Trinidad and Tobago


Protesting a Protest

September 6, 2000

WHAT was, until quite recently, a little-used but aesthetically pleasing park of rolling greenery at the western end of Wrightson Road, is slowly turning into a virtual shanty town.

Ironically, the unsightly litter, which includes an army-type tent, a permanently parked old jeep, outdoor cooking facilities and scores of cosquelle-coloured banners that smear the landscape has been gallantly described as a statement of protest by a group of environmentalists.

Known as Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, the highbrow eco-watchers are protesting a planned westward extension of the port of Port of Spain. Their main beef (if the cattle-preservation society will permit use of that term) is the destruction of the Mucurapo Wetlands which, they say, will alter the ecology in a significant way.

The port has promised to replant the stretch of mangrove that must be uprooted, if its extension plan is followed through. The protest continues regardless, tempting cynics to surmise that the people involved probably exert undue influence over city officials whom, the detractors contend, would not have allowed any other type of group to set up so unsightly a camp there and remain this long.

What evokes a raucous laugh, however, is the very spot on which the protestors have so cavalierly set up their campsite. The more mature among us will remember that plot, immediately west of the city's old sewerage pumping-station, as a place that Śnot too long agoŚno self-respecting person, or one with an acute sense of smell would willingly inhabit.

But these days, since progress has cleaned up the area, the more zealous protesters are actually able to maintain weekend-long vigils at the campsite, imploring the thousands of drivers who go by to honk horns or otherwise identify with their protest. They primarily target the hundreds of thousands of commuters coming west from Wrightson Road.

Mark you, if Ranjit Kumar had waited until now to begin construction of the very Wrightson Road that feeds the protesters, he would undoubtedly have run into that same group, which now thanks him for a steady supply of potential sympathisers.

But try to imagine Port of Spain without Wrightson Road and you see that Kumar's engineering feat of land reclamation and the resulting route were of infinitely greater value than what previously obtained, beautiful and ecologically functional as it may have been.

As a young boy, I used to stand in the gallery of our house and observe with mounting interest, a group of Philistines hacking down hectares of mangrove just south of the railway line where it passed through Success Village in Laventille.

I remember wondering if they were in any way bothered that their vulgar violation of the swamp would lead to a forced migration of the scarlet ibis flocks that lived there. I wondered too if they ever saw the graceful birds flying in wedge formation against the background of each evening's sunset.

But soon enough, I saw the Beetham Highway taking shape and forgave them the required indiscretion. Years later, I still cannot imagine east/west or north/south commuting without the sacrifice of our precious mangrove and even the months of dust that came with the project.

Up to today, my friends in the Chinese community still insist it was mangrove wood cuttings that made the Char Sue at better-known restaurants like Ling Nam of Charlotte Street, boast of that unique taste. When ovens were substituted, they argue, the flavour wasn't quite the same.

The mangrove was equally famous as a temporary burial place for people like Thelma Haynes, or as the official training-ground for young city boys wishing to learn the perilous art of catching crabs, in that area the protesters now frequent as the West Mall.

Granted, no one wants to lose the view of a September sunset from the lookout on the Mucurapo highway, or tamper with swamps of immense ecological importance like the Caroni or Nariva.

But on an island, once the plains of the city become full, it seems pretty difficult to accommodate any form of required expansion, without cutting the hillsides, land reclamation, or erecting monstrously high buildings.

The port, for instance, cannot develop any arbitrary parcel of land for use by ocean-going vessels or as an alternative site for offloading shipping containers. It must do its business near the sea. Even the protesters would be hard-pressed to deny that there is evidence of logic in that approach.

It is also useful to remember the outcome of protest action similar to the current edition, when calypso entrepreneur William Munro put up The Mecca, a literal calypso tent on the very Mucurapo site. The argument collapsed swiftly, after Dr Julian Kenny of the University of the West Indies made light work of the claims by amateur environmentalists.

Progress does have its price. And while eternal vigilance is appreciated, public-spirited environmentalists must be careful they do not fall prey to the lure of carping at every move that does not lead to greater greenery or the preservation of some species that may have outlived its usefulness.

Sometimes one gets the feeling that if environmentalists were alive in the Jurassic period, we would still be dodging dinosaurs. And sometimes again, you get the feeling we are still living in that age.


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