Environmental Activist Near Death After 65-Day Hunger Strike in Trinidad

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This article by Josh Surtees appeared in Vice.com.

Wayne Kublalsingh is on an epic 65-day hunger strike over a plan to build a four-lane highway through a wetlands wildlife habitat in Trinidad and Tobago. Emaciated and struggling to stand by the side of his bed, Kublalsingh told VICE News that his self-starvation is “a form of peaceful social war,” against the government of the Caribbean nation.

Nearing death, Kublalsingh was recently hospitalized in critical condition. Local newspapers in Trinidad have suggested he won’t survive the week.

“I’m doing this absolutely for Trinidad and Tobago,” Kublalsingh said. He explained that the hunger strike is, “against the economic crimes committed against the people, against white collar criminality and the government’s failure to account for and justify its actions.”

The issue at the heart of Kublalsingh’s crusade is a highway that is supposed to cut through a UNESCO-listed archaeological heritage site and 13 rural communities on the southern tip of Trinidad, an island off the northeast coast of Venezuela. The government of Trinidad and Tobago has already bought 300 homes using “compulsory purchase orders” — forcefully removing residents from farmlands to make way for a section of the road that critics say could easily go elsewhere.

A Canadian environmentalist claims the bitterly contested nine-mile stretch of road will be used for tar sands mining, a process of extracting oil from sediment that is environmentally dicey.

“All the things that need to be in place for tar sands mining [in Trinidad] are in place,” activist Macdonald Stainsby told VICE News. Stainsby cited a new power station in the area, a recently upgraded bitumen-oil refinery, a new desalination plant, and business meetings between the Trinidad and Tobago government and Canadian mining companies.

Trinidad and Tobago has relied on reserves of natural gas and offshore oil for years, but the energy reserves are thought to be waning and may run out within a decade. The country’s leaders are pursuing a policy of economic diversification, and the stated aims for the highway are to stimulate economic development, encourage rural settlements, and ease traffic congestion.

The general population — including Kublalsingh — supports those aims and the overall highway plan. What they vehemently oppose is the nine-mile stretch of the road that they say won’t benefit the area economically or reduce traffic. Kublalsingh and other opponents have suggested an alternative route.

“We can’t develop until we do it properly, until we can monetize resources equitably,” Kublalsingh said. “Otherwise we are just transferring wealth from one sector to the other — that’s not development.”

Kublalsingh is a former literature, history, and economics lecturer who was fired by the University of the West Indies in 2013 for his protests. He has fought against alleged government corruption for 10 years, and supporters say he has saved the country millions of dollars with his campaigns. In 2010, he forced the government to scrap a smelter plant project because of environmental concerns and health risks it posed to residents nearby.

With a PhD from Oxford and British Army training, Kublalsingh is eloquent, urbane, and intellectual. He is also extremely devoted to his causes. Before he began his current fast, his body had only just recovered from kidney damage from a previous hunger strike in 2012. He retains hope that the highway will be rerouted, but the government has already made significant progress.

Police and soldiers — operating under the orders of National Security Minister Jack Warner, a former FIFA official forced to step down over corruption allegations surrounding Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid — tore down a protest camp set up to prevent construction work on the roadway. Many local residents have already succumbed to pressure from the government to sell their land. Some poorer families simply could not afford to turn down the financial incentives.

Building the highway will cost the country more than $1 billion. Brazilian firm OAS Constutura is handling construction and using Brazilian workers. Several top OAS executives were included last week on a list of 27 arrest warrants issued by police in Brazil after an investigation there uncovered “strong evidence” that the company was involved in a $23 billion bribery scandal to win contracts from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run energy company.

Trinidad is no stranger to controversial, multi-million dollar construction contracts. The country has paid vast sums to foreign companies from China, Canada, India, the US, and Latin America. Massive amounts of funding and loans have been coming into the country, but there is limited transparency over the deals and procurement processes.

“Corruption, and perceived corruption, is a constant theme in T&T [Trinidad and Tobago] politics, both real and alleged,” Carver Bacchus, founder and managing director of the non-profit environmentalist organization Sustain T&T, told VICE News. “Allegations have toppled governments, with no government official, to my knowledge, ever being successfully prosecuted for corrupt practices.”

SNC-Lavalin — a Canadian firm banned by the World Bank from bidding for overseas contracts for 10 years because of fraud — was awarded several projects in Trinidad and Tobago. The Canadian government selected the company to design and build a $1 billion hospital in Trinidad, but the deal that was halted when the company’s corruption scandal came to light.

‘We can’t develop until we do it properly, until we can monetize resources equitably.’

Shanghai Construction, a Chinese company, built the country’s National Academy of Performing Arts, for $78 million. It opened in 2010, but four years later it is collapsing and will cost more than $15 million to fix.

A section of the controversial highway that is currently under construction also collapsed recently after heavy rains. One of Kublalsingh’s major concerns is the possibility that eight-foot high banks of earth and concrete from the project could cause permanent flooding in the area.

Green undulating hills around the construction site have been excavated, creating muddy swathes of land waiting to be filled with aggregate. An estimated 1.4 million tons of rock — roughly 189,000 truckloads — is being mined from quarries in the rainforest of the Northern Range mounts and transported south. The oldest archeological site in the Caribbean — the 8,000-year-old Banwari Trace — is also nearby, and construction threatens to destroy or disturb parts of the site.

Kublalsingh and his supporters say building is going ahead prematurely and illegally. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is accused of failing to abide by a court recommendation to carry out an environmental impact assessment and cost-benefit analysis before proceeding.

“Forces are lining up against the government,” Kublalsingh said. “The opposition party, the church, civil societies, the university, trade unions — in time the government will become isolated and have no choice but to enter mediation.”

Until then, the activist is clinging to life, sticking to a daily routine of prayer, meditation and saltwater baths to help him through his hunger strike. Broaching the possibility of death, he said he was willing to give his life to prevent the highway from being built.

“A great evil has befallen our republic,” Kublalsingh said. “A chameleon-type evil; a kind of invisible snake which shifts its shape and colors so it’s difficult to stamp the head out. How do you confront it? You have to use your most valuable sword; mine is my life.”

For the original report go to https://news.vice.com/article/environmental-activist-near-death-after-65-day-hunger-strike-in-trinidad

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