Trinidad and Tobago: Battling the Resource Curse

A fisherman pulls in his nets from the Gulf of Paria on the Trinidad's west coast. Due to high levels of pollution, certain marine species from the gulf may not be suitable for consumption.

Kyle De Lima has an escape plan, just in case. Stamping his shoeless foot on the gas pedal and speeding past quarry security in Trinidad’s lush Northern Range, De Lima explains how the day might come when he is ultimately forced to flee the country.

Safe for now, De Lima eases off the accelerator, and the sound of the pickup violently careening down the road is replaced by the calmer crunch of gravel beneath its tires. The latest in a string of ever-present cigarettes is already holding court in his toothy grin, and as the smoke curls past his shaven head, he launches into another round of stories and theories.

De Lima recounts his days as a commercial diver, working in water filled with a laundry list of hazardous pollutants his clients hadn’t divulged. He’ll never forget the taste of chemicals through his respirator or the companies that exposed his crew to danger. Thus began his metamorphosis into a renegade environmentalist speeding around the island in a pickup painted stone grey to disappear into the brush. Some days he’s working with the Guanapo Community and Environmental Development Organisation (G-CEDO), holding the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) to its charter by testing water quality in streams around a leaking garbage dump. Some days he’s covertly planting banana fields around the island in pursuit of food security. And some days he’s keeping an eye on illegal quarrying activities and outrunning security alongside his loyal bull terrier, Dia.

Once upon a time, Trinidad and Tobago were separate colonies ruled by a history book’s worth of imperialist powers from Spain to France to Great Britain. In those times, native legends were in alliance with conservationists. Half-man, half-hoofed beast, a mythical guardian of the forests called Papa Bois roamed Trinidad, growing in the imagination of a population composed of former African slaves and Indian indentured servants. Under his watchful eyes, the islands were green and brimming with life.

But the time of legends has passed. A near total dependence on the energy sector has led to years of mismanaged environmental policy and a public suspicion that government officials corruptly dip into the profits. Blue limestone quarries rip apart hillsides and choke rivers with run-off. The ocean claims an eroding coastline. The fear of very real oil spills and a hundred other repercussions of oil and gas exploration lingers over the dual-island nation. It’s here that De Lima works in the small but passionate movement of environmentalists. They are scattered and disorganized, but they are the last line of defense protecting the country from fears much more tangible than forgotten legends.

Blind Ambition

Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh greedily eyes the stale mango. Near death after shedding 30 pounds, Kublalsingh finally calls off his 21-day hunger strike. With the government consenting to investigate the construction of a controversial highway extension, Kublalsingh enjoys a victory over the corporations he believes to be destroying the environment around him. “They have to be defeated. They have to be cut off at the knees. They have to be sunk into the sea and their lips eaten by fish,” the unswervingly polite and intellectual university professor quietly explains.

What ignites such anger in the professor is a phenomenon dubbed the resource curse, in which a resource-rich country suffers from its own fortune. International corporations with deep pockets and even deeper ambitions have staked their claims to Trinidad and Tobago, and environmentalists are fighting for ground.

Merely seven miles from Venezuela and on the same oil basin, Trinidad began drilling for oil in 1857 with one of the world’s first successful oil wells. Last year, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as well as a group of high-ranking Chinese officials made trips to Trinidad in attempts to strengthen economic ties and protect their energy interests. Trinidad and Tobago—whose largest importer and exporter is the U.S.—produced more than 119,000 barrels of oil per day in 2012 and 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the course of the year, supporting the country’s economy and way of life.

These international relationships have not proven kind to the environment, and the authorities are well aware. “The Caroni River and its tributaries are the recipients of discharges from industrial activities in the East \ West Corridor, while the Gulf of Paria suffers a similar fate as a result of intensive, offshore petroleum exploitation and exploration operations on the west coast of Trinidad,” wrote the Environment Management Agency (EMA)—the government body in charge of protecting the country’s natural resources—in the Trinidad and Tobago National Environmental Policy of 2006. All the while, the government passed legislation allowing for companies to report their own levels of effluent, allowing industry to pollute the country’s sources of drinking water completely unchecked.

In the government’s own agriculture test compound—which includes the International Cocoa Genebank containing every cocoa species known to man—the river formerly used to water fields changes color day by day. Sometimes it’s black, sometimes brown, sometimes white, depending on which business in the industrial estate upriver is dumping.

The country’s highest-ranking officials have made clear their goals to continue drawing international corporations to Trinidad and Tobago, and the combination of subsidized energy and poorly enforced environmental laws has helped them succeed. A cocktail of new legislation offers further incentives, including a provision that exempts payment into the Green Fund, a pool of money supporting organizations working toward “remediation, reforestation and conservation of the environment.”

