AFTER serving his five years on the European-owned sugar estates, Indian indentured immigrant Siew Samai chose Trinidad instead of the trip back to the motherland.
He worked the land granted by the State, sold the food he didn't eat and by the turn of the 20th century, had enough money to buy ten acres of swamp in the Oropouche Lagoon.
To get to it meant walking the mile or so from the Debe Main Road, along the banks of mud separating the often flooded rice fields.
And on a hillside above the high mark of the floods that came yearly with the overflow of the Oropouche River, he and a cousin built homes within earshot of the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) steam locomotives moving cargo and passengers as far south as Siparia.
And it is there Samai settled and worked the land—the fields good for rice in the rainy season, and short crops in the dry. A good Hindu, he would rear his dairy cattle, as many as 100, many with a name and a personality, selling the milk he didn't use. These animals lived a good life, often until old age took them, to be mourned and buried instead of butchered.
The river and swamp meant crab and tarpon, the grantaki so huge that it took a bull cart to carry the catch home.
Samai would have 13 children along the way—and they would produce 72 children. Those offspring too worked the land, seeing the area slowly transform, the shacks and barrack houses being replaced by sturdier wooden, even concrete, houses.
The Samai clan would build their homes around the patriarch's until, a year after the country's independence in 1962, the track leading to the Samai homestead officially became a road, registered as Samai Trace.
Samai would buy another hundred acres during his lifetime, and the family pursued no other occupation but farming.
When the rice industry crashed in 1989, the Samais planted cane. When the sugar industry folded almost a decade ago, they returned to short crop farming.
The three generations living together woke to the sounds of herons, jacanas and egrets, eating cascadura caught in the flooded rice fields, and crab caught in bamboo traps set in the mangrove a mile away, and currying the ducks shot out of the sky while passing through Trinidad on their winter migration to South America.
Old man Samai died in 1997, at the age of 103, but not before willing the land to sons and daughters who passed it on to the grandchildren.
And not before Samai told those children and grandchildren the land meant more than its harvest, more than a commodity to be bought and sold, or from which to make a profit.
The land was to be kept in the family, to be passed down through the generations.
Should Government have its way, the Debe-to-Mon Desir segment of the highway to Point Fortin will pass through the Samai land.
Samai's grandson, Rajain Roopnarine, 34, would like the people following the controversial construction, and the politicians insisting that it be done, to know this connection to the land is important.
These fields, where the Samai cattle still graze, will be replaced by a strip of asphalt on a causeway six to eight feet high connecting Port of Spain to Point Fortin, but disconnecting the Samai clan, and many of the villages and communities along the 9.1-mile stretch that is Phase 2 of the project.
Roopnarine knows the land, now worth millions of dollars (a businessman, he says, has made an offer) will have to be given up for the highway in the end. He understands the power of the State's use of the compulsory acquisition law, but he has questions that no one has been able to answer.
"Nobody has come to talk compensation. They send me a letter, saying they will come and speak to me personally. Never happen. And what about building a crossover so the people will not get separated from their land? We have 72 acres of land. Imagine having to drive to Debe to turn around and drive back just to reach the other side of the road.
"And why do the politicians believe that the highway is what is necessary to bring change and prosperity? What is wrong with the way things are?" he asked.
The Sunday Express spent several days in the communities of Gandhi Village (the first to be affected should the highway project advance toward Mon Desir), and Bunsee, Suchit and Samai Traces.
The first house and property to go should the highway continue is the one at Gandhi Village within sight of the location of the demolished Highway Re-Route Movement's protest camp at the M-2 Ring Road, Debe. The house once belonged to Ramnath and Buptee Singh, who passed on the property to a son. The family was told several years ago not to bother renovating, since the property would be acquired.
It has since been vacated. There is no dispute here because the home was built on land rented from former Caroni (1975) Ltd.
A neighbour whose home will escape the bulldozer will end up having a highway for a view instead of fields of fruit trees.
But for him, a 65-year-old taxi-driver, it's not a problem. "It makes no sense trying to fight something you can't stop. And this is the price we have to pay. Long ago, it took 20 minutes from Penal to San Fernando. Now it could take an hour and a half. And many of the houses that have to move are on State land anyway."
Where the highway crossed Bunsee Trace, many of the homeowners have already accepted compensation. One had already built a home elsewhere.
No one fought the acquisition request because, here again, homes were built on State lands.
But Mootilal Parasram spoke of an unease shared by some. Parasram is a short crop gardener, working on land owned by others. There are no machines here. He works with fork and hoe, weeding each plant by hand.
"Five years from now, what this place going to look like? How many of us going to be doing this? And what about all these people they want to move and send Petite Morne (the land being developed near Princes Town for those accepting relocation and compensation)?
"Them politicians thinking about what it does do to a man to uproot everything he know and start from scratch again?"
Parasram, 42, who may one day live "down the road" from the highway, said, "A whole way of life, and whole generation of doing things destroyed."
For some, despite national attention of protests and demolition and the intervention of National Security Minister Jack Warner and his soldiers, there is general apathy.
"You could fight, but what sense it make. You going to lose. Is men with plenty power and money in this thing. Is best make the best of it, and shut up," said a Bunsee Trace resident who admitted to building on land he never bought.
But this is also United National Congress (UNC) country, and to fight Government's plan would mean being ostracised by the community.
No one could say what could be the environmental impact of the highway and few knew about the hydrological issues that highway opponents tout as crucial.
The men at the bar near the junction of Bunsee and Suchit saw it only one way. "Is rural neglect they fixing. Road fixing, drains fixing and now is highway," said one.
To the others, the highway meant more than a link to elsewhere. It meant that finally, the former Opposition constituencies of Oropouche East and West, Siparia and Fyzabad would be reached.
The more than $7 billion to be spent is justified, they say, because even more money was spent on projects "in north" that benefited no one here.
No one could say exactly what what tangible benefit the highway will bring to Debe. But all wanted it built, and before the next general election, just in case.
Continued next week.
Log on to trinidadexpress.com to view maps and images of the progress of highway's construction between Golconda and Debe.
'Twice as many homes to be acquired'
Environmental activist Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, leader of the Highway Re-Route Movement, has said that at the time an Environmental Impact Assessment was done for the Debe-to-Mon Desir segment, it was found that 150 homes and 179 tracts of agricultural land would be directly impacted.
Also in the way, Kublalsingh said, were 13 businesses, a temple, mosque, orphanage and other public buildings.
There are now twice as many homes to be acquired, claims Kublalsingh, because many home owners left out are only now receiving letters of land acquisition. Some have accepted the offers and have left. Money has been paid to some.
The National Infrastructure Development Company, which is charged with overseeing the highway project, was asked two weeks ago by the Sunday Express to respond to Kublalsingh's figures. NIDCO has gone silent.