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Eight years of victories for Kublalsingh

By Richard Charan richard.charan@trinidadexpress.com

FOR those keeping score, its Kublalsingh—five, Governments—zero.

In the eight years since activist and doctor of philosophy Wayne Kublalsingh became a national figure, he has crafted a strategy that led to the implosion of some of the nation's largest industrial projects and drawn the attention of the powerful international environmental movement.

Dragged, pushed around, arrested and carted off by soldiers, security guards and police officers during his crusades, he has been the Gandhi-like symbol of passive resistance. Until last week, when he cursed Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan and walked off when a stand-by ambulance was offered in the event his hunger strike became a medical emergency.

However this ends, Kublalsingh has achieved at least one of his objectives — to bring the nation's attention to the 9.1-kilometre segment of highway that is intended to link Debe to Mon Desir.

Now everyone has an opinion on the issue, on the man, an Oxford-educated part-time UWI lecturer who drives an old Czech-built Skoda Felicia hatchback.

He is disliked by industrialists, considered a pest by ruling politicians and their supporters, and lauded as a messiah by some.

His modus operandi is now familiar—build a protest camp, marshal the media, explain the issues to the communities most likely to be impacted, and then begin the protests.

Use whatever is necessary—walkabouts, grim pamphlets, cottage meetings, human blockades, fasts, prayers, propaganda, rituals, confrontation with construction workers, but also undeniable charisma, and a command of his version of the facts.

His supporters recite his talking points.

And he openly admits to using the media to get the word out and training his supporters how to make the biggest impact when protesting the issue.

Confrontation is necessary. However, violence is not.

As a result, the images of Kublalsingh with his mostly female support base are impossible to turn away from.

And citizens, having never seen anything like this before, are unsure how to react to his picture showing an emaciated frame similar to that of a person in the drought-stricken Sahel or a Nazi concentration camp.

Kublalsingh-led protests stopped the construction of the proposed Alcoa steel smelter in 2005 at Chatham, Cedros.

In the case of the Alcoa smelter project, Kublalsingh convinced many that the plant would destroy a forest, steal miles of coastline, pollute the atmosphere, and compromise the aquifer, a point that the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) used to deny a certificate of environmental clearance (CEC).

The project was shelved.

Around the time of Alcoa, plans were also announced for the building of an industrial island offshore Otaheite in the Gulf of Paria, and for a steel complex to be built in Claxton Bay by India's Essar steel company.

The island plan was never pursued.

Meantime, a five-year-long campaign was launched in Claxton Bay, with a Hindu temple being built on the land designated for the smelter, accompanied by anti-smelter signs and motorcades, vigils and prayers, while residents awaited word from the EMA on whether a CEC would be granted to Essar.

In 2009, Essar pulled up stakes, closed its office at Atlantic Plaza, Couva, and left the country.

At around the same time, a similar protest simmered in La Brea, where residents were warned of the potential heath risks of the Alutrint aluminium smelter to be built on the newly-cleared La Brea Industrial Estate.

The High Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by the anti-smelter lobby that revolved around Kublalsingh and quashed the CEC granted to Alutrint, despite $3.2 billion already being spent on the project, that included the construction of a dedicated power generation plant that now produces excess power the State must pay for.

And in 2010, the EMA denied the National Energy Corporation's application for a CEC that would have allowed for the establishment of an industrial port at Claxton Bay Fishing Port, the main purpose of which was to supply the raw material for Essar.

The decision was based on an objection on the grounds of environmental and social impact, ending that plan despite millions already being spent on the project.

Earlier this year, Kublalsingh claimed victory in the fight by residents living near a proposed chemical plant in Phoenix Park near Couva, after almost a year of protests in which he was accused of vandalism and trespass.

The project has stalled as a result of funding issues, but residents, advised by Kublalsingh on the potential health and environmental impact of the plant, also intend challenging the construction in the court, should it return.

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