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An excavator clears land in Mon Desir, Fyzabad, last month. The area is being cleared for work on the Mon Desir leg of the highway to Point Fortin but is being challenged by the Highway Reroute Movement.

CEO, The Cropper Foundation

People feel ignored. People feel powerless. People feel helpless. This has been the common refrain that we at the Cropper Foundation heard, two years ago, as we started work on a three-year Action “CSOs for Good Environmental Governance.” In this EU-funded Action, along with our partners, we learnt just how alienated, excluded and disenfranchised our communities have felt as they try and advocate for a healthier and more sustainable environment.

This initiative, which seeks to enhance the capacity of Trinidad and Tobago’s civil society for the governance of environmental transparency and accountability in the country’s extractive industries, builds on the concepts of environmental and climate justice. These communities, like the small island states of the Caribbean, have done the least to damage their environment but will suffer the most consequences. From regional sea-level rise due to carbon emissions by the ‘West,’ to flooding in the East-West corridor caused by illegal quarrying – it is usually the most marginalised and vulnerable among us that pay the price for environmental degradation.

Rarely do these communities get the chance to remedy these situations. At the global scale, most of the discussions around environmental and climate justice are played out at the elite levels of diplomacy and politics, that still depends on a top-down view of the world. Rarely, if ever, are the true voices of communities around the world represented or make significant impacts in these conversations.

At the national level, the same often occurs with companies coming into communities, hosting public consultations on obtuse and highly technical subjects—presented many times by consultants with multiple advanced degrees. When community members are not able to respond effectively to this highly technical material or react in a way that responds to perceived condescension, they are easily dismissed as having nothing useful to contribute. This is the reality for dozens of communities around Trinidad and Tobago. Even nationally, much of the conversations around environmental sustainability still takes place in fancy rooms and workshops that as Dan Gilmoor puts it, remain in the domain of the already privileged through education, access or connections to inform the conversation to meet their interests, as noble as they may be.

People care about their communities and the world around them and, if given the opportunity, will strive to make things better. Two years into the work of “CSOs for Good Environmental Governance”, we see this happening. As one community activist battling illegal quarrying said “… now I know the rules and regulations and I know where to go,” while another leader of a community women’s group stated that they saw, through the Action, how unchecked development destroyed other communities and “…we will not let that happen to us.”

Groups worked together to lobby for a bridge to be rebuilt that had cut off an entire community. Community groups that thought they were too small to make a difference, helped stop amendments of national legislation that would have worked against transparency efforts.

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Just a few days ago, these groups once again came together recently to support their friends and family in the north-east of Trinidad by sending in comments against the proposed Toco port.

Now more than ever, as we seek to build back better in a post-COVID world, we must empower our communities. Most of us who were stuck at home and were only able to venture out in small jaunts ‘down the road’ should understand how important well-functioning communities are to a country. This is a new reality for everyone and there is still much uncertainty in how we will build back an economy in a world that is reeling from the massive shock of a pandemic, plunging oil prices and the looming greater threat of climate change. However, just as we did for COVID-19, we should listen to the science. It tells us that such rebuilding must put the environment at the heart of recovery for us to build resilient nations.

To do this, we must create and respect the space for communities to speak their truth about their environment. We cannot keep on overwhelming their voices to favour development paradigms that are centred, in many cases, around an unsustainable energy and high-carbon economy. These 25+ civil society groups and many more communities across Trinidad and Tobago must be key components of a recovery that is both equitable and sustainable.