A plea for La Brea

By Richard Braithwaite

La Brea is once again in the news. The last time this quiet community dominated the national media was at the height of the anti-smelter campaign which eventually succeeded when the project was stopped. Since then, nothing much has happened and La Brea remains one of the poorer and more depressed communities in the country. This is unfortunate and some say it’s an indictment on the national conscience since it was this part of the country that provided much of the wealth that built the nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
Official statistics continue to show relatively high levels of poverty and unemployment and numerous social problems. Unfortunately the recent oil spill is threatening to make life even harder for some who live in the area. Hopefully this latest outpouring of care and concern for the people of La Brea will continue long after the spill has been cleaned. Southwest Trinidad has given so much and has received so little. Even the many promises over many years for a new hospital remain unfulfilled. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to build the proposed Drilling Academy in La Brea or Point Fortin or Fyzabad where so much drilling took place and whose residents past and present contributed significantly to the development of the energy sector.
While modern stadia have been constructed all over the country none has been built in this part of the country despite the abundant sporting talent. La Brea has produced many top sportsmen including former national football captain Anthony Rougier, Olympian Rondell Sorrillo and the brilliant Gus Logie of West Indies cricket fame. And just next door in Point Fortin the array of sporting personalities is even greater with names like Leroy De Leon and arguably the greatest local basketballer of all time Victor ‘Voot’ O’Garro. On top of that ‘Point’ is also known as the country’s cultural capital with a long history of excellence in terms of indigenous music. Surely a significant part of the region’s sustainable future lies in exploiting the substantial social capital that has accumulated from the many outstanding achievements in sport and culture. All that is required is some imagination and a more equitable distribution of wealth from the oil and gas in the area.
Last year I wrote an article entitled “The wealth above the ground” and I suggested that “all across south Trinidad there are exciting and innovative projects waiting to be designed and implemented.” One of these was a wonderful plan by NGC to restore the Vessigny Dam as a recreational site and to develop a local tourism product that would include the world-famous Pitch Lake. Just imagine the possibilities if these projects are integrated with the creative elements of the annual Siparia Fete and Borough Day celebrations in Point Fortin.
A disturbing statistic however, is that a majority of residents are under 25 years old and this implies that the future of La Brea is in jeopardy unless there are some meaningful interventions. True there are proposals to construct methanol and LNG plants at Union Industrial Estate in Vessigny and a modern power plant was recently commissioned on the same site. But unless there are comprehensive long-term strategies to improve the lives of the residents themselves and to protect their environment, the situation is unlikely to get better. While providing employment is important it is also necessary to have intensive training programmes that develop the skills and competencies of the youth. The people of La Brea should not be mere spectators to the industrial expansion taking place in their own backyard.
One of T&T’s top energy experts, Andrew Jupiter, who is also a product of the Southwest, delivered a speech last year at the Common Sense Convois staged by the Lloyd Best Institute in Point Fortin. The theme was “Enlightened Mineral Management” and he emphasised that “State companies must give back to the communities and must be committed to enhancing the quality of life of the residents of the Southwest Peninsula in which they operate”. Jupiter is now the Head of the Petroleum Studies Unit of the Chemical Engineering Department at UWI. As a Distinguished Fellow and University Professor he is ideally suited to guide future leaders of the energy sector along a more enlightened path and towards a greater awareness and appreciation for the social and environmental impacts of their operations.

It’s an expectation that is shared by one of La Brea’s favourite sons, the venerable Arthur Benjamin Forde. This 86-year-old ‘walking encyclopaedia’ has lived all of his life in La Brea and he has seen it all...the good, the bad and the ugly. Chatting with ‘Fordie’ is a rewarding experience as he can recall personal encounters with legendary figures such as Uriah Butler and Dr Eric Williams. He rattles off dates with amazing accuracy and he reminds all who visit that La Brea was once “the industrial capital of the Caribbean”. He insists that the region had electric street lights long before Port of Spain courtesy a nearby oil refinery and he boasts that it also produced intellectuals such as Dr Roy Chong Kit, T&T’s youngest island scholarship winner. All of this information is included in a book that he is currently writing on the history of La Brea and which he has undertaken as a ‘gift to the young people’.
Arthur Forde’s greatest wish is for La Brea to return to its ‘days of glory’. He points out that “the country just celebrated 100 years of oil and La Brea was there from the start. We have contributed a lot to the development of Trinidad and Tobago and we deserve better”. Spill or no spill, it is a plea that should not be ignored.
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