Six-part series featuring the Valencia community located in peri-urban East Trinidad, with a history in forestry & agriculture-based livelihoods. We address
Published via the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) & the Caribois Environmental News Network.
Topic: Poor development/infrastructure that exacerbates Climate change effect on communities and livelihoods which are mistaken for natural disasters when in reality, both problems are man-made & the new norm
By Keron Bascombe
Trinidad and Tobago
Article 1 Road infrastructure needs to be in line with climate change
Road transport is one of the main contributors to increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, consequently aggravating global warming, but it is also one of the sectors that most suffer from climate change, which causes extreme weather events. Countries in the Caribbean are constantly affected by the impacts of climate change. Millions of dollars are invested every time there is a natural calamity. That’s why sustainable infrastructure (climate resilience) is needed. While countries in the region are still working towards it, small communities are already in the middle of it. Such a community is Valencia in Trinidad and Tobago (TT), which has been facing a drainage problem at its market for a very long time.
“For the past 15 years or so I have been functioning not only as a farmer for my livelihood but also as a community activist to bring resolution to different issues in different aspects. I more or less target the real issues and always try to work on making it happen. I have always been working on making my community a better place,” said Eron Melville, who currently serves as president of the Valencia Village Council, a semi-rural area located in northeast Trinidad.
Valencia is a well-known locale as one of the last major stops before merging with the Toco main road taking one to the most eastern point of the country. Sitting along the Northern Range, a defining mountainous region of Northern Trinidad, the community has access to natural land & forest resources as well as proximity to the coastline creating a bountiful base for the establishment of livelihoods. Mr. Melville, a community activist, said, “Over the years, there are specific areas I have placed a lot of emphasis on, one in particular being the NAMDEVCO farmers market facility in which I am a vendor.”
NAMDEVCO stands for the National Agricultural Marketing & Development Company, a state board meant to bring betterment via needed and diverse market linkages for the sale of produce. “Also being the President of the Market Management Committee, as the voice of the vendors we have encountered a number of challenges over the years. The worse we have encountered was not related to our flailing economy,” says Mr. Melville.
Approximately 3 years ago, a development project began to expand: the Valencia to Toco Highway extension, which began with a roundabout in the heart of Valencia Junction. The project is a part of the government’s wider effort to increase economic activity along the Northeastern region. It involves road widening, drainage upgrade, major slope stabilisation, realignment both vertically & horizontally, non-signal intersections/roundabout bridge widening and of course paving. Such infrastructure is seen a major catalyst for national growth and development.
The residents of Valencia state the government did not think about the future when doing the expansion. As days go by, more and more people are living in the area. On top of that, climate change is forming a big challenge. Not only can’t the drainage carry the growth of the community, but also climate change in the form of heavy rains are causing a lot of problems.
However Melville and fellow residents have a different viewpoint from the government, an all too familiar setting within the developing world context. He explains, “In 2020, this construction of a light tower and a roundabout at the Valencia Junction interfered with the existing drainage system that channels water through Valencia Junction which caused the market to be flooded out regularly, affecting farmers and business owners in the immediate vicinity of the Junction. These include the grocery owners, other street vendors, bars and all pedestrian traffic. I don’t know if I would call it a ripple effects, but we also had the pandemic at the time, so it was doubly difficult.”
This was not an ordinary community infrastructure problem; it arose as a direct result of the highway project which was being conducted not by a private entity but by the government.” It was around this time that Melville and his community plight were featured on the Farmers Food Covid series which aired to local Trinidad & Tobago Television. “Nonetheless we began to engage with local government representatives at the Ministry of Works and Transfer to have the problem rectified. Currently we are engaged with the personnel of the company hired to execute the job, called Pure,” Melville said.
Earlier this year contractors made two diversions to the back of the market into Alexander Street and Jamoon Drive area, towards larger drainage catchment. “And at this time a couple catch pits are being made within the market area. So we are seeing attempts being made to bring some kind of relief,” explained Melville.
Rather than resolve this primary issue, reactive measures such as creating catchment pits and diversions away from immediate flood prone areas, namely the market, are not solving the problem but are quite literally creating a waterway throughout the central point of the community; one which is expanding and continues to negatively affect residents & motorists alike.
Sources: Ministry of Works & Transport – Pure Project video – https://youtu.be/FL-1yK6pQvY
Valencia resident views unfinished development work
A vendor’s stall on the pavement-Valencia Junction
At the heart of the junction the farmer’s market is lost in development
Typical of developing nations in that rural areas see development and maintenance in spurts
Farming, Forestry, Transportation & other small business represent one of the major forms of livelihood in this community
Article 2 – Valencia questions benefits Escazu agreement
Video Interview: Wendell Prescott- Valencia Market Vendor
Rural communities have always been the best source of natural resources. Providing a sustainable landscape, it facilitates a multitude of livelihoods. However, within the Caribbean region, progress of any form must come hand in hand with infrastructural development. For the residents of Valencia, it has been ascertained that the reverse is happening.
