MAC: Mines and Communities

Down the Peninsula

Published by MAC on 2006-07-26

Down the Peninsula

Villagers unite to protest Alcoa's plans to build smelter in Trinidad

by Sujatha Fernandes, Zednet

26th July 2006

The southwestern peninsula of Trinidad is an area of pristine beauty and wilderness. Winding roads pass through small fishing villages, mangrove swamps, large expanses of thickly forested coconut plantation, herds of buffalypso, and sheltered beach coves. In February 2006, the aluminum manufacturing company Alcoa proposed to build a large aluminum smelter in the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville area of the southwestern peninsula, prompting criticism from the local residents and environmentalists. The project would involve a 341,000 metric tons per year aluminum smelter, an anode plant, and a cast house, costing about $US 1.5 billion. Alcoa is promoting the project as providing local employment and other benefits to the community. However, local residents are concerned about displacement, risks to health and the environment from harmful emissions, occupational safety hazards, and the loss of bio-diversity. The smelter will affect some 15 to 20,000 local residents in the villages of Chatham, Cap-de-Ville, Granville, Coromandel, Bonasse, Fullerton, Icacos, and Bamboo Village along the peninsula.

In July, my husband and I accompanied local environmental activist Ishmael Samad down the peninsula to learn about the way of life of southwestern villagers and how they will be affected. Driving along the coast on Southern Main Road, we came to the city of San Fernando. The town's population of Indo and Afro-Trinis reflects the mixed roots of slavery and indentureship through which Trinidad came into being. The main promenade contains statues of Pan-African nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and the Indian nationalist leader and architect of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi as icons of resistance in the African and Indian diaspora.

A little further south we come to the oil town of Point Fortin, where we stopped for roti, a filling lunch of thin bread stuffed with lentils and potato. Seated on the stands of the local vegetable market, we saw an older man across the street seated in a blue Toyota Crown Four car with a soaring angel on the hood and white swirls painted on the sides. I approached the man to ask if I could take a photo of his car and he introduced himself as Akhbar Khan, a resident of Cap-de-Ville.

Akhbar Khan is an Indo-Trinidadian man, with dark sunglasses and a long white beard knotted at the base. When we asked what he thought of the smelter, he shrugged, "Whatever happens to me, boy, I know that Jesus will take care of me." Several years ago he had converted from Islam to Christianity. His eyes filled with tears as he told us that he was coming from the cremation of his wife of thirty-six years, who had died suddenly of kidney failure the day before. For the poor villagers of the southern peninsula, adequate health care and medicine are not always available. "She was the only woman for me in my life, boy," Akhbar told us, "but I know she waitin' for me in God's Kingdom." He waved to us from his car as he took off home.

Just outside of Point Fortin, we saw an army of tractors and equipment waiting under twenty-four hour vigil. They are intended for razing the grounds of Chatham/Cap-de-Ville once the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the proposed smelter has been completed by the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) and the go-ahead is given. We also passed by four Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plants constructed since 2000.

As we drove through the villages, we saw young and old, Indo and Afro-Trinis, men and women engaged in their everyday work of agriculture and fishing. These ethnically diverse but tight-knit communities of the peninsula are uniting to protect their environment and their way of life which is being threatened by Alcoa's proposed smelter. Middle class political parties such as the black-led People's National Movement (PNM) and the Indo-Trinidadian United National Congress (UNC) have traditionally attempted to mobilize and divide the population along ethnic lines for political gain. But the mostly poor, rural black and brown communities of the peninsula have united across ethnic divides in support of their interests. They have formed alliances and groups such as the Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group and the Rights Action Group. In a strongly religious atmosphere, religious groups such as the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) have also joined the battle to defeat the proposal. The groups are planning a ten-day march from the peninsula to Port-of Spain beginning on August 10.

While they do not hold much faith in the ability of the law to deliver them justice, the local residents have decided to seek redress by legal means. In 1984, under the National Physical Development Plan passed in parliament, the area of the proposed smelter was designated as agricultural and forest land. In order to be used for the smelter, the land must be deemed as industrial land. This change was made by cabinet fiat, but according to the lawyer on the case, the appropriate parliamentary body must file a judicial review to change the use of the land. The illegal change of the 1984 law is one of the main grounds on which the lawyer is fighting the case. Most feel that the local courts will side with the government and Alcoa. Some such as Ishmael feel that they may have a chance if the case reaches the final court of appeal, which is the Privy Council in London.

Alcoa has been trying to counter the protests and criticisms by taking out full page ads in local newspapers. They tried to promote the smelter by saying that employment would be available to local residents. In March they produced an ad which read, "750 to 800 long-term jobs to Trinidad." They tried to sell the smelter as an act of "community partnerships" and working with the community. In April, an ad in the Trinidad Express read, "Alcoa's smelter in the Park. harmony with Community and Culture" and another claimed, "Alcoa.investing in communities. Our social investment policies are followed by social action." They even tried to claim that the project would support preservation of the environment, as the ad in Sunday Express in May, "Alcoa.Longtime steward of the environment." However, residents were not convinced.

After all-night vigils outside the Prime Minister's office, protest marches, and rallies, Alcoa agreed to a public consultation and on July 14 they held a meeting at the Chatham Community Center. Several technical engineers who had been hired by Alcoa to do preliminary drilling were there to answer questions. The meeting was attended by important leaders of the community, such as Goomtie Singh, Fitzroy Beache, and Yvonne Ashby. The mood was one of anger and distrust. One man demanded to know how much compensation he would receive for his land. He currently depends on cultivation of his land for his livelihood and he knows that he will not receive much for it. Others raised health issues and environmental issues.

The engineers said that they were unable to answer the questions. People were furious and they demanded an audience with ministers such as Lenny Saith, the Minister of Energy and Petroleum. According to the residents, the government should be accountable for what they plan to do with the land and they should be the ones consulting with the people. Several villagers made clear their intentions to stand in front of the tractors if the project was to go ahead. As one man said, "I prefer to give my life if Alcoa comes, because if it does I won't have a life anymore."

That Alcoa should be searching for site locations in non-European countries with low environmental regulations is not surprising, given its expansion through the military industry. On July 22, Alcoa chose Bechtel as its primary partner in conducting feasibility studies for the proposed smelter. Bechtel, a private company with close ties to the Bush administration and the Republican party, was awarded a $680 million contract in Iraq through a process of secretive biddings in April 2003, with the possibility of contracts worth billions of dollars. Alcoa has been the recipient of numerous contracts from the US military. Following a contract of $1.2 million in 2004, in December 2005 Alcoa was awarded $12.5 million from the US Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command for the making of ground combat and tactical vehicles. Military profits take precedence over the rights to a clean and safe environment for villagers in the southwestern peninsula. The violence and destruction being caused by the US war machine extends far beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Driving back to Port of Spain, we stopped off in Chatham at the house of Goomtie Singh, a small, Indo-Trinidadian woman who is one of the leaders of the campaign. "The issue is preserving ourselves," she told us. "We are aware of the health problems, the cancer, the asthma. We've seen the destruction of our coastlines with LNG. People don't catch fish here now, you know? People don't get chip-chip or catch-e-come anymore."

"They want to convert the entire southwest peninsula into an industrial belt. If we don't move as a result of Alcoa, it will happen with some other industry," she said. "I have two little daughters. What is their future? The air they are breathing will be polluted. As a mother and as a parent, how am I supposed to deal with this? Alcoa will break all the rules to see that this proposed smelter goes ahead, but what do we have to benefit? Some temporary employment at minimum wage, but who gains all the profit? The people have nothing to gain from this."

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