Express - March 18, 2001
By Raffique Shah
IF Prime Minister Basdeo Panday wants to see me dead-and judging from his all-too-frequent harsh remarks about me, I have no doubt that he does-he does not have to commit genocide in pursuit of that elusive goal. He could try asking me to "auto-expire" (after all, aren't we a copycat society?), and maybe, just maybe, I'd accommodate him. But I take it very personal when he and his dodo-head Minister of the Environment, Adesh Nanan, along with the rest of the Cabinet (collective responsibility, fellas), try to poison me to death with toxic fumes using their latest exercise in stupidity, the Forres Park dump.
Over the past few days, I have awakened on mornings with an itching in my throat, and when I peer outside I see a thin pall of smoke covering all of lower Claxton Bay. Having seen what the Beetham garbage dump does to Port of Spain at nights, it was easy for me to figure out just what the itching and the pungent smell of toxic fumes meant. I live a little more than four miles downwind of the dump. At nights when the wind speed drops, the thick pall-of-death that has begun to haunt the people of Spring Vale, Forres Park, Diamond and other villages closer to the Solomon Hochoy Highway during daytime, reaches as far west as the Gulf.
Already, schools and other institutions have been forced to shut down operations. Several children have had to be treated for complaints associated with the effects of the smoke, which suggests some level of toxicity. The dump is located less than 800 metres east of the highway, unlike the Beetham dump, which is to the west of the highway. So it affects thousands of motorists as well. Then there are residents of the surrounding districts who have no place to run to or hide from the death-dealing effects of the dump.
Nanan, in response to cries from residents to close the dump, arrogantly replied that it was there to stay. In other words, nothing the residents say or do by way of protest (today, Staurday, even as I write, a delegation has gone to complain to the Couva South MP, Ramesh Maharaj), would influence government to change its mind about closing the Beetham dump and making Forres Park the Grand La Basse of Trinidad. Bearing in mind that all the villages that are within striking distance of the dump are considered UNC strongholds, it shows the contempt with which the party and the Government hold its supporters.
Their position is little different to the PNM's back in the mid-1970s, when the then ruling party decided to plant a "residential" Beetham adjacent to what was at the time called the "La Basse". As an MP, I had vigorously opposed the idea, suggesting that rather than move people closer to the dump, we should be seeking to move them away. Cuthbert Joseph, a PNM minister, responded to my suggestion this way: "You go and tell them that! Tell them you want to move them from Beetham!" In other words, the "La Basse culture" that was (and remains) a feature of under-developed countries, should not be tampered with.
The Beetham dump went on to be expanded, the Beetham Estate was carved out of the swamp, and today-without casting aspersions at law-abiding residents of the district-we have lived to see it spawn the most repugnant feature of the Third World, human "cobos". Do you know how it feels, as a citizen of this resource-rich country, to see these boys (I almost wrote "from Brazil"), looking as if they have just wrestled with corbeaux, racing after garbage trucks? And that at the entrance to the capital city? I hope Cutty Joseph, when he's playing his harmonica in church, prays for his soul and those of his colleagues who helped create that "Creature in the Green Lagoon".
Today, the UNC Government is duplicating that exercise in folly. And much the way the PNM treated the Beetham people with disrespect (they needed the dump for their survival), the UNC is treating its supporters with contempt. What began a few years ago as a small garbage dump for the Solid Waste company, expanded into an EMA burial ground for lead that was taken from Waller Field, and now into what will probably be the biggest solid waste site in the Caribbean.
Nanan says it will be a "state of the art" dump, whatever that might be. Maybe he should arrange for tourists to visit it! Look, if UNC supporters are afraid to speak out, I will. Already, shanty towns have developed around the dump, and the police will tell you they don't go into Kangawood Trace (that's the postal address, if you need it) even if a murder is committed there. People who have farmed the area for decades are now afraid to tend to their crops, and they dare not leave their livestock to graze in what were once sugar cane fields and pastures. Robberies are so rampant, residents of Caratal and Mayo refuse to pass that way after 8 p.m. And so the horrors multiply-as they must-with the presence of the dump and the introduction to the area of the "La Basse" culture.
Worse for those who live within the striking radius of the dump, we have TCL's cement plant to the south. I don't know why people are allowed even to squat under its dust-caked smokestack, far less why TCL has not acquired all properties to the west of the plant. To the north, less than two miles away, lies the massive Point Lisas Estate that is being expanded in our direction. It is not unusual for residents from Couva to Claxton Bay to cringe in fear as the pungent odour of ammonia drifts in our direction. And worse, we know that there are high levels of dust particles in the atmosphere that must be silently damaging our lungs and other organs.
It is clear, therefore, that we in this part of Trinidad are marked for death. As I said at the start, if Panday wanted my head, he could have found easier ways of eliminating me (like a bullet to the head). But please, don't put the lives of thousands of people, worst of all your diehard supporters, at stake by putting a dump where it ought never to have been sited. We need to close that dump now-and open a new one, maybe at Whitehall, as Chalkdust suggested in calypso years ago.
Copyright © Raffique Shah