Sunday, April 02, 2006

Union Village says no to aluminum smelter

Q&A with BC Pires
Sunday Express
April 2, 2006

Elijah Gour, Chair of the Union Village Council, spoke about his community's concerns over the proposed aluminum smelters and their effects on the southwestern peninsula.

Q: Do you want a smelter?

A: The people of Union Village definitely do not want a smelter. After getting information off the Internet and being educated from individuals inclined in that area, we feel confident the aluminum smelter is a hazard to the environs and people.

Is there a difference between the proposed Alcoa and Alutrint smelters?

In terms of the effect, no. The end result would be the same. There is a difference in the administration. Alcoa is American-owned whereas Alutrint would be part government-owned [so] the government would have a greater say into that one.

Alutrint would also permit downstream value-added industries; surely that would benefit Trinidad & Tobago?

Yes, it will be a benefit but one has to study the effects it will have on the people and environment. I always say industries are good but you need to differentiate between those that are environmentally acceptable and those that are not.

You are a trade unionist?

No, I'm not; however I am a trade union member.

There are people who would say, "This is a trade unionist holding up economic progress"?

I think the trade union is not standing in the way of progress, only justifying the cause of the people and ensuring the wealth of the country is used in an efficient manner.

What did the proposed site land look like before it was cleared?

It was secondary forest, greenery with dams, a lot of wild animals, pastures where people had cattle, gardens. People used to go for evening strolls, it was very quiet and calm. All the things one would think of that you would be living to enjoy. The forest was part of the community. We had hunters, gardeners there. People used to use the dam to water their plants, to go swimming. In the dry season, it would be used to have a bath, wash clothes. Now it's like a desert.

With the high winds these days, imagine almost a thousand hectares of bare land, heavy with dust. You could imagine the problems residents are having.

How big was this dam?

It was three dams they covered, eh, not one. They were drained at night and we believe that they were done in that way because they were not keeping up with environmental standards. They were quite big, stretching for a few hectares-well. If you understand the contour of the land, they were catchment areas used by the predecessor, Texaco, to facilitate water to their industrial sites.

We did a lot of fishing there. There were a lot of caimans. It also watered the animals that lived in the area. Those dams were back- filled in the process of levelling to get the contour they probably were looking for to suit the industries. They were all drained into the Vessigny sea illegally and not coherent with environmental standards, in that they were drained at night and there were no proper silt traps [for] the debris that would be coming down with the slush and mud. We asked the reason for draining the dam and they told us the water was contaminated. Give them the benefit of the doubt and say, okay, it was contaminated.

We thought it was interesting that they drained a contaminated dam into the Vessigny River, contaminated the river, and then the river flowed to the Vessigny sea, a tourist resort, to contaminate that. We find that somewhat conflicting.

As the project continues, we've been seeing constant breaches within the areas laid out by the EMA: they brought in truckloads of tyres and put them alight in bamboo patches. They grade down all the buffer zone that was supposed to be between the clearing and the villagers so the effects we're having now would have been somewhat shaded. Things like that, they keep doing.

Were you made aware beforehand?

No one informed us. Villagers were at a disadvantage. People had to get their cattles out in a haste, call in the butchers, who saw it as an opportunity to exploit people, so villagers had to sell out their animals at very low cost. Some had vegetables in their gardens and were not able to go and reap them.

Was there damage to wildlife?

It was beyond damage! Imagine you have tractors, excavators at various points all working into the centre and you have sensitive animals like porcupines and anteaters. You also have the monkeys that were slaughtered. Tractors keep pushing the trees-the hunting season was closed, to facilitate the animals to breed-and monkeys, heavy with young, were falling out of trees. You had workmen clobbering them to death.

It was devastating to them. Animals running all on the road and in people' backyards. You could say they massacred these animals. All who had young, who were about to make young. What were not killed by the falling trees were utilised by the workers. What thought they might escape were chased and killed. Clobbered with wood, cutlasses, pieces of iron, whatever the workmen could put their hands on.

What other impact have the proposed smelters had?

Apart from the physical impact, in terms of the gardens and all that, it's a big psychological impact. Here it is people are accustomed to one way of life, having their gardens, having space, freedom. We are now threatened with relocation. We have been told we are squatters on land where we have been living for 100 years. I have been living there 45 years, my parents have been living there over 60 years. The compensation packages are very poor. The younger children are asking, "What is going to happen to us?

Where are we going to live?" The security we had before, a united village where everybody looks after one another-is that going to be split up? Are we going to go to an area prone to banditry? We've been invited to meetings and when we reach, we're told they are cancelled. They say one thing in one meeting, another in another. We go to a meeting with one party present and agree on something; go to a next meeting, another party is present and they do not agree. The parties who are responsible are fighting amongst themselves.

People like Alcoa, the government, business interests might say you all are holding back progress?

They don't have all the facts. They are only looking at one thing: it's income and industries. But in every industry, you need planning.

The residents are being affected and we have decided that, if we are not going to be treated in a fair and just manner, we have no choice but to demand it. We are prepared to take whatever action is necessary. We are a small community. We have started gathering money by fund-raising ventures. We have asked the general public who are interested to assist. We have a bank account

Would you oppose a smelter if it were located somewhere else in Trinidad?

I would oppose a smelter built anywhere else in the world.

Alcoa is saying this publicity is unfair because, when finished, their smelter-in-the-park will actually be environmentally friendly?

One thing Alcoa has to do is, tell us what they are going to do with the waste. If they can't tell us that, we can't start believing them.

Right now, smelter in a park, that is only hearsay.

Is the whole of your community opposed to the smelters?

In the public consultation, more than 95 per cent; in speaking to people, almost everybody. A Vessigny village councillor told me that, though they were laid back before, they are very soon going to be having action up there as well. One can say the whole area is being affected and will give their voice.

The area earmarked for the smelter is east of the Union and Vessigny villages. The predominant winds would take the emissions across the village, just a few hundred metres away, so they would definitely get the full blast.

What happens if we do have a public discourse and the people of Trinidad & Tobago are in favour of the smelters?

Well, we have a democratic country and the majority stands to overrule. My honest opinion is, if people are educated about the smelter, we would not have a problem. The majority would definitely be against the smelter.

The Prime Minister has promised the smelter will be built no matter what?

He did promise that. But we were also promised that the lands would be cleared with all the environmental standards met and they weren't.

So that leads us to wonder if what the PM says will actually be true.

Photos by Elspeth Duncan


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