Construction of the proposed multi-million-dollar Churchill-Roosevelt Highway extension to Sangre Grande by the National Infrastructure Development Company (NIDCO) is not sitting well with some Wallerfield farmers who will have to find land to continue their livelihood when they are given notices to leave.
More than 50 farmers and homeowners will have to be removed to make way for the highway.
The farmers, who said the Government was giving them a raw deal as they are now forced to hunt for alternative accommodation, believe it is a total disrespect to their profession.
At a meeting with residents and farmers late last year, a pamphlet bearing a map and details of the new route was circulated by NIDCO.
The project involves several packages which will be done in phases—work starts this month and is expected to be completed by 2025.
Phase one is a 14-kilometre section of the highway which is fully designed. It starts with an interchange at Cumuto Road and ends with another interchange at the Toco Main Road. There would also be the construction of an overpass over the Eastern Main Road in Sangre Grande.
Phase one consists of a 5,000-metre segment from Cumuto to Sangre Grande running in a west to east direction—it is approximately 120 metres south of and runs parallel to the boundary of the environmentally sensitive Aripo Savannas, approximately 300 metres east of Cumuto Road and 600 metres west of Guaico Trace, Sangre Grande.
A new four-lane dual carriageway from the existing intersection of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway and Cumuto Road will be built and several river crossings and box culverts will also be constructed.
Farmers have no say—Bowen
Livestock farmer Wayne Bowen said they were told by NIDCO that Government needed their lands for the mega project.
An executive member of the Wallerfield Farmers’ and Allied Welfare Association, Bowen said an assessment was yet to be done on their land.
He said plans were being made without the farmers' involvement or having a say.
"They doing what they have to do and then coming to talk to us. There has been no consultation. We were told after an assessment is made by the Government we would be paid for our properties and we have to move out. They are not going to relocate us.
"So, I have to find land to continue my farm. I am not in agreement with this.
"Why they can’t find a place for us?"
The farmers have been earning their livelihood on agricultural lands leased to them by the State for decades.
He said dozens of farmers' lands including some homes are in the direct path of the highway and they would have to move out.
Bowen said an interchange will be built on Nicaragua Road where he rears livestock on his eight-acre parcel of land.
"Don't tell me you developing the country and I am going to be left behind. At the end of the day, when they build this highway all the rich folks will come around and buy up all the land and they will benefit.
"Nobody is going to push nothing down my throat because I will rebel. If they deal with me fairly, I am the most peaceful and loving person. But don’t come and tell me I have to move and I had to hunt for a new place. That is a recipe for stress and people to lose their cool."
Bowen said he will not let the Government "railroad" him.
He said if the Government needed his land, they would have to find alternative accommodation for him.
Bowen gave up his secondary school education to pursue farming which he has been doing for 51 years.
"Rearing livestock is all I know. A man my age would have to be running around like a headless chicken to locate a place. Nah man...We are waiting for the next step."
Bowen said he had suggested another route which NIDCO could have used to avoid disrupting the farmers’ lives, but his consideration was ignored.
'Nothing should stand in the way of progress'
Livestock farmer David Ellis, however, shared a different view, stating that farmers should not stand in the way of progress.
"50 people cannot hold back 50,000 people. I am trying to encourage farmers not to protest or resist but to try and get the best valuation and package possible to have an easy transition."
Ellis said they heard Government will give them a list of recognised valuators to have their properties evaluated.
"That is why I intend to get an independent valuator to ensure what is given to me is equitable and fair. I am trying my best to encourage the farmers to look at it from a positive standpoint. It is government's land."
While some farmers preferred relocation, Ellis said such a move can be unfair to an individual.
"The Government can shift you to an area you do not like or where it floods. To me, it is better you find your own place.”
In light of the new development, Ellis said a small group of farmers have since retained the services of an attorney who has been advising them.
"We don't know when we will be given notices. Based on feedback, it is supposed to be served somewhere near the end of February to March."
He estimated that roughly 50 farms and households in Wallerfield will be affected.
"I personally hope they come for the land because farming in Trinidad is a struggle."
Ellis has been occupying a 13-acre parcel for years
The land, he insisted, is not suited for cultivating crops.
'It's totally unfair'
The association’s president, Lisa Perez, who represents 500 farmers, sees the move by NIDCO as totally unfair.
Perez said the farmers were hoping for a consultation with NIDCO which they are yet to see.
"We had a meeting in Coryal which was out of the way for the farmers. Many could not attend. All the questions we put to NIDCO they did not answer."
She said she intends to hold a meeting soon with the farmers to determine how many will be adversely affected because the numbers keep going up.
"There are not only farmers along the Cumuto Road who will have to move out. Yesterday, we heard other farmers along the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway going into Block Three as well as some farmers on Jacob Hill will be affected also."
Perez said the fact that they have to find alternative accommodation meant they will be fighting up on their own to continue their trade.
"The market value of properties today is above $1 million. I don’t know if we will be adequately compensated. That is my concern. I think it is disrespect. They disrespected us. Like everything else, it's divide and conquer. I think they are playing on that because farmers don’t understand the market value of properties. I think they want to take advantage of them. Of course, I am dissatisfied."
Sinanan: EMA will have a consultation with farmers
Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan, under whose purview NIDCO falls, told Guardian Media the Government would require some lands for the construction of the highway.
"That is just part of the process. A value on the land will be determined on the land acquired and equitable compensation will be handed out. At the end of the day, you cannot keep back the progress of a country because somebody may have sentimental ties to something. If it is a farm and you make a living, you put in a claim for that. There is a value to that."
Told that the farmers had identified an alternative route to prevent their lives from being disrupted, Sinanan said the route was not selected by the ministry but by experts.
"As a matter of fact, that route might have been chosen long before I became a minister. The final route is chosen because they would have taken everybody’s view into consideration. There has never been a highway built in Trinidad where there was wasn’t a protest or somebody tried to stop it or somebody thought it was not a good idea."
He said if you live in the East and try to go to Sangre Grande, "you will sell (your house) and move out by evening. If you don’t build that highway, what will happen five or ten years from now?"
Sinanan said the Environmental Management Authority would have a consultation with all the farmers.
"That happens from time to time, you go back and change and tweak. The final layout would have taken everything into consideration," Sinanan said.