PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, October 5, 2014 (AMG) – Meet Dr. Wayne Kublasingh, the protester who is now on the 17th day of a hunger strike in protest of Trinidad’s largest and most complex infrastructure development to date.
The extension of the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway will add approximately 50 km of new road, connecting San Fernando with the southern towns of Debe, Penal, Siparia, Fyzabad, La Brea, and Point Fortin. The highway is currently 24% complete, but remains highly controversial even as it is under construction.
The issue: Kublalsingh is the leader of the Highway Re-route Movement (HRM), a group focused on minimizing environmental and community impacts from the planned highway. The group argues that the highway will disenfranchise and force the relocation of local citizens, contribute to large-scale flood potential, destroy thousands of acres of agricultural lands, and produce excessive economic costs.
The controversial section of the highway will connect Debe and Mon Desir, for which the HRM proposes an alternative route for a series of lower-impact smaller connector roads. Kublalsingh first protested the proposed highway in 2012 with a 21-day long hunger strike. That strike ended when a variety of organizations agreed to an independent evaluation of the proposed route. The independent report, known as the Armstrong Report, determined that the environmental and human impacts from the highway were unknown due to inadequate assessments. The HRM wants this remedied, calling for a hydrology assessment, a social impact evaluation, and a cost-benefit analysis before continuing construction. As they are ignored by the government, however, Kublalsingh has once again taken drastic measures.
Hunger-strike: Kublasingh began his second hunger strike the morning of September 17, after a meal of sada roti and baigan, and a glass of pineapple juice. He was worried about his health, but said “the only thing that would change my mind is if the Prime Minister has a discussion with me to resolve this problem. I don’t think I have a choice at this point.”
HRM proposed an alternative proposal to the Prime Minister last week. The group is clear that they do not oppose the highway, but are just against the route that it takes because of the potential environmental, social, and economic impacts. They understand the need for the infrastructure, but feel that the new proposal will alleviate the congestion issues without damaging the environment. Several civil society groups signed a petition supporting the new proposal before delivering it to the government.
The takeaway: Whatever the outcome of the highway, the issue raises some of the important challenges faced by small island states. More so than most countries, islands are geographically limited, and population growth and associated development poses risks to the natural environment and established communities. Development is also made difficult by the remoteness of islands: transportation, energy, and communication costs are often high.
Balancing the need for development and economic growth with the preservation of culture and the environment is always a difficulty, but it is made more so by isolation and limited size. Kublalsingh says he is prepared to die in order to protect his values. It may just come to that, as Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar claims to have no intentions of negotiating.