Trinidad and Tobago’s recent history of development at the cost of its environment has been alarming and prolonged, a mirror to the wider ills facing humanity highlighted in the UN’s Global Assessment Report last month which warned of the threat to mankind’s survival through biodiversity loss and climate change.

This country’s contribution to the global crisis matters because of our shared responsibilities, and because T&T as a small nation can ill afford the trashing its environment is receiving. Human well-being and a healthy environment are inextricably linked.

But, as highlighted in this year’s World Environment Day, the air we breathe in Trinidad is polluted by a heady cocktail of poisons from vehicular emissions on over-congested roads, industrial processes, smoke from dumps, and hillsides ravaged by fire.

Unchecked deforestation of our mountain ranges from quarrying, fire, inexorable built development and agricultural squatting have exacerbated flooding to the cost of the country’s purse and suffering of affected families.

The wholesale removal of mangroves—fish nurseries and a vital source of coastal protection in this age of climate change and rising sea levels, continues unabated with our “No Net Loss” policy rendered meaningless.

Coral reefs in Tobago, critical in so many ways, continue to be degraded by land-based pollution and siltation from deforestation and developments, in addition to stresses already caused by warming seas and acidification.

In a recent report we are told fish from the Gulf of Paria is unsafe to eat, a consequence of that body of water being the dump for industrial effluent, hydrocarbons, heavy metals and other pollutants too numerous to mention which pour into it unchecked.

Garbage and plastic choke our bays and waterways; our national beach at Maracas is an eyesore, while evidence of human disregard for our surroundings on land can be found everywhere.

Our designated forest and nature reserves, even areas and species that are officially protected under law as Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) and Environmentally Sensitive Species (ESS), are not safe. These habitats and the creatures which depend on them are under assault from all quarters.

Even now at Matura, an ESA and home to leatherback turtles (an ESS), there are reports of illegal quarrying near the turtle nesting areas despite the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) being repeatedly informed.

Our natural capital is not inexhaustible, yet we carry on as if it were. Decades of destruction have scarred our country terribly and the question we as a nation urgently need to ask ourselves is: how much longer can we let this continue?

The organisation charged with safeguarding the environment, the EMA, has been accused of obstructing the public’s right to properly question and comment on one of the most important planks of the developmental process, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Fisherman and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), the NGO for so long a thorn in the side of the EMA, has filed a judicial review action challenging the decision of the EMA to restrict access of complete copies of EIAs to civil society groups.

FFOS claims the EMA has restricted copies of the EIAs to just 10 per cent of the document total, “crippling” its ability to scrutinise developments properly.

This is a crucial matter, especially in the light of the aforementioned environmental afflictions facing the country, and with controversial developments such as the Toco Port now on the final leg of the EIA process. The public needs full access to that EIA, especially given some of the statements coming from the port developers in recent weeks.

Responses in the media to our series of reports on the proposed Toco port by Infrastructure Development Company chairman Herbert George and port developer Arun Buch are typical of hurdles we have to clear on our way to reversing this country’s environmental decline.

In the Toco’s Turning Tide series, we published evidence from the world’s leading authority on leatherback turtles in Trinidad that Toco’s waters are critical to the survival of the leatherback population of the north east, already threatened by gill net fishing.

But George and Buch did not address the leatherbacks in their responses criticising our reports.

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Both continue to deny Toco has any critical habitat, instead relying on a dated IMA report from 1988 rather than contemporary studies by leatherback expert Prof Scott Eckert, and research on Toco’s coral by Dr Stanton Belford (among others) which has been ongoing for the last 19 years.

Dr Belford supplied us with photos of coral in Grand L’Anse Bay, which has 79 species, saying those reefs will undergo “100 per cent destruction” with construction of the port which will dredge the area, reclaiming the nearshore.

Yet George has dismissed Dr Belford’s expertise by saying such talk was “alarmist and without factual basis” and that reading Belford’s concerns “would serve no useful purpose”.

It’s this arrogance towards our environment that goes to the heart of much of our environmental woes. For too long developers, governments and their state entities have taken the attitude of “we know best”, failing to consider environmental implications or to consult with those who will be affected along the way.

Think of the Toco port in 2000, the aluminium smelter in Cedros, and more recently Sandals in Buccoo. Those projects were all sunk for these reasons and for questions relating to cost benefits, or the lack of them. Toco in 2019 bears identical hallmarks.

Nothing has changed in Toco in 20 years from an environmental standpoint to warrant something being acceptable now which once was not. Except that today the situation is even more critical.

Our reporting of the Toco port also found the energy industry uninterested in using it, a marina “to be a waste of time”, its location questionable, its usefulness as a ferry port unproven, and that plans are allegedly afoot for undeclared offshore bunkering. No answers to questions regarding its viability or sustainability materialised in the developers’ latest response either. Business as usual.

And therein lies the problem.

Now we find the authority supposedly charged with protecting T&T’s environment, the EMA, is accused of restricting access to EIAs. Despite laws to protect the environment, and policy documents as long as your arm designed to reinforce that protection, the health of the country’s environment remains in a continuous downward spiral.

The official goal of sustainable development remains a mirage, distant and unattainable. Unless, of course, there is a collective sea change in our attitudes and we decide to put our environment first, front and centre. But what are the odds?

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