Solving a problem of community exclusion
In 2018, The Cropper Foundation and its four (4) partners – Environment Tobago, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, the Network of Rural Women Producers and the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union, launched a 3-year, European Union-funded project ‘Enhancing Civil Society Capacity for Governance of Environmental Transparency and Accountability in Trinidad and Tobago’s Extractive Industries’ otherwise known as ‘CSOs for Good Environmental Governance.’ This project aimed to support the involvement of a network of connected and engaged CSOs in the governance and oversight of environmental issues related to the extractive sector – oil, gas and mining in Trinidad and Tobago’s case.
In many cases, CSOs’ power to effect any change or influence in these matters are slim, with the processes for engagement in key statutory mechanisms for environmental management – such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Process – often difficult for regular community groups or citizens to participate in. This had led to many groups feeling a sense of isolation and powerlessness, as well as a reduction in their interest – and even willingness – to participate in issues of national importance.
While key components of the project were focused on improving the environmental reporting mandates of the Trinidad and Tobago Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (TTEITI), the national arm of the global extractives transparency initiative, the crux of the project focused on equipping key CSOs with the information, skills and confidence necessary to be more robust advocates for local to national good governance of the sector.
In addition to being engaged in collective advocacy, these CSOs were also equipped with the skills necessary to be watchdogs for their communities for the negative environmental impacts that can result due to the mismanagement of extractive sector operations - leading to terrestrial and marine pollution, loss of biodiversity and reduction in human well-being.
While the project built CSOs’ capacity to understand and navigate the environmental management legislation and policy framework within Trinidad and Tobago, it was critical to figure out how this improved knowledge and confidence can be parlayed into increasing their ability to communicate their issues to the general public, as well as the various state and private companies involved in the management of natural resources in their communities.
Through the involvement and leadership of the Lloyd Best Institute for the Caribbean, a citizen journalism programme was developed that sought to build their capacity in written, photo and video communications, within a framework of ‘citizen journalism.’
Participating CSOs members were trained to become community citizen journalists for the ‘Cari-Bois Environmental News Network’ (www.caribois.org) a national community news site around the environment. These new CSO citizen journalists were trained to communicate information to the public about specific environmental impacts of extractives industries and other environmental matters which affect them and to do so accurately, fairly, ethically and interestingly through words, photos, video and audio.
The Cari-Bois Environmental News Network is truly the first of its kind in the Caribbean, providing a platform for even the most vulnerable in society to share their stories and become part of a larger regional and global network of similar platforms that seek to inspire citizen action for environmental sustainability.
The website was launched on World Environment Day, June 5th, 2020 via a Zoom conference which was live-streamed across the social media pages of the all contributing civil society organisations whose representatives had undergone rigorous training to manage this digital platform together as a community. 40 citizen journalists were trained from communities across Trinidad and Tobago to report on environmental issues from the community to national level. As of March 2021, almost 80,000 persons have visited the Cari-Bois website to view articles.
Through their new skills and with the support of the wider community of CSOs built under the project, several CSOs have leveraged their new capacity to combine their local knowledge about the environmental conditions and threats facing their communities, to impact real change from a local to national level.
As citizen journalists, they often use local knowledge and realities to ‘set the stage’ for their reports, showcasing why a particular development may not be suited to the local environment, highlighting historical environmental and social realities – most recently showcased in Cari-Bois reporting of the (then) decision by the Minister of Health to not allow night patrols by turtle conservation groups. Cari-Bois’ reporting allowed communities and CSOs working in turtle conservation to share their local experiences within the COVID-19 period and highlighting why the realities for many of these groups run counter to the evidence to which the Minister of Health referred.
The following mini-cases showcase four key ways in which the Network has utilised the citizen journalist approach, in conjunction with their new skills in collaboration and collective advocacy to effect real change in issues that affect the marine environments of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as terrestrial environmental issues.
Civil Society Challenges Toco Port EIA
The proposed Toco Port Project, a ‘mega-development’ that had the potential for significant marine and coastal impacts along the North-East coast of Trinidad as well as the South-West of Tobago, was a controversial activity from the onset. Many of the community organisations and other CSOs from the Region, as well as national watchdog groups found the findings of the EIA, the required assessment report for compliance, to be lacking.
Due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) made publicly available on its website the EIA documents, which usually were only located in hardcopies at EMA offices or various local government offices throughout the country. This often resulted in a lack of access by ‘regular citizens’ and reduced their ability to make informed contributions, as they were unable to utilise external expert opinion on documents that are usually highly technical and generally are hundreds to thousands of pages long.
With the EIA being online, the Cari-Bois network was able to host a virtual meeting of 19 groups with external expertise to review and reflect on key sections of the EIA, with an emphasis on the experiences and local knowledge of key community groups from Toco and the surrounding areas. After this review, the network undertook to write a joint submission to the EMA, as well as an article to Cari-Bois Environmental News, which was then picked up by other news sites.
Some of the key challenges put forward by the groups were centred on local knowledge and experiences of communities in the North-East of Trinidad, such as:
- The community questioned the project’s mitigation plans for the projected traffic increase of 80-100 percent during the project’s construction phase and thereafter. Given the potential impact of additional heavy vehicles on the already deplorable road conditions, the CSOs expressed concern about the impact on the residents.
- Toco community’s water supply was also raised as a source of worry given the current shortage of freshwater and the potential worsening of the situation by the ratcheting up of demand by the proposed port.
- Commenting on the socio-economic impact of the proposed port project on the area, the CSOs raised concerns about the proposed highway to facilitate the port noting that it will require the relocation of many residents along the roadside and in villages with a disruption of the subsistence and fishing economies on which their livelihoods depend. “The EIA does not give enough consideration of how these livelihoods will be sustained into the future,” said the submission.