Many of these issues needing “remediation” are born in the energy sector. December 17 provided a wake up call, as more than 300,000 gallons of oil poured from a failed connection between a tanker and a barge, coating the southwestern coast of Trinidad and forcing the evacuation of several families. Out at sea, seismic testing—the use of strong sound waves to map sea floors and locate oil and gas—is endangering local economies by attracting fish away from fishermen and toward the sound and lights of the mapping vessels. Further, the testing can disorient animals, and large marine mammals have been found washed up on Tobago’s shores. All the while, Trinidad’s shores are sinking, in part because dredging and offshore drilling are stealing sediment back out to sea. “Trinidadians, nice, nice people, but they’re very willing to turn a blind eye as long as it’s not affecting them right now,” De Lima says. “As long as the oil is here and it’s not getting on their shoes, they don’t care about it.”

However, a new threat—imported from Canada–has the potential to overshadow any current environmental hazard in the long run. The two nations have had close ties since they were united under the British Crown for much of their early histories. Canada—which houses 75 percent of the world’s mining companies—is under heavy media scrutiny for its surprisingly dirty energy policies and is turning to foreign resources as a solution. Southern Trinidad sports a bullseye.

The solution is tar sands, a bitumen-sand mixture that contains oil and is found several hundred feet under the soil. However, tar sands pose numerous ecological dangers with the vast air pollution, chemical use, greenhouse gas emissions, and land and water consumption required for oil extraction.

The goal of mining these fields has been discussed for three decades, but nothing has happened to date. That might all change as a framework for exploration quietly takes shape. Royal Bank of Canada—one of the world’s largest financiers of tar sands exploration—bought Trinidad and Tobago’s largest bank in 2008 but waited three years before quietly changing the name to RBC Royal Bank, removing any direct mention of country names. Further, the $7.5 billion highway Kublalsingh is protesting will run directly through the tar sand fields. The result of his fight, a document called the Armstrong Report, was bad news. “It found the proper studies hadn’t been done. They had not done a cost-benefit analysis. They had not done ecological studies. They had not done the social impact analysis. They had not followed the regulations,” Kublalsingh says.

“All the pieces are being put into place quietly for this industry to be brought to Trinidad,” says De Lima, who has been monitoring developments. “By the time all of the memorandums of understanding and the agreements are signed, it will be too late for the people to stand up and say, ‘We don’t want it.’”

The Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs and various energy companies did not make spokespeople available for comment.

The Will of the Government

Suntanned and smiling, Monique Walker sits on a bench outside her apartment building and plays with her two dogs. Although she refers to them as “my kids,” is her real baby. Walker, a small-business owner by profession and environmentalist by hobby, created the website to help Trinidadians find recycling centers. Since, it has evolved into a platform for mapping and exploring environmental issues, but Walker has been absent from her baby. “Doing environmental work in this country’s like hitting your head on a brick,” she complains. “It gets very frustrating, so right now I’m on a little bit of a hiatus and gathering my energy back.”

In Trinidad there is a buzzword for Walker’s roadblock: political-will. A lack of government action in addition to a perception of widespread corruption results in little progress.

It starts from the very top. Ganga Singh— the Minister of the Environment and Water Resources and also a ranking member of the Senate—skipped two scheduled interviews about the environment because he was managing a local campaign in which the embattled Jack Warner—a former FIFA executive embroiled in corruption allegations—crushed his party. Instead of discussing the environment—the purpose of his position—the minister left several typed responses in his absence. “The Ministry is not aware of any fraudulent practices occurring in the execution of its mandate,” he wrote.

Even a quick glance over the nation’s environmental policies supports the nearly unanimous questioning of corruption in a country ranked worse than the likes of China and Swaziland by Transparency International. Riverbeds are cemented, doing nothing to further the goal of flood prevention but doing much to create contracts. Waste management is left in the hands of a company that refuses to cooperate with EMA research while its unlined dumps leak toxic leachate into protected swamps and forests. Quarry runoff kills marine life, creates mangrove dead-zones, and clogs water treatment plants, yet between 2007 and 2012 quarries under 370 acres—all but two in the country—were taken away from the EMA’s purview. “You see ministers driving around in [TT]$2 million cars. You’re a minister. Your salary is [TT]$30,000 a month. How are you affording these things?” De Lima asks. “Why is nobody asking in the Integrity Commission?”

There is, in fact, a group with many of the answers, but its members fear the repercussions of speaking out. These are the technocrats, government workers hired because of their expertise, not elected because of their politicking. They constantly churn out reports with expert recommendations on how to improve the country and its infrastructure, yet their ideas are often ignored. Technocrats are the ones who know the new highway is meant to bolster the feasibility of tar sands extraction. They know the EMA dumps raw sewage into rivers when treatment centers are overloaded, a practice formally acknowledged in 2006. They know so much, yet they beg for help outside the government while they can do so little from within.

The minister’s typed responses supported Nadia Nanan, a real-life EMA spokesperson, who lamented that underfunding and understaffing are major problems. All the while, they did little to acknowledge the technocrats’ complaints. “The issue really is the number of police officers that have been assigned to us, which doesn’t give us a very good capacity to really address the issues as we would like to,” Nanan says. The ministry employs fewer than 20 environmental officers across Trinidad, and the EMA continues to field more calls for noise pollution than any actual environmental hazard. At the end of the day, the EMA’s founding legislation allows the minister final say on every one of the sub-agency’s decisions.

