the machismo of kicking down a national threat with the PM’s government boots.

Yet, it is particularly important for the population to support the union in holding the state and company accountable for how it treats retrenchment, retirement and pensions of employees. Up to April this year, newspapers reported that over 4000 ex-Caroni workers are still waiting on their severance package, fifteen years after shutdown of the sugar industry. The President General of their union said 25% of workers died without their package in hand. Which of us, while demonizing the OWTU, will protect workers’ interests this time around?

Helen Drayton suggested that employees are increasingly shying away from engaging in industrial strategies to shut down the country, perhaps as the start of political and cultural change. It’s more likely that economic vulnerability has people desperately anxious about making ends meet, particularly when unions seem out of their league.

Insecure labour and unstable employment have changed the labour market and labour relations. New forms of collective organizing are needed in an economy that’s shifted – precisely because the same accountability challenges remain. In Terrence Farrell’s words, “All roads lead back to the fact that these are State enterprises operating within a deeply flawed governance system which can produce only failure”.

The bottom line is, caught between floundering unions and an untrustworthy state, working people must insist on information, participation and power to protect every national dollar.

Post 299.

Sacrifices must be made. The question is how much, by whom and at what cost.

Ordinary working people, from retail and restaurant workers to office clerks to nurses, are carrying the unequal burden of economic adjustment.

This is felt deep in the bones of families in term of increased prices at the gas pump, or the uncertainty of month-to-month contracts, or lay-offs without sufficient labour opportunities anywhere in sight.

It’s almost impossible for thousands willing to make an honest living wage to make ends meet, qualify for a loan, buy a house, build family savings or even know if they can afford medicine and school books in one year’s time.

Even attractive VSEP packages cannot simply be reinvested or turned into new income among those forced to become entrepreneurial for the first time in their 50s.

Entrepreneurship rarely leads to economic security or wealth, and access to health and other labour benefits. Meaning if you can’t work, you starve, you wait two days to see a doctor in the hospital, and when there’s a downturn or too much competition, minor profits evaporate.

The lesson from the Caroni 1975 Ltd shut down is that the psychological impact, which can hardly be managed by four or six EAP sessions, rolls out across communities through increased intimate partner conflict and violence, child sexual abuse and incest, substance abuse, and undiagnosed depression, particularly when men’s sense of masculinity is also at stake.

The myth and reality of women’s ability to make miracles out of scarcity, and the basics of the welfare net, are holding household budgets together by a shoestring.

Still, don’t fool yourself that such survival produces children that are well. Policy makers rely on people’s capacity to live on very little, but they don’t fully consider or cost how much children suffer or truly fail to thrive.

Thinking about all this, I called up Ozzie Warwick, Chief Education and Research Officer of the OWTU. Both his parents lost their jobs around 1987, under the NAR. Ozzi will tell you he had to eat bread and butter with sugar water during the week, and stretch one chicken from Saturday to Sunday among a family of six.  He was in QRC, but none of his other siblings passed for seven-year schools.

It’s likely that the 1,486 students who scored no pass marks in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exam this year were from homes pressured by such economic stresses and harms. The burden of belt-tightening had a direct impact on the children in his family, as it will on others today.

I asked Ozzi the questions that seem so obvious. Shouldn’t the gas subsidy be removed? Don’t jobs have to be cut in bloated public sectors? Isn’t our national problem one of champagne taste and mauby pockets?

There are different ways to deal with a subsidy, he said, but it’s important to understand that it ensured widespread benefit to all citizens, whether rich or poor or single mother on minimum wage, from our national resources.

We fall for the story of cutbacks while no more empowered to stop corruption and elite collusion, or the stranglehold of party patronage. We see businesses benefit from subsidized electricity and water rates, which they rely on for profit rather than to live from day to day. We see banks booming when people are being made to sacrifice even while their actual income value falls.

The long-expected Petrotrin crisis, as Bhoe Tewarie pointed out, is also related to “the debt created by the Malcolm Jones-led board in 2005” which has now become due, and requires a payment of US$850 million in August 2019 which cannot be met.

