Saturday Express Editorial

Thirty-one-year-old Max Phillip is the third person to have drowned in a quarry pond over the past year.

In May last year, Paul Soogrim, 13, and his brother, Jason, ­seven, drowned in a pond at Tapana Road, Valencia. Phillip met a similar fate last Sunday in a pond in an area known as Sand Pit at Windsor Park in Couva.

The ponds created by quarrying activities are deceptively enticing and can easily snare adventurous children, and adults, tempted for a quick dip. Often, when such horrific events occur, public focus falls on the details of the tragedy without reference to the failure of the regulatory authorities to enforce the regulations governing such operations.

In the case of the deaths of the Soogrim brothers, their parents called for “justice” for their sons. A company which had been accused of having dug a pit some 100 feet deep, and illegally removing minerals from the area, was blamed for this particular tragedy. A sign was said to have been posted warning of the dangers of the area, but this soon got covered with moss, residents said.

Aggrieved residents said the place ought to have been fenced around, but this was yet to have taken place.

This is a situation that is replicated in too many parts of the country. It has become an aspect of the culture of brazen, uncaring disregard for the strictures and the laws against illegal activity, regarding the rape of the country’s mineral resources.

State agencies appear perpetually unable or unwilling to enforce the laws, where they do exist.

Section 45 of the country’s Minerals Act provides for hefty fines and/or jail sentences for some of these offences. For example, for a first ­offence of knowingly purchasing mineral material from any person who is not the holder of an appropriate licence, or who himself or herself trades in such material, one is liable to a fine of up to $500,000 on a first conviction, or a jail term of up to five years. These penalties are increased for repeat offenders.

Similar penalties are in existence for those breaching the laws against illegal and unauthorised mining of asphalt. Failure to notify the Director of Minerals of the discovery of any minerals for which an issued official licence does not provide also carries substantial penalties. Likewise, the obstruction of the Director of Minerals or any of his or her agents in the exercise of his or her duties, or failure to maintain books, records or docu­ments required for their activities, carries severe penalties.

Also empowered to address punitively many of these wanton infractions is the Environmental Management Authority. It must balance the equation between the ongoing impetus for development with the equally heightened necessity for environmental management and protection.

Whatever the nature of the weaknesses inherent in the operations of the regulatory agencies, however, there is clear need for deeper focus on protection, and respect for the applicable laws.

This latest tragedy reinforces the need for a full investigation, not only on the drowning but on the operation itself to determine the bona fides of the quarry operator.

Justice demands it.

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Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s declaration that this country must now have contingency plans for the event of volcanic ash blowing our way and wreaking havoc within our economy, both of the strictly commercial type as well as in our agriculture, is a reality that we have to face.

Reading Caribbean Airlines’s decision to continue its intention to purchase the Boeing jets it has on order had me stunned in amazement. My normal splenetic delivery was silenced for once. My weakly-beating heart almost stopped its puny efforts to maintain my existence on this green earth.

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Recent contributions in the press have joined the consistent commentary of Basdeo Panday on the irrelevance, unrepresentativeness and ineffectiveness of our present system of government. Their conclusions point to the urgent need for constitutional reform.

The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries.

The problem for St Vincent and the Grenadines and other Caribbean small states is that they’re not poor enough.

By standard World Bank macroeconomic measures such as Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, they’re not as badly off as sub-Saharan African countries. It means that when the bank and other multinational agencies decide on the allocation of aid and development dollars, they’re given less access and fewer concessions.

Correctly so, you could argue. The poverty and deprivation I saw in rural Sierra Leone in West Africa were far worse than I’d seen elsewhere, including Haiti. Added to that, the country hadn’t recovered from a brutish civil war abetted by notorious Liberian warlord Charles Taylor—the kind that saw unspeakable atrocities, such as soldiers carving foetuses out of the bellies of pregnant women.

