Most Americans love roads: Ours is a country of roads with a network of highways that rivals any other. So too does the U.S. government love roads. When the Obama administration passed its epic $787 billion stimulus plan just weeks after taking office, where did much of the money go? Into fixing and upgrading our highways.
When U.S. aid agencies look to poorer nations, they too love to fund the building of roads that can deliver crops to markets and ports and bring “progress” to remote areas. After all, who could be against a road?
In our stay in Trinidad and Tobago, the two-island nation off the coast of Venezuela, we discover that more people than we expected are opposed to a particular road. Their reasons turn the prevailing view of progress on its head and add to our understanding of “rooted” communities.
As we prepare to travel to Trinidad, we notice something strange on maps of the island: The coastal road that goes almost entirely around Trinidad stops for a 17-mile stretch in the center of the northern coast. Our research reveals that government promises and plans to complete the road go back to 1962 when the country gained independence. Some five decades later, still no road.
This intrigues us. So we travel to three towns that surround the no-road area in part to see what life is like at the end of the road and to find out the “what,” “why” and “how” of the unfinished project.
First stop, the town of Blanchisseuse, where Marvin Glaude, a thirtyish-year-old fisherman, fishes in the bays on the western edge of the road’s end. Very early one morning, we accompany him on a 22-foot boat to fish and to see what lies beyond the end of the road.
Marvin skillfully navigates the boat between huge rocks jutting out of the crashing waves into Paria Bay, a stunning stretch of beach accessible only by boat or foot trails through the rainforest. We ask Marvin if he wants the government to complete the road along the coast here. He replies without hesitation: “I’m vexed by the road. It would ruin the forest and the beach. Rich people would buy the land along the road and build huge houses.”
As it is now, Marvin and local guides make some income bringing people through the forest and across the beaches to see waterfalls, many of the country’s 430 bird species, and magnificent leatherback turtles which return yearly to lay eggs on the northern beaches.
Second stop, the mountain village of Brasso Seco, perched several miles above the 17-mile stretch of beaches, rivers, and rocky gorges. Here, Carl Fitzjames and his wife Kelly Warren are among those building “community tourism” around the area’s largely unspoiled forests, teeming with birds, frogs, and butterflies. Carl opposes the road, fearing that such easy and increased access will “slowly destroy the forest and all that lives inside it.” Beyond that, he explains, this northern mountain range is the source of most of Trinidad’s rivers and fresh water; a road would certainly damage the watershed. As Carl and Kelly see it, these mountains and this biodiversity are the real El Dorado of this country. Not only does the couple not want a road, they want the entire mountain region to be declared a protected area to be stewarded by the people who live around it and in it.
Finally, we travel to Matelot where the road ends in the northeast. Beyond it, a long wooden footbridge straddles the Matelot River and leads to the area’s secondary school. And then—only high coastal mountains and trails to Paria Bay, and onward along the coast to Blanchisseuse or inland to Brasso Seco.
As we stand on the Matelot footbridge, looking at the large fish below, a man walks over to see what we are up to. It turns out he actually works in Vancouver but comes back home to Matelot for long stretches of time. Ah, we think, finishing the road will make his travels easier. Does he want the road? He is not sure. His reservations concern the cultural changes that will come should the “riff-raff” from the capital city find Matelot even more accessible. He shudders as he tells us about the drug trade from Colombia that has begun to use the northern coast of Trinidad as a trans-shipment point to the U.S. market. He worries about a road bringing the violence that comes with drugs into the relatively peaceful northeast: “People will get killed.”
Near Matelot, we meet Michael Aviles, a tall, broad-shouldered man who runs the Toco Foundation, located east of where the road ends. He is a former senator who grows his own basic food crops and was a key leader of the most recent fight against the road. Michael laments that the central government in Port of Spain has historically been filled with people with an “oil and gas mentality”—with top officials disparaging those opposing the road as being against “progress” and wanting “to protect the little green frog and the little green leaf.” On the other hand, he tells us how, at a local level, the anti-road campaign convinced each of the village councils in the area to sign a petition of opposition, which was brought to the Environment Minister.
Overall, Michael credits community solidarity with the success in the most recent attempts to keep the road from being built.
Oh, and also “Google technology.”
Michael breaks into a grin as he recounts trekking with two “community tourists” across the 17 miles of hiking trails: With their laptop, “they used the Google technology to calculate that a road would require cutting 385,000 trees and would need 27 bridges to span the steep gorges. This would be devastating to the watersheds, to the biodiversity, and it would have huge costs.” Thanks to these protests and the new, damning information, the government put the road “on the back burner.”
Still, Michael reflects, changing mindsets is not easy. “People in government asked me: What’s the alternative to the road? I said: ‘No road is the alternative.’”
Roads, we conclude, can connect communities and people and are often a good thing. But as we have learned in Trinidad, they are not always the right choice socially, environmentally, or even economically. And this is hardly just a Trinidad tale: Across the globe, in places including the Philippines, Brazil, and Guyana, roads have provided access to loggers, leading to the destruction of the forest.
In the United States there is now a rethinking about our vast network of roads. Many believe that a key to transforming the U.S. economy is shifting from the highway economy built over the past century to a network of high-speed trains that could help make the country less dependent on fossil fuels, and therefore less vulnerable.
Sometimes the road not built is the best way for real connections to occur, the best path to real “progress.”