Beyond The Flooding in Trinidad and Tobago

Alien LandscapesThis comes in the way of an apology to readers outside of Trinidad and Tobago: I’ve written more in the past week about Trinidad and Tobago than I typically do and the reason behind that is simple: I felt it needed to be written. And in that, there is no real apology.

There are lessons here, though, when we look at the planet not as we see it, but for what it is – a complex network of networks that has existed before mankind and that will continue after mankind.

We live in an odd alien landscape that our senses can barely discern. We have gotten better at it, and through trial and error – arguably disastrous error – we have learned new things. If Clair Cammerson Patterson hadn’t tried to estimate the age of the Earth, he wouldn’t have ended up leading a campaign against lead poisoning, and leaded fuels. So many who don’t know his name have probably had their lives saved. That’s just one example.

There have been people doing similar things around the world, opening up new perspectives on the planet by daring to look, to ask questions rather than accepting… and we take them for granted. Many of us don’t understand what they do, which makes sense, but many of us don’t try to understand.

The planet doesn’t care about our effective collective apathy.

That we are given pause to consider such things is not enough, that we use the pause for introspection is still not enough. The world doesn’t care about our bureaucracies, or democracies, or our economies.

Humanity, to survive, needs to be more agile in it’s adaptation to the world. The increased population certainly doesn’t help; more humans means more agriculture and farming which we clear more natural land for without truly understanding all the implications. It means increased use of all the nasty -icides we use, it means more transportation using things that cough pollutants. Our medical technology assures we live longer, our business technology allows us to profit or lose from it more rapidly, and the person who works in the hope of retiring finds themselves working longer to retire because of socioeconomic circumstance.

The planet’s governments were not designed for this level of change. They don’t scale as fast as we procreate, a problem that China was quick to deal with, making people shudder at the implementation. In this way, perhaps, the Chinese ‘solution’ kept the population growth to a speed where the governance could adapt fast enough.

I don’t know, and really, I don’t think anyone does. There are opinions, I’m sure, but I’m not sure anyone actually knows. It’s apparent that there are at least some Chinese people who are not pleased with the way things are. In time, history books will tell us the ones that survived were right.

What we do know is that we can see events in our spheres faster than we could have 20 years ago, or 40 years ago. The world is awash with would-be citizen journalists documenting themselves and what they see, interpreting their world on the fly without a few moments introspection.

Governments around the world can’t keep pace with all of this. Trinidad and Tobago, since I have been writing about Trinidad and Tobago, is slow to adapt and change. It didn’t diversify it’s economy when it could have while oil revenues were high. It had brain-drain as oligarchal systems kept people from pushing things forward, forcing them to other places to become what they would become. Corruption that paid well came from such things, creating it’s own sub-economy while effectively stalling progress.

In this, there are parallels with other developing nations. There is nothing significantly different in the corruption aspects of developing nations, but where Trinidad and Tobago is different is that it could have been developed much further along with the oil revenues it once had. Instead, politics divided and conquered as politics typically does.

Whenever administrations change, we get reorganization.  Reorganization within the same cavern of methodologies doesn’t actually change as much as politicians would have people believe, largely because politicians aren’t systems thinkers outside of politics.

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
 Charlton Ogburn, Jr. (1911-1998), in Harper’s Magazine, “Merrill’s Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure” (Jan 1957)

So how do we get real change? It’s simple, really – we stop playing politics. We push on fixing the things we need to – foresight – rather than getting wrapped up in a blame game that politicians play so that they can be elected or re-elected.

And when they fail, we criticize by creating.

Many individuals have thoughts on how to do things. Being an expert on something limits what can be thought of within a narrow field when all too often innovation comes from intersections across fields.

Stop wasting time on politicians. Start using time productively toward solutions. When someone has an idea, challenge it – and if it passes, share it so others can challenge it and better shape a solution.

Or you can go on depending on politics. How’s that working for you?

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Trinidad and Tobago Flooding 2018: Causes. (Pt 4)

Nasty people of #trinidadandtobago dumping rubbish on my land again.
January 27th, 2018: One of the many instances where someone dumped on my land next to NIDCO’s incompleted project of the Point Fortin Highway. (Photo by me)

The government of Trinidad and Tobago is launching it’s own investigation into the flooding. I’d be surprised if they found themselves culpable at any level unless political mileage can be had, but to be honest, the present administration has surprised me here and there and I’d welcome a surprise.

