The Fight for Public Participation in Development
Environment TOBAGOFocus On Tobago´s Environment
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The Fight for Public Participation in Development

Congratulations to the Toco community for their success in advocating a clear vision for their community. They have sent a very strong message back to the Government of this vision by rejecting port development in Toco.

The intense expressions they voiced in response Government's proposals have restored many people's faith in the democratic system and the relevance of public participation in managing development for our nation.

The Toco community here clearly demonstrated that they have the right and the duty to communicate their values and choices. This resonates strongly for us in Tobago, and we must adopt this powerful strategy to ensure that development in Tobago does not run out of control of the needs and wishes of the local people.

It is unfortunate that Works Minister Sadiq Baksh referred to the Toco community's response as hysteria. Was it hysterical because it was passionate and determined? Was it hysterical because it opposed the Government’s plans? Was it hysterical because it opposed the big developers and spoke for the small man?

This is significant evidence of a growing culture in Trinidad and Tobago promoting public involvement. This is based on the belief that the public actually has some power to influence decision-making at the highest levels. This emerging culture has had to combat long-standing feelings of powerlessness and apathy held by the public.

Other examples of the public trying to make their voices heard have arisen in Trinidad, recently with the proposed development of the Mucurapo coastline area, illegal paving of the Savanna, and abuse of the Nariva Swamp by a few well-placed farmers, to name just a few.

A situation similar to the Toco experience arose in Tobago recently, with the public demonstrating their concern for maintained public access to our beaches, which are threatened by coastal tourism development. Tobagonians need to continue to express such concern for development of their island.

This victory by the Toco people (make no mistake - that is what it is) must be used to kindle other fires that have been small and slow burning. Development in Tobago sadly continues to emphasise short-term economic benefits for big business from large-scale tourism developments. This ignores the immediate and long-term social and environmental costs that the small man must bear. Environment TOBAGO has tried to keep a watchful eye on the many large-scale and high-impact development proposals to look at these concerns.

Last week's article highlighted the importance of properly valuing the natural environment to ensure that society is making well-informed choices for our nation's development. Society needs to be able to understand in economic terms, for unfortunately that is how all decisions are made today, the true contribution of the natural environment to socio-economic development. It is only then that a vision for true sustainable development of Tobago can be formulated by the people.

Environment TOBAGO continues to lobby for transparency in decision-making, so that the public has the information to be able to make informed choices about proposed developments. Environment TOBAGO advocates for the release of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), which are supposed to assess the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of a project. Unfortunately it is not yet law for EIAs to be released to the public, so developments continue to be approved for Tobago without full public input.

Questions had been raised about the economic, environmental and social impact (the positive benefits as well as the negative costs) of the Toco port project. Minister Baksh had stated that the project would bring immediate and measurable benefit to the region, citing jobs, business opportunities and infrastructure development in Toco. The Toco community seems to have found that, for them, the costs outweigh the benefits. What will Tobagonians decide if they are provided with a comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of large-scale tourism development projects in Tobago?

Minister Baksh also said that the project would directly benefit Tobago. The establishment of adequate ferry services linking Trinidad and Tobago is clearly vital. However, the people of Tobago must be well informed of plans at this end if they are to be able to make the choices that will most benefit them.

The Government has repeatedly mouthed the ideal of including public participation in environmental management. This participation takes place via public feedback to proposals, whether via public consultation meetings, workshops, committees, or surveys.

Unfortunately too often the public is only informed after development plans are made, with little opportunity to make a meaningful input into how their island is being developed. True public participation will involve the public in actually developing the ideas about how the vast natural resources of Tobago should be used. This must be our battle cry. - Nicole Leotaud, Education Coordinator
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