Thursday, March 30, 2006

Alcoa's Cedros Challenge

The Andy Johnson Column
March 30, 2006

OFFICIALS of the aluminium company, Alcoa, which is moving to set up the dreaded smelter plant in Chatham, say they are convinced that those who are now in opposition to what they have in mind will come around to seeing things their way.

Opposition, they say, is the norm. But when the facts are known people will realise that their fears had been groundless. These confident sentiments are drawn from comments in one daily newspaper on Monday, the morning after the biggest show of force to date against those proposals which seem more and more like a fait accompli. Those officials were speaking "via teleconference" the report said. Their comments would have had to be understood by those in opposition, through the much-maligned media, while one of the issues in large evidence with this proposed plant is that there is yet to be the kind of face-to-face dialogue, one side towards the other.

"We want to hear from stakeholders and deal with concerns in a constructive way," Randy Overby was quoted as saying as part of that teleconference discussion with a reporter. Mr Overby is described as the Trinidad and Tobago Team Leader for the smelter project.

He had been reported earlier in the piece as saying that his company was "disappointed and concerned at the misinformation which was being propagated" in this country about the smelter project.

Last Sunday's "religious walk" along the main road from Chatham Junction to a rallying point called Foodcrop Road, was held against the backdrop of an absence of direct interface between the proponents and the opponents of this project.

"We have not been able to reach them by protesting, that is why we chose to use today as a religious walk where we would all turn to God together," one of the leading organisers of Sunday's event was quoted saying in another newspaper on Monday. In that newspaper, the acting Chairman of the ruling party told reporters the people of Chatham have nothing to fear.

The smelter was nothing but "good news" for the people of Chatham, he said, and he meant therefore for Trinidad and Tobago. He said the plant, estimated to be built at a reported cost of $2 billion, would utilise only "the latest technology" to preserve the environment and that the state, through its various agencies, would insist that "only environmentally friendly operations will be encouraged."

Except, of course, that those 1,000 or so residents, supporters and sympathisers who engaged in the one-mile walk on Sunday remain to be convinced about any of this. Again, as well, neither the Government nor any of its ministers, agencies or representatives, has been engaging in any direct conversations with the residents on this matter.

Placards revealing such rebuffs as "No to pollution," "No to toxic waste," and "Let us Live," speak loudly to how those residents feel. They don't want the plant, any which way it is presented. They have come up with alternative proposals for the development of their area, proposals they believe are better suited to the nature of the environment and the eco-system in that part of the country. They are still waiting for those proposals to be given the courtesy of constructive engagement by the decision makers.

Catholic nuns, representatives of various other Christian denominations and a Muslim cleric were among the marchers on Sunday, along with representatives of other civic, community and pressure groups from other parts of the country. The National Foodcrop Farmers Association was there, as was a contingent from the Oilfields Workers Trade Union and others. A coalition of interests lent their support to the ordinary residents of the twin groups which put it together, the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group and Cedros Peninsula United.

Randy Overby was expressing certainty on Monday that such anxiety and opposition that were on display last Sunday would continue until the people "get a chance to see how Alcoa operates." He felt assured that "over time, people will become more comfortable with the project."

For this to happen, Mr Overby must make a greater effort to engage directly with those "stakeholders" on the united Cedros Peninsula ground. But that's only a start. The people have to be convinced that what they propose as a model for the development of their own community is inferior to the establishment of the smelter, that it would provide greater long-term sustainable development for them. And it must be demonstrated to them why Sunday's smoke of a start ought not to intensify into a greater fire of protest and opposition as is their present intention.

Photo by Elspeth Duncan


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