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A leatherback turtle trapped in netting on one of T&T beaches.

Gary Aboud

Fishermen and Friends of the Sea

The environment represents the essence of our lives and the health and wellbeing of the voiceless. In this post-COVID era, we must all recognise the fragile relationship we share with our mother earth and unanimously commit to more respectful standards of environment protection.

Civil society has a critical role to play in this protection by acting as watchdogs in the planning and development process. However, without transparency, there is no accountability, no access to information, and without information, civil society cannot meaningfully contribute to the approval process for new and potentially devastating projects.

Moving forward to the new normal, we must recognise that to protect the environment there must be inclusionary public participation because oftentimes, Government’s planning approvals run astray and threaten quality of life, ecosystems, endangered, sensitive, vulnerable, endemic and/or Environmentally Sensitive Species (ESS). When this happens, there is ecological genocide.

Environmental transparency and accountability creates checks and balances by facilitating informed public participation whereby the public interest is protected. Without this transparency, there is no accountability, and the decision-making process becomes unchecked, exclusive, secretive and dictatorial.

Over recent years, legislation and policy that mandates access to information, and that has created opportunities for effective, meaningful public participation and ecological justice, have been weakened. Most recently, in late 2018, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) adopted a position of denying the public and civil society groups complete copies of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports. The EMA has dictated that they, at the “discretion” of their librarian, will now only provide copies of up to 10% of an EIA.

Civil society is guided by technical reviews of the multi-disciplinary EIA document. Without a full copy, how can civil society conduct a holistic review of an EIA? It appears that the Government/EMA is inadvertently hindering meaningful, informed public participation in the decision-making process. Civil society is being neutered since it cannot meaningfully participate without technical and scientific guidance.

Primary stakeholders have a meaningful role in the developmental process and should not be stifled but rather empowered. Earlier this year, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) filed for judicial review to challenge the EMA’s decision to withhold full copies of EIA reports. FFOS maintains that public participation is a critical component of the decision-making process and is embodied in our legislation.

FFOS’ interest in the oil and gas sector led to its appointment (approximately seven years ago) to the Trinidad and Tobago Extractive Industries Transparency Institute (TTEITI), an institution set up by the World Bank to overseer financial transparency in the extractive sector. FFOS has advocated for environmental reporting, contract transparency and comparative value of our royalties (“value for volume”), of material (oil, gas and aggregate) extracted. Through representing communities impacted by the extractive sector, FFOS recognised that civil society lacked the skill to represent themselves in the broad range of talents required to approach environmental laws and regulations and to mobilise the support of their own grass-root communities.

Through progressive European Union funding, today, over 20 NGOs are being trained to become environmental watchdogs. This EU training now empowers and educates civil society on how to act independently; on how to approach environmental laws and regulations, media and public interest publications; on how to interface with delegates from development, government and environmental sectors; on understanding and interpreting environmental law; on production of videography and press statements, publication of information and data; on being able to mobilise the support of grassroots people and communities and where necessary, on how to pursue judicial intervention. There is no empowerment, progress or safeguards without transparency and open access to information.

It is essential to be empowered and to have a voice. Inclusiveness, empowerment and public participation have no downsides. Our communities must not be stifled and “cannot breathe” without open access to information. Let us learn from our past environmental mistakes in building back our world as a more respectful, sensitive and environmentally responsible place for our children’s children’s children. Our mother earth is revolting! This is our last chance!

Fishermen and Friends of the Sea is a partner on the European Union-funded Action ‘CSOs for Good Environmental Governance’ that is working to enhance the capacity of Trinidad and Tobago’s civil society for governance of environmental transparency and accountability in the country’s extractive industries.