THE protest against the Debe to Mon Desir Highway had a new, seemingly unwilling spectator yesterday—a protected river otter who appeared to have been trapped when his waterway was cut off by construction on the mega project.
Looking sad and weary, the otter was spotted by Express photographer, Trevor Watson, about 30 metres away from the highway segment being developed between South Oropouche Junction and the contentious Mon Desir overpass.
Trinidad is home to an ever-shrinking population of the indigenous Lontra longicaudis (Neotropical River Otter), which is now listed as endangered. The otters have lost numbers over the decades due to poaching and loss of habitat. It is therefore listed locally as a protected species, making it illegal to kill or cause to be killed a river otter.
The waterway in which the animal seems to be trapped appears to be the Tarouba River, which runs parallel to the highway construction and over which, according to the highway design plan, the Tarouba River bridge is due to be built, where the river intersects with the highway.
The river appeared to have been cut off just before its mouth.
The waterway, though large, seemed somewhat stagnant, with dark patches and old leaves. A healthy, happy river otter is normally playful and energetic but this fellow was listless and slow.
Not far away, the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM), has set up camp, and stages daily protests against the Mon Desir segment of the highway, which it says will destroy the ecology of the area.
Head of the Movement, Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, who has been arrested several times for attempting to block construction equipment, said yesterday the otter’s apparent plight was a “sad” vindication of the Movement’s claims.
Kublalsingh said the blocking of the waterway was only one example of violations of the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) granted to the State for the project by the Environmental Management Authority (EMA).
“This would be the responsibility of the EMA, as there has been no EMA supervision of this project,” Kublalsingh said yesterday.
Chairman of the EMA, Dr Allan Bachan, said differently, stating that compliance officers from the authority visit the site according to the rules of the CEC.
“Once the requirements are being met, then it’s not our responsibility,” Bachan said.
Bachan has since informed the Wildlife Department of the Forestry Division of the otter’s predicament.
Speaking for the activist group, Papa Bois Conservation, director Marc de Verteuil said, “This is an example of how human development destroys the natural environment and form insurmountable barriers for animal and plant species.
“It’s not just that concrete and asphalt destroy wildlife habitat. What we are doing is creating genetic islands. “For instance, the East-West Corridor has caused wildlife to the north to be separated from wildlife to the south. “No longer will there be an exchange of genetic material between separated populations, leading to genetically less diverse and healthy populations. The highway project will do the same.”
Other countries have found a supposed solution in creating animal bridges and tunnels to allow wildlife to cross these barriers, de Verteuil said, but in Trinidad, despite this highway being one of the world’s most expensive per mile, “we take no environmental prisoners”.
“Scandalously, the highway project also destroys mangrove,” he said.
“There are engineering solutions which would have spared the mangrove, but they were considered too expensive, because our planners and politicians have no understanding of the value of healthy, ecosystems.”