Clogged waterways are the obvious issue when it comes to the flooding in Trinidad and Tobago – creating a hazard that leads to disaster. That we need to rein in use of plastics is a corollary; and yet even recycling is not good enough.

Trinidad and Tobago has a problem with illegal dumping, something which I have had to deal with personally on my own land in South Oropouche, something I have dealt with, and something that is seemingly low on the priority list of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service as they attempt to deal with more violent crimes.

I’d write an argument saying that littering itself is a violence of sorts, the seeding of waterways as time bombs, but it’s hard to make a relevant case for that when people are getting shot just about every day. The indirect seems far removed until communities get flooded out, and even then, it’s indirect.

Lets move beyond the obvious, though.

In Part 1, I wrote about the heart-warming response of the community. In Part 2, I wrote about the government being as overwhelmed as the flood victims. In Part 3, I wrote about proper practices for responding and dealing with logistics in a broad scope. In this part, I’ll write about the more difficult issue of avoidance by addressing causes and the need to mitigate them.

Rainfall

rainfall data
Site accessed on 29 October 2018, and the Piarco Data was used.

In looking around for whatever rainfall data that could be found, I checked out the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service to take a look at what climate data they have – and rainfall data for Piarco and Crown Point is readily available here, though you’ll need to create a log in. The data extends from 1981 to March of 2018 when accessed on October 29th, 2018. It is really hard to work with to see if there have been any changes.

The CSV data for rainfall published on Data.tt is easier to work with, though it only goes to 2015.  By breaking it into decades, then running an average of precipitation as well as a standard deviation on each decade for precipitation… I came up with very similar results, indicating no real increase in rainfall over decades.

That’s strange. Maybe they have other data that isn’t public, but why that would be so boggles the mind.

In the media, there has been constant mention of ‘increased rainfall’. It seems strange that the one geographic point where they publish data doesn’t seem to have that increase.

Where is the data for other parts of the country that get quoted by government offices?

Dredging of Waterways

It’s generally understood that Regional Corporations are supposed to be dredging waterways within their jurisdiction. It hasn’t been happening as often as it should. That’s something anecdotal that gets mentioned in the local media a lot, but there’s no real data to support it.

It’s difficult to have data for things that aren’t done, much less when they weren’t done. Does anyone keep track of that aside from Regional Corporations?

Unplanned Development: Public Lands

One of the main problems of flooding anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago is the unplanned development – we know it as houses simply appearing on private or public lands.

When it comes to public lands, the government is responsible for dealing with squatting, both residential and agriculture. There’s evidence that this is not being done just about everywhere. Residences appear almost randomly throughout the country, which seems to be the reason why the government of Trinidad and Tobago attempts to build and lease houses… which they, through the Housing and Development Corporation (HDC), have trouble collecting money from.

Squatting takes place all over – sometimes on lands that are safe, sometimes on lands that are not.

Real estate prices make agricultural land unattainable for many who would want to participate in agriculture, I know of many skilled farmers looking for agricultural land – but socioeconomically, and legally, leasing land privately comes with it’s own problems.

This leads to squatting on public land for agriculture – because in Trinidad and Tobago, making something illegal isn’t the same as stopping it. Farming on squatted public  land is a political issue when it comes to Agriculture because no one wants to take on poor squatting farmers over this, and so the government regularizes it.

Whether right or wrong in an ethical sense is beyond me. Whether it is right or wrong in a matter of public planning to avoid flooding is an issue for The Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division, and it’s uncertain that it is an issue for them as far as their mandate.

There is more to the agricultural aspect – it’s addressed in a later section within this article.

Unplanned Development: Private Lands

Land owners have very few tools to stop people from building on their lands other than very heavy handed approaches, or High Court matters that run into 6 figures as a matter of course. You might think you could simply go to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and report someone building on your land – and you’d be right, but the Police will not be able to do anything other than tell a landowner that it’s a Civil Matter. After all, the Police are not surveyors, etc.

This works out well for lawyers, and it also clogs up the Court with matters while people continue using land in ways that the landowner cannot stop, that the Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division does nothing about, and which affects lands in sometimes unpredictable ways. This includes issues related to flooding and landslides.

So unplanned development on private lands through squatting is an issue – but it’s also an issue when private land owners themselves either, (1) do their own unplanned development or, (2) Allegedly bribe officials to get their plans passed regardless of what will happening about the surroundings as well.