Progress is slow everywhere.

“The majority of the people in the nation need an attitude change, which will not happen overnight,” Walker says, adding that she expects little change in the national mindset while there is still plentiful oil and gas. Until then, gasoline is subsidized to the equivalent of $1.60 per gallon, and motorists drive accordingly. The World Bank estimates that the ratio of cars to people has grown to at least 1:3, twice as high as the region’s average. Electricity is also subsidized, and as a result, Trinidad and Tobago has the second highest CO­2 emissions per capita of any country, more than twice that of the U.S.

This apathy has infiltrated every aspect of life. Newfound wealth stimulates unchecked development on hillsides, which in turn leads to flooding in the cities below. Illegal dumping of garbage is rampant, leaving piles of plastic bottles floating around the country. Even fashion has become unsustainable as four species of whistling finches are pushed towards extinction because it is fashionable to carry one around in a cage, says Hans Boos, former curator of Trinidad’s Emperor Valley Zoo, who adds that the people act as they see their government act. “The recurrent politicians have not ever had the need for an environmental agency that is serious except as a rubber stamp for what they want to do to get money,” Boos says.

Day camp at the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project in Port of SpainHope for a Future

“We are not tree huggers as most people seem to think,” explains Wendy Austin of Environment Tobago. It is another warm, Caribbean day that slyly hints at the beauty still thriving across the islands. Austin is busy with tourists visiting the scuba shop she runs with her husband, but she is frustrated with the generally negative—or at the very least apathetic—view of environmentalism. She misses the time when the important sea turtle breeding grounds that are beaches were not carelessly cut by hotels and coral reefs were not threatened by gas exploration. But she can’t fight for sustainable development alone.

On both islands, NGOs and their supporters have seen real change and are working to educate the next generation but are still in need of more resources and broader support. Schoolchildren are, perhaps, the NGOs’ biggest success. Kids learn such ideas as recycling and respect for wildlife when NGOs visit schools. The response is immediate and enthusiastic. “The children are great,” Austin says. “You go in the schools and you can see how they’ve set up a small garden, and they can tell you what they’re growing, what it’s used for. This in turn goes up to the adults.”

There are even improvements taking shape in this generation, many with government cooperation. Industrial estates are visibly cleaner, a moratorium on sea turtle hunting was declared in 2011, and legislation that would allow for plastic bottles to be returned for deposits is nearly completed.

But then there’s reality. The simple “Bottle Bill” that Minister Singh heralds as a “bold step” has taken 16 years to even approach fruition. De Lima wants to conduct water quality testing in the Gulf of Paria but needs $500,000 to accomplish it. Ecotourism is a potential economically viable compromise between business and sustainability, but its development has been slow and confined to Tobago.

As debates rage, oil production has fallen by 33 percent since 2006. Although a huge natural gas boom over the past decade has filled the void, reserves of both have been diminishing, signaling the resources are finite. While predictions of its longevity vastly differ, the demand for Trinidad’s supplies continue to shrivel as the U.S. and other major importers work towards energy independence. “Only because oil prices are so high can we maintain some of this,” said Dr. Pramenath Narinesingh, an environmental and water resources engineering professor at the University of the West Indies. “How long can we continue? I don’t know.”

In the meantime, the task of fighting for Trinidad and Tobago’s environment falls to the few willing to shoulder the burden: the international student venturing across the pond to guard sea turtles in Tobago, the technocrats filing report after report in hopes of a political breakthrough, the G-CEDO members meeting monthly for water quality testing and just a little rum.


De Lima pulls his pickup into a quarry he’s seen before, prepared to be chased out. This time, the owner meets him, and they engage in a lengthy discussion. It turns out the owner, who calls himself Bobby, understands he’s flirting with illegality but is working with the EMA to comply with quarrying regulations. Instead of chastising, De Lima sympathizes and gives Bobby tips on ways to lower the quarry’s environmental impact.

“If the EMA’s trying to bring him into compliance, I’m not so against that, as long as they actually do it. The problem is that they will issue him with licenses just to stop further questions,” De Lima comments warily as he pulls away from the quarry.

Like a modern-day Papa Bois, he melts back into the forest, his knowledge imparted to Bobby, along with the implicit threat of his presence. He’s doing what he can like the mythical guardian of the forest, but his movement may be running out of time against the industrial powers.

Papa Bois had to execute his own escape plan, and he was a legend. De Lima is just a man.

Mark Olalde is a graduating senior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Mark specializes in environmental, investigative, and international journalism. He currently reports for the Medill Justice Project, and will be moving on to The Arizona Republic, post graduation. Fritz Burgher is also an outgoing senior at Medill, where he worked as a broadcast journalist and investigative reporter for such publications as the Medill Watchdog and Picture Show Films. He teaches journalism skills to inner-city youth through Medill Media Teens. Visit their website: