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Digging own graves ...with some help

May 18, 2003
By Raffique Shah

IF anyone had doubts about the status of Club Pigeon Point, the Ansa McAl subsidiary made it clear in an advertisement last Friday that its estate is private property. After years of haggling and protests and even a death-by-gunshot, the owners of the estate proclaimed that except for its members, the public can access its facilities at "the nominal fee of US$3", presumably per person, per day. All of the above are perfectly legitimate, and no one can challenge the owners' rights to charge for use of their car park, toilets, change rooms, bars, etc.

The problem, though, is that the Club straddles one of the best beaches in Trinidad and Tobago. And the only access to this scenic and tranquil treasure is through a gate that is controlled by the Club. Alternative access can be gained through a piece of mangrove. Should the owners of the Club choose to enforce the common law of the high water mark being its seafront boundary, then there will be very little beach for non-club members to enjoy. Also, one need ask how many Tobagonians can afford to pay the US$3, especially those with large families?

Put another way, if the authorities were to allow some private interest to control Maracas Bay, and the "owners" were to charge the average Trini $20 per person to enter their facilities, how do you think nationals of this country would react? There would be outrage, protests and more than likely bloody confrontation.

Examine, too, that 12-mile strip at Mayaro where almost all seafront properties are privately owned. Yet, no one dares to tell people to "stay away from my property", even beyond the high water mark. In fact, those of us who rent beach houses from time to time will see visitors to Mayaro pitch camp just outside the beach-entrance, but we won't even think of telling them to move.

Besides the law governing sea-front properties, convention and culture have made all our beaches public property. And for good reasons, too. Up until recently, and I dare say even now, "beach limes" are the most popular pastimes for the average Trini. It costs very little and offers the kind of relaxation that people who live in countries that experience winter pay through their noses to enjoy. Even the poorest families can afford to go to our popular beaches or rivers, whereas going to cinemas or other forms of recreation might be too costly. So we have grown to accept the culture of freedom that our beaches offer.

In the case of Pigeon Point, there have been many battles waged for ordinary people to access that beach. I read somewhere that the estate owners of many years ago gave the "natives" no end of problems to access the beach. And over the past 50 years, squabbles have broken out from time to time over the legality or otherwise of blocking access to the beach.

That Government has never before acted to protect the rights of citizens is part of the problem. If the issue of access to beaches, and in particular Pigeon Point, had been resolved through the law, or amendments to it, then we would not have been saddled with what is now almost fait accompli.

The current owners have decided to put their feet down, cut a thin line as close as possible to the law, and all but privatise the popular resort.

It's a classic case of dereliction of duty on the part of successive governments that not only allowed this problem to fester, but the owners to reap immense benefits. Because if the THA and Government were to move now to acquire the property, it would be at great cost to taxpayers.

The Club's owners will try to get top dollar for their 60-acre estate, matters not that only a small portion is usable in that it's sandwiched between the public beach and a substantial acreage of wetlands. Oh, it's prime property, of that there can be no doubt. But it ought never to have fallen into private hands given the importance of Pigeon Point to Tobago's tourist industry and its place of pride among Tobagonians and Trinidadians.

What is disturbing is the fact that the owners come across as being insensitive to public opinion, maybe even to people's rights. What would it have taken from their profitability if they had agreed to allocate an entrance for day-visitors that could be free? Because most people who visit the beach would in any event want to use some of the club's facilities, in which case they could be charged substantially more than its members are. That would have increased their profits, left the locals happy, and allow the Club to peacefully coexist with citizens of this country, and even visitors.

But at the bottom of this raging row, that is likely to end only with taxpayers forking out a substantial sum to fatten the owners' pockets, is Governments' abdication of their responsibilities to citizens. And, I should add, their unwillingness to enforce the law. In our off-shore islands, for example, where only the very rich have enclaves, most of which was leased to them at 1940 rates, ordinary citizens are denied access.

I am told that on more than a few occasions, those who were lured by the aquamarine waters of the beaches on those islands have been chased away by gunfire from certain owners. Which begs the question—are we living in apartheid South Africa?

But governments aid and abet the high and mighty, and ordinary law-breakers, to get away with murder. I note that Works Minister Franklyn Khan plans to get tough on "road hogs", what with the spate of fatal accidents on our highways. But what is Khan doing about the numerous people, more so businessmen, who are reducing our main highways to byways? Has he or his officers noted the number of illegal entrances/exits along the nation's main highways?

It seems that anyone can build a bridge and driveway onto the Butler or CR or Hochoy highways. We know that is illegal, but it's happening. These people who are openly breaking the law today may well claim the right to access the highways tomorrow. And taxpayers will be made to pay through our noses for their properties, illegal bridges, et al.

Really, we dig our own graves... with more than a little help from Government. We allow people to get away with the proverbial inch, and before you know it they have seized a yard... or a beach!