Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Conflicting interests

by Julien Kenny
Trinidad Express
November 14, 2006

"Words, words, words, I'm so sick of words," said Eliza. Sometimes the speaker uses the same two or three words or phrases to mean the same thing. Does anyone remember the Revised National Environmental Policy that has been through the EMA, its Board, the Ministry of the Environment, the Minister, Cabinet and both Houses of Parliament? In the same paragraph - environmental justice and ecological justice.

Now we have before the end of this month a single symposium, seminar or consultation on what? The aluminium smelter issue. And who is organising it? The National Energy Corporation (NEC), the very same state agency that refused to co-operate with the constitutionally appointed body, a standing Joint Select Committee of both Houses, in providing answers regarding aluminium smelters, now presumably to be answered through the mechanism of a symposium/seminar/consultation!

A symposium is generally accepted to be a conference of professionals to discuss academic or specialist subjects, very often to chronicle progress in the development of knowledge of the subject material. Symposia involve many presenters and generally take considerable time in their organisation, months or even years, for a session that may last one, two, three or a few days. The organisers are usually highly experienced experts in their fields as well as good administrators. Usually symposia produce published proceedings some months after the event. There is an alternative meaning of the term - a drinking and hilarity party (derived from a Greek word). Presumably now that drinking alcohol is frowned upon there will be no such thing happening at the NEC symposium, although there might be some hilarity.

A seminar is also generally accepted to be a conference but is of a slightly different kind. Mostly it is a meeting of students or professionals in a university environment to discuss academic or specialist subjects, and a seminar usually involves a single presenter. The word is derived from the Latin seminarium, a place of teaching or learning, and is itself derived the Latin word semen or "seed".

Seminars are routinely employed today not only in universities but amongst diverse organisations. Some seminars will cost you plenty as the specialists in some fields make their living from chasing around the world extracting large fees. It is quite impossible to determine whether the upcoming event will be a seminar. It might adopt the form, with one or two specialist hirelings of the multinationals descending on us to tell us of the benefits of foreign direct investment.

A consultation can be anything you wish, from speaking to your banker or insurance agent or pharmacist or specialist physician, to a political meeting on a street corner when the world is promised. It could even be a meeting of a pastor with his church elders, a shining knight in the continuing battle against the evil of homosexuality, one who had the ears of Bush on a weekly basis, after being "outed" by his male prostitute. As for workshops - they are essentially day-release from boredom in the public service.

But let's be serious. If it is to be a proper symposium, can such a meeting really be organised in the mere three weeks left before the end of the month? As a general rule the longer the time available to the organisers, and the higher the calibre of the persons selected for lead papers, and the competence of the editors of the proceedings, the higher the quality and value of the symposium.

And the real questions are: Does the NEC have any experience in organising a symposium? Who will be the presenters? What will be the criteria for selection? If the performance of the NEC representatives before the JSC chaired by Senator Mary King is any guide I would be most surprised if they are able to carry it off. Remember that the NEC heavies as well as the aluminium smelter dons failed to accept a perfectly legitimate and reasonable request from the Chair to attend, while those who did simply could not answer many of the questions.

But there is an even greater cause for concern. By whatever standard one applies there is the issue of their fitness to organise such an important symposium in the light of their closeness to Alcoa, a clear conflict of interest. It becomes even more unsettling if one takes into account the fact that the original application for CEC by Alcoa came from the NEC, the Alcoa smelter being the principal bone of contention.

Consider also that the NGC clearly failed to meet the terms of the CEC granted by the EMA for the clearing of Union Estate. One can only guess that they are simply following their masters' orders. But just think. If the whole purpose of the symposium is a make or break issue about smelters in this country - why not simply freeze everything pro tem and go to Parliament with the final published symposium proceedings to have the matter debated thoroughly and democratically.


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