SVG, Haiti and Guyana are underdeveloped countries, but not as much as Sierra Leone. However, regardless of the facts on the ground or the numbers in the computer, the bank recognised that GNI per capita was an incomplete measure of a country’s development.

All countries are rich or poor to degrees that are macroeconomically measurable. But when climate change can wipe out some of them, GNI measures can’t capture that. Additionally, in the case of Caribbean countries, they’re set back decades by hurricanes, as Grenada was by Ivan in 2004 and Dominica by Maria in 2017.

A Caribbean or Pacific small island state can go from middling prosperity to poverty in the course of one natural disaster.

In a report titled “Small States: Vulnerability and Concessional Finance”, the World Bank acknowledged calls by countries in its Small States Forum (SSF) “to include vulnerability as a criterion for accessing concessional resources”.

It said that work needed to be done in defining a Vulnerability Index. That report was in 2018. And yet as I recall, the index was an issue at SIDS 1994—the United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development held in Barbados 24 years earlier.

“SIDS” means Small Island Developing States. That is a misnomer, since big states were represented. The sight of Fidel Castro walking into the room and instantly causing a rock star stampede won’t be forgotten.

The World Bank’s Vulnerability Index incorporates “small states” of the SSF, including Namibia and Botswana. Namibia is two-thousand times bigger than St Vincent, four times Guyana, and mineral rich. Their resilience to shocks is much stronger than SVG’s. Why are they even in the small states conversation? This definitional elasticity doesn’t seem helpful to the cause of SIDS.

From SIDS 1994, the UN crafted the Barbados Programme of Action. Top of the list were climate change, and natural and environmental disasters. It’s remarkable that the World Bank was still talking about defining a Vulnerability Index more than two decades later.

Climate change continues to be the main consideration, but the volcanic eruptions on St Vincent should reopen the conversation.

Most Caribbean volcanoes do not seem to be a present danger in the way that La Soufriere in St Vincent is. Mount Liamuiga in St Kitts, for example, is a great hike. When you reach the top, you can descend into the crater.

Nonetheless, The UWI Seismic’s website says that “there are 19 ‘live’ (likely to erupt again) volcanoes in the Eastern Caribbean. Every island from Grenada to Saba is subject to the direct threat of volcanic eruptions”.

In St Vincent, overseas relief kicked in to ease water and other shortages. But short-term emergency measures are not enough.

Here’s the bind in which small Caribbean states find themselves. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) told them that no, they have to compete at market price to sell their bananas and sugar. No more preferential pricing that recognises their disadvantages on economies of scale.

WTO regulatory insensitivity effectively killed these industries. In many Caribbean SIDS, all their eggs are in one basket. If that isn’t acute vulnerability, I don’t know what is.

For Caribbean SIDS, we should have been at a place where development aid allocation matches a universally-agreed index; and we have strategic, joined-up planning/execution from the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and others.

Small states partially compensate by playing geopolitical games of influence. Getting money from China or Taiwan. Throwing in their lot with Japan on whaling, to the consternation of their own conservationists.

It’s not enough.

Last week I wrote about how Montserrat has done since the 1997 eruption. They are a British Overseas Territory, but the British-funded rebuild has been sluggish. In my two visits in 2007 and 2014, little changed. I was told in 2007 that a new airport would be built soon. To date, it hasn’t.

However Montserrat’s former premier Reuben Meade told me last week that “the Brits covered all of our expenses for the volcanic situation during and post eruption”.

“They continue to fund some 60 per cent of recurrent expenditure each year”.

Meade said the task of Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of SVG, will be hard.

“SVG will need to find a donor to fund the continuing evacuation expenses which will be very high. Their economy will be in freefall for quite some time. It’s going to be tough for them”.

For SVG, mother country largesse is not an option. They’re nearly broke. Even if La Soufriere stops erupting and the pandemic is eradicated tomorrow, they’ll need smarter, long-term development engagement by donor agencies. A true measure of their vulnerability would be a good start.