Monday, January 22, 2018

Reform the EMA now

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"NO HOLDS" BARRED: Surujrattan Rambachan

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The Express ran the first in a series of weekly columns submitted by the Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) on January 19. These articles seek to highlight not just local environmental issues but those which affect the population on a global scale. Questions and comments can be emailed to admin@ffostt.com.

In the early 1990s, the People's National Movement, under the encouragement of the World Bank, launched the programme that resulted in the birth of the Environmental Management Authority ("EMA"). Our now sanctimonious opposition party, entrusted leadership of the programme to develop a modern environmental management regime to Dr Shaffick Sultan-Khan, a well-known political associate of the PNM. 

Thus, the EMA was delivered by a politically-inspired midwife with very little experience in developing an environmental legal regime.

Unfortunately, for the few environmentalists, the political circumstances of the birth of the EMA were a portent for its future evolution. The EMA has since become an institution governed by political actors with politicians such as Vincent Lasse, Nafeesa Mohammed and the late Kelvin Ramnath occupying board positions. As our elders would say, "the chicken has now come home to roost".

On September 4, Dr Surujrattan Rambachan created history with a public consultation held at Princes Town to

discuss the proliferation of chicken farms in Piparo and the role of the State-approving agencies in facilitating the establishment of such farms in the face of strong community opposition. It would be worthwhile for other government ministers to note the professionalism with which the meeting was conducted and the "no holds" barred approach of the Minister. NGOs, community members, regional corporation representatives, Town and Country Planning and the EMA were all summoned to explain their position to those affected by decisions taken without consultation.

At this meeting, the EMA was exposed to full public scrutiny as a deeply dysfunctional organisation. The tragedy revealed a lack of awareness of the EMA of its role as an environmental regulator and the legal framework under which it operates. Its attempt to avoid blame by claiming that, if a project finds approval from Town and Country Planning and Regional Corporations, the EMA's role is diminished.

In law, this is absolute hogwash, since the EMA is the supreme approving statutory authority in Trinidad and Tobago and absolutely no one applicant can proceed with a designated activity without a Certificate of Environmental Clearance by the EMA, even in the face of approvals, tacit or otherwise, from all other State entities. Ask Dr Rowley what was the consequence when he recently started a sheep farm.

It was heartening to hear Minister Rambachan publicly express disquiet at the role played by the EMA in facilitating the upsurge in the establishment of chicken farms in Piparo. Certain questions arise: Has the EMA steered away from its role as regulator? Is the leadership of the EMA managing this institution according to the intention of the law? Are the professionals at the EMA fully aware of the jurisdiction of the law which governs the function of the EMA? If not, why not?

Where do we go from here? How do we re-invent this institution that is so desperately needed in our country? Its present executive leadership is currently mired in rumours of misconduct. The institution is haemorrhaging employees; yet, the board is silent. 

Based on the number of resignations in the recent past, it appears that morale is at an all-time low while those who have chosen to remain and pursue their dreams of playing a role in protecting and managing our environment are forced to pursue backdoor means to have the story of life at the EMA placed in the public domain.

The environment is a burning political issue that has come of age, and our Government must sit up and decide how it will protect its citizens from the vagaries of mismanagement.

For 15 years, FFOS has fought the EMA in the courts of our land to ensure that it follows its own legal environmental regime. Through all of these activities, we have been guided by our desire and commitment for a strong and independent EMA relatively free of political influence.

Now, we are seeing the downward spiral of this organisation at the peoples' expense and we are grieving. Without a strong regulatory body, capable of managing our environment without fear or favour, what would be the environmental legacy for future generations? The time to act is now. The EMA is too eager to engage in environmental management when photo opportunities are presented.

Blustering public statements are being made when there is an oil spill or stench from poultry operations at the opening of a new school where our Prime Minister is present.

The executive leadership of the EMA reflects a "bling" culture: all glitter and no substance. We will pay a terrible price for our failure to rise and oppose the destruction of the EMA. We publicly exhort the political leadership to appoint an independent committee to investigate the EMA and make recommendations that can form the basis of a new dispensation.  Environmentalists have waited since the 1980s for a functional EMA and are all now being summoned to stand up and oppose its mismanagement.