By Ryan Cecil Jobson §
As of Sunday, Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh has ingested neither food nor water for forty days, accepting only two bags of medical drips during a brief hospital stay earlier this month. Only two years ago, Kublalsingh ended a previous hunger strike after three weeks, when Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar intervened by agreeing in principle to an independent review of several concerns raised by the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) over a planned highway extension in south Trinidad. The HRM, composed of affected residents and concerned citizens alike, has called for a re-route of the proposed nine-mile Debe-Mon Desir section of the highway, which would displace approximately 300 households, encroach upon a lagoon and its protected watershed and mangroves, require extensive quarrying of the mountainous Northern Range, and cost the national treasury an estimated sum of TT$5.5 billion. When the review committee released its findings in what is now known as the Armstrong Report, a document that calls for a comprehensive review of social impacts, a hydrological study, and cost-benefit analyses of the highway, it established the grounds for a new dispute between the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and the HRM that continues to this day. After the government refused to implement the recommendations of the Armstrong Report, and continued construction of the disputed highway, Kublalsingh resumed his familiar position adjacent to the Office of the Prime Minister where he rested day after day, refusing to eat or drink, and seeking mediation between the People’s Partnership (PP) government and the HRM.
Kublalsingh is no stranger to conflict. In previous confrontations with the state over development projects and initiatives—including a series of successful protests against smelting plants—Kublalsingh has entered the public eye and drawn the ire of many who view him as a hindrance to national development. Many contrarian voices in support of the highway segment, of those who seek respite from the near constant traffic congestion aided by a generous state-funded fuel subsidy, have questioned his decision to carry out a second hunger strike, seeking mediation between the Prime Minister and the members of the HRM he has come to represent. In each instance, he has called for greater transparency, democratic governance, and sustainable development. Yet, the latest standoff between Kublalsingh and the Trinbagonian state bureaucracy reveals the elusiveness of these ideals more so than ever before. What it reveals is not simply a dispute over a highway, but a conflict inherent to the political constitution of Caribbean society. Put simply, the question at hand is not limited to one of pro-highway or anti-highway, pro-development or anti-development. Rather, it is a question of the way that Caribbean politics will operate after more than fifty years of the postcolonial experiment.
“Corruption constitutes one of the essential elements of the neo-colonial process of political retrogression. The extent and scope of corruption is such that it has become normative within the political systems of the English-speaking Caribbean over a period of a few years since independence. After a series of scandals in Trinidad, the populace has become conditioned to the existence of widespread corruption. It is the butt of jokes; it provides the subject matter for calypsoes. From time to time public suggestions are made regarding the reform of the greatest abuses of power by government leaders advancing their own interests, but on the whole it is recognised that corruption is now endemic to the political system and will be eradicated only with the end of the system itself.”
As the late Guyanese historian Walter Rodney observed many years ago, accusations of corruption are omnipresent in contemporary Trinbagonian political culture. Unsurprisingly, then, one of the central contentions of the HRM has been the award of a contract for the construction of the highway on the basis of a sole tender bid, spurring renewed charges of corruption at the highest levels of the state administration. But recalling Rodney’s cautionary words from nearly four decades ago, the problem is not one of petty corruption as a pathological feature of postcolonial governments, but the ways in which it operates in the words of anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan as an accepted “way of getting business done.” Corruption, in this sense, should not be understood as a feature unique to the postcolonial world since it afflicts nation-states of the global north and global south alike. What distinguishes the Caribbean are the ways in which corruption, to mean both political malfeasance and encroachment upon local ecologies, undergirds the modern history of the region.
Since the inauguration of a plantation economy under European colonial rule, the development of the Caribbean has been fashioned in service of metropolitan markets and, as Sidney Mintz details in his pathbreaking study Sweetness and Power, toward burgeoning consumer tastes for particular commodities such as sugar. In the English-speaking Caribbean, the transition to political independence—and the ceding of political power to the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured laborers from East Asia and the Indian subcontinent—has been focused similarly on the acquisition of export markets for specific products, and in the case of hydrocarbon-rich Trinidad and Tobago, on a pervasive taste for fossil fuels that has steered world politics and international relations over at least the past century. Adopting the development model of industrialization by invitation popularized by Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Arthur Lewis, the newly independent nations of the former British West Indies attracted foreign investment through fiscal incentives to varying degrees of success. And while Lewis imagined his recommendations as a pathway to economic and political independence, Caribbean economists have conversely observed a deepening of foreign dependence amidst the depletion of the traditional agricultural sector and rural peasantries.