Given how slow the wheels of the Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division move, it should be no surprise that people try to lubricate it. Certainly, that would have an effect on assuring quality in Town and Country, but… that, too, is anecdotal and is not something people mention in a public forum very often.

After all, they might need something passed in the future.

Planned Development: Private and Public Lands

Having already mentioned the alleged lubrication of the wheels of the Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division in the context of private land owners, we are left with the public through the government of Trinidad and Tobago’s many child corporations, a sometimes toxic spill of acronyms on the natural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Housing and Development Corporation (HDC) builds houses, and some of these projects have flooded repeatedly. The National Infrastructure Development Company Limited (NIDCO) does other things, such as highways and buildings. The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) of Trinidad and Tobago has been accused of rubber stamping plans more than once. The Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Planning Division is a black box that allegedly works best when one sticks blue pieces of paper into it. WASA has connected people with water without permission from landowners on properties without Town and Country approval for proper drainage.  The list goes on, and it’s hard to understand without a narrative, which I provide in the last section.

Agriculture.

Speaking from my own experience with hands in the soil, and with dealing with significantly more experienced farmers than myself, a farmer is supposed to know his or her land, which means knowing how the water runs and planning for dry season (ponds and irrigation) and wet season (drainage and irrigation). Let’s assume that every farmer understands this – that understanding can only be implemented on the land that they are using and how it immediately impacts them.

Runoff from fertilizers, weedicides, fungicides and insecticides impacts not only the area, but areas further down the waterways – and that, in turn, impacts natural ecosystems that may have actually helped avoid flood conditions in the past.

There’s no real regulation of what fertilizers, weedicides, insecticides and fungicides are used.

A Personal Narrative On Planned Development

Drainage from Pt. Fortin Highway onto my land...
Lands adjacent to the Pt. Fortin Highway, where I had to pay to have drainage from the Highway and adjacent road’s culverts done so that the area didn’t become a swamp in wet season.  Where the drainage ended did become a de facto swamp.

I was personally impacted by the Pt. Fortin Highway. The planned road reserve had been through my land for decades, so it was not a surprise when it actually began. The acquisition of my land happened quickly – but payment from NIDCO is still pending after 6 years, where the government has to pay me interest for said lands still. That’s not so much the point here, though.

The project was halted because of allegations of corruption – so it’s hard to say that the incomplete drainage adjacent to the highway on my land and the land of others was going to be addressed or not, but the fact of the matter is that it wasn’t. In fact, there seemed to be little regard for drainage.

Diego Martin Highway Overpass and Improvement Works - Environmental ReportBecause of that, when I was recently invited to look over things for the Diego Martin Highway Project that NIDCO has sent out Requests For Proposals (RFPs) on, I took the opportunity to look things over better. I found the document that the Ministry of Works and Transport’s Environmental, Health and Safety Unit prepared and sent to the Environmental Management Authority and was amazed at how horrid a document it seemed to be.

Here’s what I found, and what I said in so many words at a public consultation to assure it went on record. The sections refer to the actual document (and if anyone wants a copy, contact me).

The report:

