Flashback June 27: Soldiers remove items from the Highway Re-Route Movement's protest camp in Debe. —Photo: TREVOR WATSON

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Billion-dollar highway tug of war

Environmentalists, Govt in face-off

By Renuka Singh

Towards the end of 2012, the National Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (Nidco) and its president Dr Carson Charles found themselves in the middle of a billion-dollar tug of war between environmentalists and the Government. The project, a multi-billion-dollar highway linking San Fernando to Point Fortin, was inherited from the former People's National Movement (PNM) regime under whose watch it was conceptualised and initially gained momentum.

The multi-billion-dollar highway project only evolved into a massive bone of contention in the past two years when the project was awarded to the Brazilian-based firm OAS Construtora under the People's Partnership.

The clash between Government and environmentalists began more than seven years ago and only culminated in a massive show of resistance by hunger striker Dr Wayne Kublalsingh in November this year when a reroute to the initial proposal changed the original course of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway and it cut through the Oropouche Lagoon, displacing more than 300 families from the rural, close knit community.

Kublalsingh had admitted that he had run out of ideas to highlight the changed plans of the Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway.

But during the height of the friction between the Highway Re-Route Movement and the People's Partnership Government which resulted in a 21-day hunger strike and subsequently an independent review of the project, the PNM stepped back and refused to be drawn into the finger-pointing match.

Just over a week into Kublalsingh's hunger strike, PNM Member of Parliament for Diego Martin North East and then minister of Works and Transport, Colm Imbert, laid all responsibility for the fallout squarely at the Government's door. Imbert had said then that the original idea was for the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway to be implemented as a design/build project and was still in the "preliminary stages" when the government changed hands in 2010.

"The contract was not awarded before the general elections in May, we had no relationship with the contractors, we never even got to the stage of negotiations because the elections intervened," Imbert said then.

Imbert admitted that even then at the preliminary stages, two red flags were raised in two areas: the protected forest in Siparia and the Oropouche Lagoon, which in fact triggered Kublalsingh's hunger strike. Imbert said the then PNM government had a negotiation strategy plan to construct the highway in stages so that if any one part stalled for any reason, the other sections would be able to continue until the issues were resolved and added that even then the PNM was concerned about land acquisition issues.

He said then that experience taught the PNM that it would be more practical to break the highway construction into segments to avoid costly stalls for various reasons. Imbert said it was when the contract was awarded under the People's Partnership that "problems arose".

"The contract that was awarded does not have that safeguard or they could have started at Point Fortin until the Debe to Mon Desir section was sorted out," he said then. By mid year, though some work was continuing on the highway, Kublalsingh's team had established a makeshift camp on the middle of the highway project on the Debe to Mon Desir section. Though no major works was taking place in that area at the time, Kublalsingh and his Highway Reroute team refused to move their makeshift camp. They, at that time, gained the support of the trade union movement and oftentimes members of the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU) were seen providing informal security on the site.

No one was able to foresee an early morning move by the then freshly appointed National Security Minister Jack Warner, who led the members of the army to bulldoze the makeshift camp site. Despite the social fallout from that action, the path was both literally and figuratively clear for the highway project to continue.

Months of work and one hunger strike later, the battle for a section of the highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin is far from over and while there has been few State victories in the last two months, Charles remained optimistic that multi-billion dollar project would not be stopped. He has had two informal meetings with Dr James Armstrong, head of the independent committee set up to review the contentious section of the highway. He has yet to meet with the entire slate of 14 experts.

"In a general sense, I am very pleased that we have made substantial progress in the first segment of the Golconda to Debe portion and I am looking forward to opening that segment to the public by the end of March," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Charles said despite the negative publicity generated by the hunger strike, the project remained on course. He said the contractor was "sensitive" to the human issues and even with the fallout has maintained its commitment to using the more than 75 per cent local labour and materials in the project.

"The project has not been impeded in any significant way. The contractor was looking to ramp up development in the area of contention but has had to put that on hold pending the review of the independent team," he said.

Charles said the contractor has slowed down over the Christmas season which coincided with the timing of the independent review.

"They made internal changes and focused on the Siparia and Fyzabad interchanges," he said.

Charles said he was looking forward to the findings of the independent review team as it gives the project more expert input.

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