Ozzi also argued that rating agencies downgrading of Petrotrin and the country’s credit rating is something which a government reliant on borrowing wants to avoid. Yet, shouldn’t the reports and the decisions that follow be debated in Parliament where we can hear all sides?

As we said our goodbyes, Ozzi highlighted labour’s economic alternative plan. He cited Barbadian PM Mia Mottley’s approach to stimulate and stabilize growth through public investment and to default on debt rather than lead Barbados down an IMF-advised road that made Jamaica poorer today than thirty years ago.

We are all in pain, but it’s worse when there is inequity. Fair sharing of national hardship and wealth is the guarantee that government should provide. This should make us all call for consensus on how to share the national burden of adjustment and its impact on our lives.

Post 233.

Our development dreams are a planetary nightmare. We are living that nightmare now, even if we have not yet connected higher food prices, increasing drought, floods, hurricanes, fish depletion, waste poisoning or air pollution to vast, wider global changes.

This year, gorillas, bees, amphibians, plants and others have been added to the endangered list, which already consists of 80,000 species, almost 24,000 of which are threatened with extinction. This is reversible, requiring us to take responsibility for solutions.

Animal populations plummeted by 58% between 1970 and 2012, with losses expected to reach 67% by 2020, according to the Living Planet Index, which was released last month, and highlights our destruction of the natural world on which all life depends.

There are different causes for this, predominantly loss of habitat, use of pesticides and other pollutants, and unsustainable fishing, hunting and corporate practices. There are higher and lower numbers for specific species, but the trend remains disturbing. This holocaust of animals is a glimpse of our own future.

All such injustice against the earth’s ecology and inhabitants is authorized by those with institutional power, and the force of state, law, and industry. That’s the case here, in terms of depletion of fish as a result of the oil and gas industries’ poisoning of rivers and marine environments, with everyone from BP to Petrotrin guilty. It’s the case with Styrofoam and plastics pollution.

Yet, the message from Green Screen’s brilliant, now six-year environmental film festival, is that small communities of committed people can secure change, by bearing witness, by inspiring others, by demanding different decisions.

Wednesday night’s films highlighted suicides, by the hundreds of thousands, of Indian farmers caught up in debt cycles because of agricultural practices instituted by the pesticide and fertilizer industries, and the Indian government. Corporate control of agriculture decimated sustainable food production and their livelihoods.

A short, intimate look at the life of a spear fisherman in La Brea, seemed all too similar and close. He has no idea whether it’s still safe to eat the fish he catches and neither do many consumers, affecting his ability to support his family.

The Living Planet Index indeed shows that rivers and lakes are the hardest hit habitats, with populations down by 81% since 1970. Excessive water extraction, pollution, dams and habitat pressures from global warming are all causes. In the film, Jason James looks at the camera and concludes, “I am too young to die”.

The final, deeply moving film on the history of Greenpeace reminded us of what happens if only we care. I took a busload to UWI students to see the films because, among other things, I teach students to understand violence, and our relationship to our planet’s ecology constitutes one of its many forms.

I took another busload of students to Chagaramas to witness the nexus between state corruption, unethical and illegal privatization of ‘the commons’ or land meant for free, public enjoyment, and the negative impacts on wildlife. The caiman Ziya saw on her first forest walk, by the turn to Macaripe, was not there, and who knows if it will be again.

Amidst non-organic, elite-owned agriculture, loss of sea grass and starfish because of coastal construction, and bright lights in a dark-zone, I wanted them to learn about the power they have if only they decide.

Green Screen also held a panel discussion with Nadra Nathai-Gyan, Molly Gaskin, Peter O’Connor, Akilah Jaramogi and Bobbi Hunter of Greenpeace. On the bus back, I listed other environmental and wildlife protection pioneers, who students could contact and learn from, without an essay or test in sight, if they only tried.

Before we left, Molly Gaskin listed just a few of the successes our small movement had accomplished, such as getting Trinidad and Tobago to sign the Convention on the Prevention of International Trade in Endangered Species, preservation of the scarlet ibis, which was being hunted while nesting, designation of Nariva as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, and a halt to the passage of ships carrying nuclear waste through the Caribbean.

Power is ours. Those films make clear. We must wake up and pursue a different dream. The first step is to care.