  • does not have a finalized design or budget, which is of great concern: How can we comment on a design that is incomplete, and how can anyone gauge whether it will have a return on investment for the taxpaying community?
  • claims that it will improve drainage, which is important in the context of the flooding of October, 2018, and of the previous year post-Brett — but does not demonstrate knowledge of water flow issues from the Diego Martin River and tide information. I’m certain that someone at the Ministry of Works and Transport is trained in Fluid Flow, perhaps they could add to the report?
  • That cites rainfall in the area for only 3 years (5.4.1.1.1), but cites wind history for over a decade (5.4.1.1.4). Why is that? And given that there is wide international acceptance related to sea levels rising and we have seen anecdotally increased rainfall since 2014, I suspect that the original plans submitted in 2015 have not been updated with the most recent data. I’m sure that the 100,000+ that have been affected by flooding this year alone might have something to say about neglecting the statistics which have so affected their lives.
  • Mentions that it will not involve new crossings of watercourses (4.5) . It does not mention drainage into existing water courses, which will affect flow rates out to the Gulf of Paria, tide permitting. It later says that the limits of the proposed works are, to the West, just before the Western Main Road Bridge over the Diego Martin River. In the same section (5.1), it goes on to say that the limits are preliminary; I imagine they must be because there is likely to be drainage that affects the Diego Martin River itself directly along that Western boundary. This grey area is of concern given tides, occlusion, flooding elsewhere that must flow outward, and so on.Further, in 5.4.1.1.5, the Diego Martin River is mentioned in the topography and acknowledged as an issue with devastating flooding mentioned in 2008 and 2013.
  • The population dynamics, Section 5.3, Table 2cites data from 1990 and 2000. My calendar indicates that as of this consultation, these figures are 28 and 38 years out of date respectively. I imagine we might have different numbers now, but lacking scientific data – as this report does – I cannot say.  In the report itself, it states that there was a 2.7% decrease in population in the area between 2000 and 2011. Certainly, the area may have matured and stabilized, but there is no real data cited in the report to support the recommendation other than anecdotal evidence which would indicate that there is less need for this project.Cited vehicle registration projections do not seem to scale with local population growth, either, and their inclusion adds confusion instead of clarity within the local area.
  •   5.4.1.1.9, Surface Water Quality, refers to a test that has no date. When was the test done? Is it still relevant? By omission, the answer should be ‘no’.
  • Noise and air quality studies seem to have neglected the HDC development noted in the map which, were the map updated, would be shown as ‘Victoria Keyes’. Given the nature of Victoria Keyes, a group of 3 towers of 9 story height, it would seem this might be an important site to include in such studies (5.4.1.1.10, 5.4.1.1.11), particularly since mitigation strategies(7.2.1.7, 7.1.2.1.7.1, 7.2.1.7.1.1,7.2.2.2.2, etc.) mentioned will have an inconsequential effect on these towers as they are limited to at most 2 stories. Was the HDC notified about this during the consultation in 2015, did they participate? They are presently denying it.
  •  The HDC development (Now Victoria Keyes) impacts also will include 2 ponds, waste disposal tanks and other things not noted. Again, was the HDC consulted? They would have had to have been, but there seems to be nothing that indicates such in the report.
  • 5.4.2.1.2, Fauna, does not note the orange winged parrots that fly over the highway, among other things, including unverified sightings of piping guan – a critical species – adjacent to Victoria Keys. Orange winged parrots are very hard to miss; they fly over the highway at dusk and at dawn, as do other species. This information, therefore, is in question – after all, it was apparently only done over a period of 1 day in 2015.A day is simply not enough to view local species, much less migratory species which would take at least a year to take into consideration if this were really related to anything about the environment.
  • Aside from all of this, the loop to be done adjacent to Victoria Keyes – in this outdated document, ‘HDC Development’ – there are roadworks planned within 200 feet of at least one of the towers and infrastructure, which would imply that, assuming proper roads are being done, heavy equipment would be used that close to the towers and infrastructure that could cause damage to the buildings. In 2017, the media published an estimate of $2.5m cost per unit at Victoria Keyes, which means that a tower would cost approximately $200m – that seems like an unlikely thing that the government would want to damage given the need to reimburse.

If this is an example of how a Trinidad and Tobago government project is run, if it continues without addressing these issues, how can we not expect flooding?

Summary

In all, there is a lot that everyone can do to help avoid the situation. Becoming more aware, which hopefully this article is a part of, is the first step and is not even original – much of what has been written here has been written elsewhere or said elsewhere.

As far as the government of Trinidad and Tobago – certainly, we can be critical of the response to what is classified as a Natural Hazard (flash flooding) and we have seen more than once as a disaster, but are we ready yet to start discussing the preventative measures that the Government is seemingly failing to do through the shell game of government corporations?

Spread the word. Share this, or talk to people you know about it.

The home you save could be your own.

Trinidad and Tobago Flooding 2018: Observations; Logistics (Pt 3).

120314-N-WG146-042In Part 2 related to my Observations of the Trinidad and Tobago Flooding in 2018logistics gets mentioned and it’s worth noting that a lot of people don’t really understand what logistics is.

Logistics, in it’s simplest form, is the detailed organization and implementation of a complex operation. Disaster response tends to be complex because what is happening on the ground is not about what is happening in one place, but in all places related to the situation.

Logistics would have helped to avoid issues such as people asking for and receiving things they didn’t need.  It would have helped avoid situations where police had to defend mattresses. It would have helped get aid to people faster, getting what was needed where it was needed most as quickly as possible.

Logistics During

In a disaster that is happening over a period of time, logistics is pretty simple.