Mr. Wendell Prescott, market vendor who services the market weekly as opposed to the weekend hours, explains that the Valencia community has not seen flash flooding disruption prior to development works. “For us the only thing we can do is report. Report and hope for better roadwork & drainage” he stated. However, with each stage of project work the situation becomes worse.
As a result of such reporting to the local Ministry of Works & Transport one solution came in the form of two catch ways to the drainage system of the Valencia Market. One each was added to opposing sides of the market in order to absorb the runoff coming from the market and the district directly behind it.
Photo 1 – 2: One of ‘catchways’ place to absorb excess already filled from rainfall earlier that morning
“Clearly you can see these catch ways are only temporary. In fact, it adds to the problem because now the water is stagnant, “explains Eron Melville, Valencia Council president. He continued that this solution becomes a stopgap as the main problem stems from the incorrect size of piping which merges directly at the roundabout.
An additional effect occurs in that stagnant water invites pests such as mosquitoes which then carry disease. It is frustrating to residents that development works continuously add problems. One resident nearest to the river, Mr Cedric Gibbons, an elder of the community & ex mechanic, took matters into his own hands.
Photo 3: “A clogged solution”
He as with many residents regularly witnessed the volume of water that would amass with the briefest but heaviest of showers, which would then threaten his fowl, other livestock and the foundation of his home.
Failing to gain the attention of the authorities who focused their solutions at the center of town, he took his own initiative to build a wall 60 feet from his home to contain the bursting of the river banks. Soon enough other nearby residents did the same while making it practice to pay attention to riverine flood alerts as provided by the Trinidad & Tobago Meteorological Office.
Photo 4: Residents attempt to wall off and maintain the Valencia River’s pathway.
Though temporary these actions have had an acceptable measure of success. With residents seeking solutions, an introduction to the Escazú Agreement as a tool to support the lobbying & reporting, was made to citizens residents & council members. In understanding that the aim of the agreement is to ensure access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, Eron questioned how much of a benefit to his community it would be.
He asked, “From what you have explained T&T has not signed the agreement. How is it beneficial to us? In our area we don’t usually have laws and policies encouraged. People see to believe. Our residents would rather go in person to report than go online”
As per the agreement, the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) Secretariat manages a public online space for interested persons to be informed about the Escazú Agreement and allow for their engagement, bringing together sustainable land beneficiaries from around the region.
“It is good to have many people talking about environmental issues & climate problems, especially to exchange solutions but with that being online the most concerned resident won’t be interested because they don’t use technology in that way. For almost everyone we can see the problem & we know who caused it.”
The Regional Agreement is a ground-breaking legal instrument for environmental protection, but it is also a human rights treaty. Its main beneficiaries are the people of our region, particularly the most vulnerable groups and communities. It aims to ensure the right of all persons to have access to information in a timely and appropriate manner, to participate significantly in making the decisions that affect their lives and their environment, and to access justice when those rights have been infringed. The treaty recognizes the rights of all individuals, provides measures to facilitate their exercise and, most importantly, establishes mechanisms to render them effective.
Article 3 – Climate changing, waterway rearranging.
Photo 1 – The Norther Range & home to the Valencia Watershed
Established in 1936 the Hollis Reservoir servicing the city of Arima & environs. Nestled in the norther range of Trinidad & Tobago, the Valencia watershed is one of largest and oldest forest resources to feed the Hollis Dam. Given the high levels of precipitation Trinidad & Tobago has experienced over the last year, one would not expect water supply to become a livelihood challenge. Nonetheless, as exemplified prior, a combination of our change in climate & ill-suited development has resulted in a multitude of ripple effects that negatively affected the Valencia Community. Without resolution justice of some kind, in return for loss of livelihood, cannot be achieved.
Given its historical importance and to that of the overall landscape, residents have recorded other alarming environmental impacts. In short the water courses within the topography of the village are changing.
The river begins in its natural state the most northern area of the village nearest to Mora Avenue residential area. From there it runs south through the entirety of the commune to merges with the Aripo River and Savannah. Along the way the river feeds the Hollis Booster station and passes underneath the Eastern Main Rd, the Valencia rd and the Valencia Bypass. At each bridge the river is supported with concrete culverts whilst within its natural state it is used for recreation, as a water source for agriculture and in integral to the ecosystem which supports flora & fauna.
Photo 2- Further up the river, urban settings give way to a natural state.
As ascertained residents living nearest to the river’s course now have their homes threatened, indicating that the water levels have permanently reason and the overall pathway is no longer the same. For many leaving one’s home is a traumatic experience and not a decision easily made. Conversely the opposing option is stay at home, consistently under the threat of being, quite literally uprooted.
