HUNDREDS of residents living in the path of the proposed Debe to Fyzabad segment of the Solomon Hochoy Highway extension to Point Fortin blocked roads in and around Penal, Fyzabad and South Oropouche yesterday.
The residents are demanding fair and just compensation for their land and homes which must be demolished to make way for the highway.
The protest action crippled traffic flow out of southwest Trinidad, with roads blocked with burning tyres and debris, and protesters lining the streets, holding placards.
The protest was led by Edward Moodie, a community liaison officer employed with the National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco), the State company that is overseeing the highway construction.
Moodie’s role in the protest has been questioned by Local Government and Works and Infrastructure Minister Suruj Rambachan, who said the matter would be discussed at a meeting between Nidco and residents to be held on Saturday.
Moodie has however countered that his job was to lobby for the residents, who he said were not being treated equitably.
“It was agreed that squatters would settle for the value of their houses and, for bonafide residents, the value of the land and disturbance allowance. However, that is not happening. The residents said they are being threatened and intimidated. Nobody wants to move, but everybody agreed that they will go in the interest of national development,” he said.
Moodie said the residents want open dialogue with Nidco officials and Works and Local Government Minister Suruj Rambachan.
“A lot of promises were made to these people and they are not being delivered right now. Some people say they are being targeted one by one. They are being threatened that they have 24 hours to leave. A lot of them settled under duress. They were afraid. They got scared and decided to take what the government was giving them and go up the road. That has set a very dangerous precedent”, said Moodie.
Moodie said Nidco should adopt a more humane approach to the eviction and movement of residents from the areas in which the highway is to be built. He said it had been agreed that residents would move when land at Petite Morne, Ste Madeleine being prepared for dislocated residents, was infrastructurally ready.
“We are not animals”, said Moodie. “They have agreed to give residents a six-month rental (at apartments) and verbally they are promising that we will get a rental after that. But we do not want any verbal agreement. We want it in writing, but we are not getting that.”
Marlon Jones, 48, who has resided in Oropouche all of his life, claimed his sister was intimidated by Nidco into signing over the property for an undervalued sum.
“Two Fridays ago my sister was duped into signing over to Nidco. She was threatened and frightened. We took a private evaluator and valued our home and it valued close to $500,000 , but she signed over for $120,000. When I asked her why she said Nidco said that if you don’t take what they are offering the government will just come and bulldoze your house. They told her who don’t want their offers the government will bulldoze the house”, said Jones.
Nidco has issued a release responding that the negotiations were transparent.
Jones said on Saturday three vehicle carrying OAS Construtora workers broke down the structure and that evening the house was bulldozed. “We still had a few possessions in the house”, he said.
Another resident, Vijay Kariah, in whose house there are 12 family members residing, said he has not signed over his house because he has nowhere to take his family.
“Nidco sent me a letter offering me $68,000, but my house is valued about $160,000. That money would be just to relocate us. I am afraid to they will come to break down my house because as they start one they will break down all. I born and grow here, but if we have to go give us a fair deal,” said Kariah.
Brazilian-based Construtora OAS has been given the contract to undertake $7.2 billion project, and the Golconda to Debe segment of the highway is nearing completion.
Rambachan said that this segment of the highway would be opened on August 30 and that the Golconda Interchange on Friday.