Won on the back of a bargain negotiated between local elites and international financiers, Caribbean independence has been guided not by the masses of people it represents in name, but by access to the international markets it aims to preserve. It is a corruption of democracy, in its ideal sense, on which Caribbean politics are founded. As Walter Rodney reminds us, this vicious circle will only break with the “end of the system itself” rather than cursory reforms to a deeply flawed system of governance. The end of the system, though, can perhaps be achieved without violent conflict or classical revolutionary upheaval. This is precisely what Kublalsingh, and the group of citizens he represents, have placed on the table. With the completion of the Armstrong Report, the HRM and the PP government have embarked on an unprecedented collaboration between the postcolonial state and its citizens by looking inward to evaluate social impacts and environmental costs, rather than outward to foreign capital and external models of development and progress.
It would be foolhardy, in this respect, to dispute the benefits of the highway for a great many Trinbagonians burdened by an oppressive daily commute. Yet it would be equally pertinent to question the neoliberal logics of development that produced the daily commute in the first place. Why, for instance, must so many flock to the urban centers of Trinidad in search of gainful employment? Perhaps instead of quelling traffic by increasing the volume of roadways, the emboldening of existing rural economies through governmental investment will grant more the right to make a living close to home. This process cannot be achieved overnight, but proposals and initiatives cited by the HRM such as the Point Fortin hospital, agricultural development in the Oropouche lagoon communities, and decentralization of government ministries and offices point provisionally in this direction. To this end, proponents of environmental conservation and rural economic development can forge a productive collaboration from which to produce a more potent regional or global movement that does not isolate the protection of nature from the needs of citizens in underdeveloped communities across the global south. In Trinidad, the Armstrong Report is a testament to one possible future in which an alliance of this sort can potentially thrive with governmental support.
Since I returned to Trinidad for fieldwork in September of this year, the HRM has garnered support from a variety of sectors, including political opposition parties, trade unions, civil society groups, and environmental advocacy organizations. What might be understood as the evolution of the movement, from Kublalsingh’s first to his second and current hunger strike, has encouragingly identified the dispute against a highway as a platform for a host of related issues. Of particular note, a demonstration of solidarity with the women of the HRM, spearheaded by University of the West Indies lecturer, Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, called attention to the specifically gendered dimensions of state development initiatives such as the highway. An associated press release noted that the continuation of the Debe-Mon Desir interchange would disturb family life—to include traditional nuclear familial units and non-traditional extended family structures—dismantling integral networks of affiliation that support women, children, and their families. The forced relocation of certain families would, in turn, erode the human infrastructures whereby extended family members assist in caregiving, permitting women to seek gainful employment, manage small businesses, or maintain small-scale agricultural production to generate family income and embolden the economic independence of the region.
With this in mind, it is clear that the HRM does not oppose development. Rather, it is the centuries-long development impelled by local women, and the family and community structures that they labor to maintain, that the movement seeks to uphold. Women are too frequently cast as the hidden faces of development, or at best, deemed a cursory afterthought to large-scale infrastructure projects. The call for women’s solidarity with the HRM, then, demands that the steadfast pursuit of national development cannot come at the expense of family structures of all types or the productive engagement of women in the local and national economy.
The HRM, accordingly, presents an opportunity to enact a radical politics of intersectionality through the confluence of labour, environmental, and gender politics in Trinidad and Tobago. As a political anthropologist, however, it is necessary to consider at what point a dispute over a highway ceases to be a dispute over a highway. The livelihoods of the individuals and families that reside along the path of the Debe-Mon Desir segment remain at the heart of the unfolding social drama, and rightfully so. As the HRM gains steam, though, it holds the potential to change the tenor of the movement from one of a local struggle over a highway and the people it will displace to a broader assessment of democratic politics in Trinidad and Tobago and the post-independence Caribbean. On the one hand, whether or not the highway is continues as planned, it would be wrong to allow the movement for greater democratic participation, political transparency, and ecological sensitivity fade along with it. On the other, to lose sight of those that gave rise to this movement, and the communities they seek to preserve, would be an even greater error. The movement can, and must, attend to both. The future of Caribbean democracy depends on it.
Follow this link to read and sign an active petition associated with the Highway Re-Route Movement of Trinidad and Tobago.
Ryan Cecil Jobson, a Jamaican-American, is a PhD Candidate in the Departments of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University and the recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Student Fellowship to Trinidad and Tobago. For more information on the Highway Re-Route Movement, please visit its Facebook page and consider signing the above petition.