- CSOs went on to challenge the selection of Toco for a port noting that the feasibility study on which it is based was done 32 years ago and that even then, the pros and cons of a port at Toco had been weighed without definitive recommendation.
- The community also questioned the various biodiversity reports, indicating that their experiences with the local wildlife do not seem to support the conclusions that the limited studies have estimated.
Community says no to new quarries
Residents of the Acono Village in the Maracas watershed in Trinidad, leveraged their new skills to lead a pushback at reinvigorated attempts to open a new quarrying facility in the severely degraded Maracas watershed.
As Maracas resident and Cari-Bois citizen journalist Kelvin Nakhid wrote in a Cari-Bois article that received almost 2,000 views: "This will be the third attempt by Blue Diamond Quarries to establish a quarry in our La Caurita watershed. In 2015, the developer applied for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) from the EMA for the establishment of a facility for the mining and processing of limestone at the La Caurita Estate in Maracas, St. Joseph. The application was subsequently withdrawn for unknown reasons and another application was made in 2016 for the same activity.”
Through their understanding of the national environmental laws and policies, the residents of the Acono Village who were trained under the project were able to mobilise themselves and attend public consultations being held by the consultants hired by the company that was applying for the quarrying operation. They were able to film the proceedings and put together a series of articles and television appearances to make their case to the national public.
These citizen journalism products were done in support of an official submission made by the Acono Village Dynamic Action Committee to the EMA that laid out the community’s past experiences with quarrying in their community and detailed the local experiences and realities within the Caurita watershed (the main watershed to be impacted by the new quarry) that run counter to various details expressed in the quarrying application, such as:
- There are seven (7) bridges on the Caurita road under which the river flows and none are able to withstand the weight of a loaded quarry truck. In addition, none of them allow for two-way traffic;
- In the upper reaches of the Caurita River, the river crosses the road eleven (11) times, flowing over concrete pads, many of which have collapsed;
- There is major erosion along the Caurita road where slippage is likely to happen with any additional heavy usage;
- Runoff would inevitably result in increased siltation of the Caurita River, compromising its quality and also leading to increased instances of flooding;
- Caurita Road is very narrow and, in many areas, single lane. Many homes are built right on the edge of the roadside with no setback. It would be impossible for quarry trucks to operate without significant disruption to these residents.
The community also highlighted that the proposed quarry would be located in the centre of the hiking trails to the Caurita Petroglyphs. The petroglyphs constitute the largest documented rock art in Trinidad and are described by the National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago as being “an important spiritual place for the First Peoples or Amerindians in Trinidad.”
Leading public pressure for transparency around the FSO Nabarima
Between August and November 2020, the case of the FSO Nabarima, an oil storage vessel in the Gulf of Paria between Venezuela and Trinidad occupied headline news. The huge vessel containing approximately 1.3 million barrels of crude oil had reportedly begun to take on water, leaning to one side.
As Trinidad and Tobago authorities grappled with the political questions of how to respond to a crisis beyond the nation’s borders, questions had been raised about the potential environmental impact of an oil spill of this magnitude in the Gulf of Paria.
Cari-Bois Environmental News Network was one of the most read sources of information around this period, with its series of articles generating almost 40,000 reads on the site, and being cross-posted across all the major daily periodicals and international media.
As a citizen-focused news site, Cari-Bois sought to talk to marine conservation groups, CSOs and other key community stakeholders about the possible devastating impacts that a spill could have to the marine and coastal environments, and the additional loss of livelihoods and health impacts. As such, Cari-Bois’ reporting was one of the most diverse and relevant sources of information around this critical period.
Cari-Bois News has also been one of the key players in the ongoing follow-up reporting on the Nabarima, as the national news cycle has moved on, using its new avenues into the media rooms of Ministries and other key agencies to continue lobbying for increased transparency around this and other key environmental issues.
Communities lobby to protect nesting turtles
After Trinidad and Tobago's Minister of Health indicated that night-time beach patrols to protect nesting sea turtles, were to be prohibited under the Ministry's COVID-19 restrictions, several community groups and NGOs took to the media to protest this move.
After the Minister sought to justify his position by stating that the turtles should be sufficiently safe because, “no one is allowed on the beach to poach eggs or to kill the turtles or ride on their backs,” key voices in the turtle conservation community used Cari-Bois News Network as an outlet to set the record straight.
Turtle Village Trust, a well-known turtle conservation umbrella group, explained the scope of the threat to Cari-Bois News, revealing that increases in poaching had been reported in Manzanilla, Fishing Pond, Las Cuevas, Blanchisuesse, Sans Souci, Grande Riviere, and Toco based on feedback they were receiving from these communities. This was supported by Arlene Williams, President of the Las Cuevas Eco Friendly Association, as well as Aljoscha Wothke, President of the Environmental Research Institute Charlotteville, Tobago.
Cari-Bois also used its platform to support the subsequent petition started by the Council of Presidents of the Environment, which received more than 9,000 signatures and contributed to the removal of turtle beach patrols as a prohibited activity on March 17th, 2021.
Cari-Bois in the future
Cari-Bois and its model of citizen journalism networks is relevant to most Caribbean countries whose communities and CSOs struggle to find their voice to advocate for and highlight their communities' local knowledge and experiences.
In 2021, the Cropper Foundation aims to expand the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network to 2-3 other Caribbean countries, undertaking a programme of training and mentorship in citizen journalism, while expanding the website to include country-specific pages and mini-sites.
These new citizen journalists will focus on using the Cari-Bois platform to tell their communities' stories and positively influence more environmentally-responsible development decisions. It is expected that these new journalists will focus on activities that may be of more relevance to their communities or countries and will include more specific coastal and marine issues, environmental human rights, climate justice and the blue/green economy.