Thursday, July 20, 2006

Catholic Commission for Social Justice Press Release on the Smelter issue

Trinidad and Tobago has been endowed with a wealth of natural resources, a gift from God that has been entrusted to us, to be managed responsibly and used wisely, for the benefit of all, present as well as future generations.

In this connection the Catholic Commission for Social Justice wishes to refer at the outset to the following statement which forms part of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church:
“The Magisterium has repeatedly emphasized that the Catholic Church is in no way opposed to progress, rather she considers ‘science and technology are a wonderful product of a God-given creativity since they have provided us with wonderful possibilities, and we all gratefully benefit from them.’ ”
(Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #457)

However the Social Doctrine of the Church also affirms that:
“Solutions to the ecological problem require that economic activity respect the environment to a greater degree, reconciling the needs of economic development with those of environmental protection. Every economic activity making use of natural resources must also be concerned with safeguarding the environment…. An economy respectful of the environment will not have the maximizing of profits as its only objective, because environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.”
(Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #470)
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Responsible management requires that decisions be taken on the basis of an informed and balanced examination of anticipated benefits and risks.

The proposal to construct two aluminum smelters in La Brea and in the south west peninsula of Trinidad and Tobago is based on a range of possible benefits which include the following:
- Income and revenue generation through the exploitation of an abundant supply of natural gas;
- Employment creation;
- The establishment of downstream industries providing additional income and employment;
- Benefits to surrounding communities.

However serious concerns have also been raised relating to and including:
- The displacement and dislocation of residents of the area, with the Union Village relocation still pending since 2004;
- Dangers to human health and safety and to the environment through harmful emissions and the generation of hazardous wastes;
- Occupational health and safety hazards;
- Loss of bio-diversity, including species of plants and animals unique to the designated area.

There is unquestionable value likely to accrue from the exploitation of Trinidad and Tobago’s natural gas resources as a means of income generation and employment creation for the common good. However attention also needs to be paid to the hidden costs of obtaining these benefits, the cost, for instance, of the accelerated depletion of a non-renewable natural resource, as well as the cost of concessionary gas pricing when calculated as possible revenue forgone. More information is needed on all aspects of this equation.

In order to arrive at a proper assessment of likely benefits, it is important to obtain information on approximate numbers of temporary as well as permanent jobs to be created through the construction and operation of the proposed smelters and associated downstream industries.

Similar concrete information and commitments should also be provided to substantiate the claim that the proposed industrialization of the south western region will bring material benefits and improvements to the communities who reside in the area.

The basic question needs to be asked – will the proposed development of the area improve the lives of the people of the area? We have heard the cries of pain and injury coming from the residents. The people of the area have a right to be heard. They have a right to be consulted and informed. If their lives and livelihoods are threatened their concerns must be heeded. They have a right to be treated with dignity, with fairness and with justice. The residents of Union Village have a right to a just relocation, with choices
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of decent housing offered in an environment conducive to vegetable gardens and farming, in which they were previously engaged. They also have a right to restitution and reparation for the losses they have been forced to incur.

There is significant evidence of very serious threats of pollution of the air, water and soil of the surrounding environment, as well as adverse health impacts for the workers and inhabitants of the area, as a consequence of the operation of the proposed smelters. Given the health risks that are involved, including recent information concerning the risk of multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, there is a clear and urgent need for a full health impact assessment of this major new industrial development that is planned for the country.

No definite answers have been forthcoming in relation to the disposal of the hazardous and toxic wastes that will result from the operation of the smelters. It must be emphasized that there are no dedicated hazardous waste disposal sites in Trinidad and Tobago and the Catholic Commission for Social Justice is not aware of plans to develop any such sites here. Transfer of hazardous wastes from Trinidad for disposal elsewhere is also likely to be prohibited by the Basel Convention, to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory.

Here it must be added that industry self regulation will not guarantee safety and health. What Trinidad and Tobago needs is the necessary legislative and regulatory framework that will provide for the health and safety of both workers and the broader community, as well as the protection of the environment. Such a framework must include provisions for empowered, expert independent external monitoring to check compliance and ensure enforcement. Pope John Paul II, in his message for the 1990 World Day of Peace stated as follows:
“The State should actively endeavour within its own territory to prevent destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere, by careful monitoring…and ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes.”

The proposal to construct two aluminum smelters in the south west of Trinidad and Tobago raises serious concerns relating to human health and safety and the safeguarding of our environment. These concerns go to the heart of our basic system of values. Trinidad and Tobago deserves to have these concerns and questions properly addressed and resolved as part of the national decision making process.

In an address to participants in a convention on ‘The Environment and Health’ in March 1997, Pope John Paul II said:
“The modern era has witnessed man’s growing capacity for transformative intervention. The aspect of the conquest and exploitation of resources has become predominant and invasive, and today it has even reached the point of threatening the environment’s hospitable aspect: the environment as ‘resource’ risks threatening the environment as ‘home’. Because of the powerful means of
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transformation offered by technological civilization, it sometimes seems that the balance between man and the environment has reached a critical point.”

At this critical juncture, in the light of the many unresolved issues requiring further investigation and decision making in the context of the greater good, the Catholic Commission for Social Justice cannot at this time support the present plans for the construction of two aluminum smelters in La Brea and the south west peninsula of Trinidad and Tobago.

In closing the Commission wishes to cite the following from the Social Doctrine of the Church:
“Serious ecological problems call for an effective change of mentality leading to the adoption of new lifestyles, in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of the common good are the factors that determine consumer choices, savings and investments…..There is a need to break with the logic of mere consumption and promote forms of agriculture and industrial production that respect the order of creation and satisfy the basic human needs of all.”
(Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #486)


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