This past weekend, I spent a lot of time in Chaguaramas. The catalyst was the 5th annual Lucozade Sport North Cross Adventure Race (staged by my brother’s company, ECO Adventures), at which I was asked to officiate. So there I was, headed for Trinidad’s northwest peninsula at a distinctly unreasonable time of the morning – a time when REM (the sleep pattern, not the band) is usually having its way with me. Not being a morning person, I was surprised when drowsiness was replaced by fascination at Chag’s early-morning beauty. The ocean was still and mirror-like, reflecting the rosy pink blush of dawn as she announced her arrival over the hills of Tucker Valley.
The race was scheduled to start at 7:00 a.m. sharp, so by 6:30 a.m. we were readying our Check Point for the barrage of adventure racers who would be making their way along gruelling trails in an effort to follow the directions on their maps and find markers that would lead them to their next destination and ultimately, the glory of the finish line.
CP #1 was a good 12-minute walk into Bunker Road, just beyond the Chaguaramas Golf Course. On either side of us were remnants of Trinidad and Tobago’s involvement in World War II - bunkers, ruins – but the most fascinating part of the trek was the sighting of a Red Howler Monkey teetering at the top of a bamboo patch like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If you’ve never heard Howler Monkeys before, they sound like a cross between gale force winds and a lion’s roar. And if you’ve never seen them, they’re absolutely stunning to look at, with coats of burnt sienna mixed with a generous dash of cinnamon.
What, you may ask, is the point of all this nature talk? Exactly that – Tucker Valley (indeed Chaguaramas as a whole) remains one of the few accessible green spaces for the people of Trinidad to enjoy. The area is widely used not only by agriculturalists and historians, but by athletes, field naturalists, bird watchers, tourists, botanists, mountain bikers, beach-goers and multi-sport racers alike – none of whom have apparently been consulted on the government’s plans to construct low-cost housing in the area.
I have not been privy to these plans; like most other citizens, I read about them in the newspapers. My feeling is, however, that any project with such a large ripple effect on the population (and, I might add, any project using public funds) should have public consultations before being given the green light. I highly doubt that such consultations would result in an endorsement of the project – environmentalists like Professor Julian Kenny have been quite vocal about their view that it is a bad idea. But public outcry apparently hasn’t stopped work from going full steam ahead – there have been sightings of electrical lines being run for miles into hills where some of the most pristine vegetation lies.
I understand that we need to shelter our citizens. This is not a rant against low-cost housing as opposed to upscale housing. Any type of housing in this area will devalue the environmental and historical significance of this valley. While Maslow pointed out that the need for shelter is a basic physiological one, bricks and mortar alone are not transformative. We need to build more than a roof over people’s heads; we need to build communities that support and uplift one another so that we can escape from this mire of criminal behaviour and return to our natural state of human dignity. Countless research studies have proven that green space is a key ingredient in this mix. It is why, no matter how big or how small our properties are, Trinis of every race and social stratum are side by side at Maracas Bay, President’s Grounds, the Queen’s Park Savannah – and yes, Chaguaramas – each weekend. We need to connect with nature. It keeps us sane and somehow, magically, makes us more relaxed and kinder to one another.
But reasons of practicality (and I am nothing if not practical) also point to Chaguaramas being an ill-suited location for this type of development. While its tactically strategic position, with its proximity to the Gulf of Paria, augured well for troops in WWII, it is now counter-productive to any kind of mass development. There is one road in and out of Chaguaramas. Anyone who has been to a fete in Chag knows the frustration of spending more time in traffic than at the party. Build housing in Tucker Valley and you have a concentration of people who have to use that one road to go to work each day (and Port of Spain is a good distance from Chaguaramas, especially when you consider that T&T has no mass transit system). To counteract the daily exodus, you would have to actually create a self-sufficient town, complete with infrastructure and other services like hospitals and schools. (See original point about the need to preserve nature, fast disappearing in this current construction boom).
The other concern is that Chaguaramas, or at least the Tucker Valley portion of it, is effectively a national park. The entire area is managed by the Chaguaramas Development Authority, which was established by a 1972 Act of Parliament to administer and coordinate the development of the northwestern peninsula, including the offshore islands. While the CDA cites, as its principal function, to develop the area “in accordance with national objectives”, shouldn’t “national” encompass the views of the people of the nation? The CDA’s Vision Statement reads:
CHAGUARAMAS will become the Tourism, Entertainment and Recreational destination of the Region through Development of selected areas while maintaining a Pristine Environment.
Their Conceptual Master Plan refers to:
…preserving the integrity of the environment by developing an uplands National Park for the enjoyment and education of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
In light of this, the plan to introduce housing to the area would require a formal change of use/status for Chaguaramas – and that, at the very least, demands public consultation.
It makes more sense to fix what already exists. Laventille, for instance, sits on prime real estate – views of Port of Spain from atop its breezy hills are breathtaking. The area’s Beetham Estate began as a low cost housing scheme, but it is not enough to hand over keys, take pictures for press releases and move on. Homes are about people. Taking people’s needs, challenges and views into consideration goes a long way to providing insight that leads to long-term solutions – because people are the ones on the ground, facing the traffic or playing rugby at President’s Grounds or living in houses too small for their spirits or running the trails in Chag while they all marvel at how nobody listens to them.