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New Economy Working Group » Article / Magazine Article

Turning Points: Is a Different Future Possible?

April 11, 2011 · · Originally published in YES! Magazine

With the citizen-backed blockage of a proposed aluminum smelter, is Trinidad and Tobago changing course toward a rooted future?

Lost jobs, lost homes, falling wages, falling benefits—in the United States and around the world, most ordinary people feel more vulnerable than even a few years ago. Many have given up hope that government officials tainted by corporate contributions can shift onto a less vulnerable and more rooted path. 

Such shifts often come from large shocks, when the key assumptions that undergird society get turned upside down, as they did in the United States during the Great Depression. Now, as the global food crisis shifts government sympathies toward local organic rice farmers, we find hope in our Philippine sojourns.

But how is this playing out in countries seen as “success” stories in terms of economic growth—at least until the recent financial crisis that began in 2008?

And so now we find ourselves in Trinidad and Tobago, a two-island country the size of Delaware with rich soil and teeming fishing banks – and with natural gas and oil.  “Columbus sailed to Trinidad over 500 years ago looking for el dorado: the city of gold,” a taxi driver explains to us. “It turns out that Columbus had bad intelligence. There was no gold, but there was the el dorado of natural gas and oil.”

We had first visited this nation in 2009, when we learned of one key struggle playing out in the country that seemed to epitomize the country’s choices: to build a large aluminum smelter that would process Guyanese raw bauxite into aluminum destined for China and elsewhere, or not to build it, as the citizen groups of fishers and farmers and local environmentalists were arguing.  That is, to follow the mainstream development model and gamble the country’s future even more on the plunder of oil and gas and the global economy, or to change course.

In 2009, the smelter seemed a done deal. On a drive to the south of the country, we found the construction site clearly visible from the road: an eerie, wide swath of nothingness where dozens of acres of forest had already been cut to make room for the smelter. West of the capital, Port of Spain, fishers mourned the mangroves—critical spawning grounds for fish that were already being destroyed to give way to the project’s port. 

Gary Aboud, an environmental leader and businessman, spoke with pride of the local citizen groups that had risen up to take on the smelter: “Five to six new leaders with integrity have emerged. They lead the fight.”

But taking on the smelter also meant taking on the economic and political elite of the country, who had hitched their futures, along with their country’s, to oil and gas. “Our leaders are corrupt,” Aboud said. “They have made so much money off this project. They have no vision. Only self-interest.”

The smelter project was only the most recent in a centuries-long series of missteps that have made Trinidad and Tobago’s economy and society vulnerable. Colonial powers had long imported slaves from Africa to grow sugar, cocoa, coffee, and cotton for export.  When slavery was abolished in 1878, tens of thousands of South Asian and other workers were imported as indentured servants to cut cane and work the cocoa plantations.

Then came the oil. When large, exporting nations quadrupled the price of oil in 1973 (and again in 1979), Trinidad and Tobago (along with the foreign oil firms) reaped the benefits. Having won independence from the British in 1962, the post-colonial government transformed the capital city into the financial center of the Caribbean. It invested in heavy industry, leaving farmers and fishers by the wayside. Agricultural land was abandoned. Small-scale fishers, who were given subsidies to expand in the 1950s, were largely forgotten.  Finance, oil-and-gas-based industry, and tourism became the future. 

These industries all proved extremely susceptible to the economic shocks of 2008–so much so that the country plunged into economic decline in 2009.  Financial reserves from past oil and gas revenues still existed to temper the shocks, but the people and their political leaders experienced the downside of the failing economic model: After years of neglecting small-scale fishing and agriculture, and importing most of its corn and rice (and all of its wheat)—the whole country has become vulnerable to the current spike in food prices.

In many nations around the world, the economic crisis fueled reform movements that demanded new leadership.  And just as we elected Barack Obama in 2008, and the Philippines chose the reform-minded Benigno Aquino in 2010, Trinidad and Tobago elected a new reform government led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar in mid-2010. 

Then, as we discover, an unexpected thing happened: Her new government was no longer filled with officials making money off that aluminum smelter. In the midst of a global economic downturn, questions arose about how long it would take for a project costing over $1 billion to turn a profit.  The activists near the proposed site continued the protests into her new administration. They cleverly invoked a 1995 Environmental Impact Assessment law which they argued was never properly carried out for the project. And, our new friends tell us with a kind of delighted shock, the government of “Kamla” (as local people fondly call her) canceled the smelter contract, citing both environmental and economic reasons for the decision.

The fishers and farmers with whom we speak are excited over the cancellation, but they are wary about the future.  They want to see this path-breaking decision followed up by concrete efforts – not just talk and not just studies – to diversify the economy away from oil and gas, and to support small farmers and fishers. There is a battle going on in this small island country over whether the future continues on the vulnerable path or whether it takes a turn toward the rooted.  With the smelter decision, a major step has been taken in the direction of rootedness, at least for now.

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John Cavanagh
IPS Director

Fellow
Global Economy