During the disaster itself, such as the flooding, rescuers – trained personnel that can save lives – shouldn’t run in like a Hollywood movie or dance in like a Bollywood movie. Fools rush in, typically – if it’s not safe and you lose rescue personnel, the capacity to save more people later on is compromised. Patience is of utmost importance at this time – a downed rescuer becomes a victim.

In extreme cases, rescuers are sent in when there is no other choice – which is the stuff Hollywood is made of.

During the disaster, the idea is to put things in place? A flood? Well, you’re going to need boats – something that the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago has identified.

In being prepared for a disaster – any disaster – you need to have inventory. You need potable water that can be distributed, the capacity to assure food, shelters, medical support (that doesn’t rob other people of emergency personnel), communications to and from a command center, and unfortunately, yes, security forces to protect the supplies.

The command center plans, assesses, and tries to put things as close to the disaster areas as possible to minimize time for distribution. They have to have decent estimates of how many people are affected, what sort of medical issues that they will have to contend with, and what sort of disbursement issues will arise and plan for them.

Logistics After

On one side, you have people who need help – the disaster victims. They don’t really care about logistics because they have a direct need and that direct need is all that they can see – and it’s not just frustrating, it can mean the loss of quality of life and life itself.

On the other side of things, you have the people who want to help – this involves the government and the private entities, from the person with a boat or 4×4 to the non-profits collecting goods to be disbursed. This is where a command center and communications are most important.

Everything should be coordinated by the command center. Does it have to be a government organization? No. Does it mean supplies go to the command center? No, it means that the command center coordinates efforts, gets feedback on the ground, redirects supplies as needed, and assesses needs. And in Trinidad and Tobago, you would think that the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) would have done this.

Honestly, if there was a command center during the flood in Trinidad, it wasn’t readily apparent. We had Ministers out and about, one flying around, others wandering around doing their own assessments (when they should be in a command center coordinating such things). What happens if we lose a Minister during or after a disaster?

Sure, people want to see people in authority. But more importantly, people need for their needs to be met.

Priorities: Needs over wants.

While the ODPM defends itself, I can’t help but wonder why they weren’t more visible in coordinating efforts. There should have been a message that went out – “If you have donations, please contact us so we can get your supplies to the right spot”. Maybe I missed it, maybe it wasn’t spread on social media, maybe they did do it – but as someone who was watching, I didn’t see anything from the ODPM on that.

Instead, the ODPM gave a withering response about Regional Corporations being the entities supposed to handle things in their area… which is an implicit logical flaw when it comes to disasters, because the specific Regional Corporation is probably compromised. What a stupid ‘plan’.

During the whole incident, it was unclear who was in charge of what – something that should never be a question when it could have been planned for. This wasn’t the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti. It was a flood. There was time.

So, Trinidad and Tobago’s government failed – but too, so does CARICOM in the larger scope of things – and even the people who helped significantly did not use logistics as well as they could.

That support was given is great, and everyone should be proud of their efforts – but everyone should also be considering how they could be doing it better for the next time.

There is always a next time.

Trinidad and Tobago Flooding 2018: Observations on Government (Pt 2)

800px-Flag_of_Trinidad_and_Tobago.svgIn Part I related to the 2018 flooding in Trinidad and Tobago, I was very upbeat about how the community was handling things, and here, now, I will be less upbeat – but not as a matter of politics. The government response is a symptom of a lack of preparedness for a disaster at this scale.

When I write of ‘this scale’, too, this is not as large a disaster as we have seen in the past internationally with earthquakes or hurricanes or tsunamis or typhoons or… and yet, the reality is that for anyone affected or responding to any disaster, it’s huge. It’s emotional, it’s frustrating, and well intentioned people want to do more and expect governments to do more.

It’s clear that the government of Trinidad and Tobago is overwhelmed at this time. While many people only heard a part of what the Prime Minister of Grenada commented on the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago’s statement that Trinidad and Tobago was not accepting aid at this time, they did not hear the key to it all: Logistics. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago cannot handle the logistics of disbursing more aid at this time according to Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley.

In essence, a flood of aid might be wasted, and the sane thing to do is to hold off on asking for assistance until what is needed is actually identified. This is common sense, but it’s common sense that leaves people when they are flooded with imagery of homes underwater, of people who have lost all but the love of their brothers and sisters.

In the end, while unpopular, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was honest about the capacity of government to handle the situation – something which has been neglected for decades. People have been uttering, “God is a Trini” for as long as I can remember, a testament to faith that Trinidad and Tobago alone had some form of relationship with a superior being. God simply doesn’t handle logistics when the… water… hits the fan.