One business owner, who sell clothing said her piece, anonymously; “Any time rain falls it washes all the sand, gravel & whatever other materials into the river. The water color change and it have one set of moss all over the place!” She continued, “And remember to is a big project. So works happening on road and backing up into the bush and where we living. When they try to fix the drain by we it make it worse for the river cause it have more construction away from the high project”
Photo 3: Less produce is available at the Valencia Farmers market
Clearly the riveris being filled with silt, construction waste, oil used for road paving, and the like is deposited into river. Even more so with flash flooding as it moves waste faster & in larger amounts
Fauna is also affected, with residents citing the reduction amount of crayfish & other small fish downstream. River otters was common no longer use the river as a feed source.
Browning of river also occurs in some areas of which prevents recreation & use. While at the same time new waterway have formed across farmlands hamperinf production. With percipation already bringing crop losses, several farmers have simply stopped farming and await the dry season which has just been official declared to have began. Only time will tell of their livelihoods can recuperarte.
With such negative ripple effects the concern has been raised on whether or not the entire Highway project has received appropriate environmental clearance. Often such policies or regulations are ignore entirely representing yet another localised injustice.
Article 4 – Valencia’s watershed defiant against development.
Water and climate change are inextricably linked. Extreme weather events are making water more scarce, more unpredictable, more polluted or all three. These impacts throughout the water cycle threaten sustainable development, biodiversity, and people’s access to water and sanitation. Such a challenge is there for the Valencia community in Trinidad and Tobago.
Critical to the preservation of the Valencia local is the Northern Range of Trinidad, stretching across the country as a definitive landscape housing the main watershed for several northeastern communities. Covered by forest and a multitude of flora & fauna, the range comprises the Valencia Game Sanctuary, Long Stretch Reserve and Matura Western Extension. Throughout, the topography is flat with undulations from 24 to 250 feet above sea level.
Mr. Vinood Bissram, Forester 1 for the Valencia Range of the Ministry of Agriculture details its importance. “Historically, the area was well forested and it served as a vital source of food, fodder, fibre, fuel and fertile soil. The healthy forest cover ensured an abundant supply of high quality water. The area was characterised by regular rainfall production of 2100mm, annually and there was minimal air, water or noise pollution, therefore without this watershed Valencia and nearby communities would have a shortage of water.”
Mr. Bissram highlighted that water scarcity may become a future problem despite higher levels of precipitation over the last 3 years. Although rainfall is present altered water-flow patterns due highway construction, result in changes in how much of this precious resource is provided by the watershed.
He explained. “Road construction in the area changes the drainage pattern of the entire area. Surface runoff is blocked by road embankments and is typically concentrated in a smaller number of streams and drains outside a watershed.”
Simultaneously the road itself encouraged population growth which led to increase in demand for jobs and consumables from the agriculture, domestic and industrial sectors. The ripple effect then continues with increases in noise, water, and air pollution.
“We simply have more people living in rural areas than there were 3 years ago when the pandemic started and the rains came. We contribute to creating the disturbance that alters the species composition of nearby vegetation thereby reducing habitat for local native animals, explained mr. Bissram.
With these constant effects from development initiatives, human actions and climatic shocks, the pressure is on for forestry officers who are meant to assist in the natural balance of the ecosystem. Albeit matters such as decisions on development are simply not within their control.
Article 5 – Split subcontractors vs split responsibility?
Several challenges have been identified, each as a ripple effect of highway development in combination with increased precipitation due to our changed climate within Valencia and nearby communities.
Regardless Mr. Hayden Phillip Programme Director of Pure contractors, in an official media release explains,” With an aim to increase commercial, industrial and residential input in the area, infrastructure is the catalyst to development,”
In doing so progress is the focus, to build and grow, establishing a gateway to Toco, the most northeastern point on the island well known amongst visitors and citizens alike.
The project was divided among eight contractors received as Mr. Phillip stated “a piece of the economic pie” who would then go on to employ members of the community. Some contractors include, General Earth Movers, Junior Sammy, Deeram Brothers among others each responsible for different phases, such as foundation drainage paving etc
Despite complaints from residents, forestry officers, game wardens, small business owners & other stakeholders, each development has an impact on the environment. Albeit with the highway now constructed & few measures in place to mitigate these negative effects, the call for a proposed port in the Toco, the most north eastern point in country
To note the overall goal of the development sought to improve transit positively with emphasis on reopening the tourism sector. These goals also represented the hopes of residents as greater economic activity should transfer positives to the livelihoods of community members allowing recovery from pandemic effects.
However was this stipulated impact achieved?
A follow up with Mr. Y. Scott of Pure contractors provided no response on grounds of legal obligations.
With the highway now complete, is there greater economic activity or as the residents have clearly indicated problems persist. Foresight as to the greater, more devastating impact of climate change must taken into consideration as development & infrastructure initiatives continue.