Sunday, February 25, 2018

The wealth above the ground

STREET protests by residents in communities throughout the deep south are not new and have erupted from time to time in recent years. For some residents the issues have been roads, water and basic amenities while for others they have been unemployment and an overall lack of community development.

The distinctive history of the region is an important factor in assessing the current situation since many of these communities came into being as "oil towns".

This status has changed over the years and not without adverse consequences. George E Higgins has written an excellent book called A History of Trinidad Oil in which he recorded in great detail the historical relationship between the oil industry and communities such as Penal, Barrackpore, Fyzabad, La Brea and Point Fortin. Higgins described the significant role the oil companies played in the social and economic development of this part of the country....building roads, schools, hospitals, houses and sporting facilities. In addition they provided direct and indirect employment for thousands of residents and some of them even received free cooking gas directly into their homes.

Those were the days of foreign multinationals like Shell and Texaco who, to protect their interests, established an almost semi-feudal relationship with the communities surrounding their operations.

While their philosophy may have engendered a sense of dependency and subservience, their legacy is not entirely without merit. I was reminded of this last year when I went to see a football game at a facility once owned by a foreign oil company. I was appalled at the rotting stands, broken fence and leaking roof. It became even more embarrassing when an elderly gentleman looked around at the crumbling infrastructure and remarked "when the foreigner was here, this coulda never happen." Unfortunately it is a lament that can be heard from many persons throughout south Trinidad who also point out that many of the poorest communities in T&T today can be found on the doorstep of the energy sector.

Perhaps it is this paradox that has prompted some of the companies operating the region to review their approach to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and community relations. The National Gas Company (NGC) for instance recently developed an innovative Community Economic Development programme that will "focus on community self-reliance and sustainability". And Petrotrin's new CSR policy advocates a similar commitment to improving "the social and economic life of stakeholders". Although these are mere words on paper they can provide the impetus for a series of innovative projects that will promote sustainable community development.

At the Point Fortin leg of the recent Common Sense Convois staged by the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies, president of the National Energy Corporation, Andrew Jupiter, a Point Fortin son-of-the soil, called for a greater commitment to the ideal of "enlightened mineral management". He outlined the critical role that south-west Trinidad played in the development of the oil industry and concluded his presentation by urging the energy sector to "give back to the communities''.

It is in the process of "giving back" that the real challenge lies and a more imaginative use of indigenous resources and expertise is needed. Fortunately there remains a solid accumulation of human and social capital that was generated during the days of the predecessor companies, especially in sport and culture.

Take Barrackpore for instance, the site of numerous oilfields and a community that has consistently produced top-class cricketers including our most successful national captain, Daren Ganga. In keeping with the sporting and cultural heritage that is characteristic of the region, Barrackpore is also the hometown of the late cultural icon Sundar Popo.

In nearby Siparia the annual La Divina Pastora celebration is yet another example of the indigenous cultural wealth of the region. Another highlight on the annual cultural calendar takes place with the Point Fortin Borough Day celebrations. This annual event not only attracts locals but it also brings a large influx of visitors from the US.

Along with the construction of modern facilities for visitors at the Pitch Lake in La Brea and the marketing of the archaeological wonders at Banwari Trace in Oropouche, there are numerous opportunities for small business development. And when the highway to Point Fortin is completed and the water-taxi service is extended to the south-west peninsula a whole new range of possibilities will emerge. To be successful, however, the business strategy must include what the people want for themselves and not what others think is good for them. The process, therefore, begins by listening to the residents.

All across south Trinidad there are exciting and innovative projects waiting to be designed and implemented. While it is important to monetise the hydrocarbon reserves below the surface, the street protests will subside significantly when we optimise the wealth that exists above the ground.

Richard Braithwaite is a

management consultant