Flash Flood South of Couva
Flash flood on the highway near Couva, Trinidad, 2008

I’m critical of government, apolitically. I have been publicly critical of one Minister flying around in an airplane instead of being at his desk, among others, and I have been critical of the Trinidad and Tobago Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) for years.

It was only a year ago when we had to deal with Tropical Storm Brett and it’s fallout – and I wrote some things in that context a year ago that have apparently not been addressed. Flash flooding is not new in Trinidad and Tobago.

It’s getting worse – scientists agree on climate change though politicians do not; the complexity of climate change is lost on many. Sea levels are rising. We’ve been seeing increased rainfall in parts of the world, droughts in others.

red-house---colourSystems do not change quickly. When I wrote about Brett last year in Trinidad and Tobago, I didn’t expect an immediate change – but I did expect at least a few things to change. The ODPM still has a useless app, it’s still ponderously slow to respond for such a small organization in a small country… it’s a bit like a mouse that lacks agility, slamming into walls with the precision of a meteorite. And it’s a symptom of larger issues that plague Trinidad and Tobago.

So no, the government of Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t get a free pass, but the present government needs to turn decades of lack of exercise of this arm of government to deal with things – as well as other things, which I’ll get to in a later post.

The global economy isn’t waiting for Trinidad and Tobago.

Neither is nature.

Trinidad and Tobago Flooding 2018: Observations, Pt 1.

Caroni Swamp, TrinidadI’ve been quiet about the flooding, observing and absorbing.

It’s no secret that there has been flooding this year in Trinidad and Tobago, enough so that Trinidad and Tobago asked for the regional catastrophe facility for financial help.

The Trinidad and Tobago community rose to the challenge even while government seemed as overwhelmed as the flooding victims. Emotional postings on social media are ubiquitous – the best of humanity shown by everyone from the individual to the non-profits that were quick to respond, and as the scale of it became more understood, the corporations lent a hand.

It’s all commendable. I just want to quietly point out that the person who rips his own slice of bread to share gives more than than the person who owns the bakery and gives loaves – yet, that half a slice that comes at a higher cost to an individual is not enough on this scale. Everything, regardless of motivation, is useful and it doesn’t matter how much one gives.

I did my part as I could. There was a time not long ago that I would have been out there with a raised 4×4 myself, but I don’t have that anymore and, truth be told, I have regretted that but have found solace in not having to deal with all the little things that come with that. It’s tiring, frustrating and at times heartbreaking work to go out there and see the devastation and the human price to be paid. And, if I’m honest with myself, I loved that sort of thing even with the price it comes with – including the frustration of disaster experience that is not respected. The frustration has waned with age.

Yet I can witness. I can pay attention and try to make sense from nonsense, without the need for deadlines for tomorrow’s newspaper or video stream or the hope that my blog post will be first and therefore most popular with a clickbait headline.

That being said, I’ve been paying attention with a critical eye. I’ve felt like throwing the government under the bus more than once, and with emotional social media posts and heart-tugging headlines it’s very hard to remain objective.

A few have even taken stabs at politics during this time, perhaps because that’s the default setting of some – but the flooding wasn’t politically motivated, and politics isn’t going to solve the real issues for people on the ground. Frankly, if you have time for politics during this time, you’re value to people is dubious.

My misanthropic heart can’t help but be lifted by people doing what they do during and after any disaster, and from this new and strong bonds will be formed that will transcend much that may have helped cause this in the first place – which will be fodder for my next post(s).

 

If Not Labeled Obscenely…

cof
It probably helps if your items are fuzzy when they pass through Customs and Excise, Trinidad and Tobago, to pass for not being indecent or obscene.

Not long ago, Trinidad and Tobago was dealing with a strange situation – whether ‘sex toys’ were illegal to import. There were first stories saying that sex toys were banned, and I noted this as peculiar and took the media to task on it for doing less research than I did in less than an hour.

Then, there was a rebuttal by Trinidad and Tobago Finance Minister Colm Imbert saying all of this was fake news – though I wonder if this was all a setup to get  a Minister to discuss sex toys.

The question, though, was what was considered indecent and obscene – or not. Lyndon Baptiste (RedWallNews) expressed this clearly in one of his videos.  2 months in prison for being a ‘rogue’ or ‘vagabond’? 

It’s a lot like the Law in Trinidad and Tobago that leaves whether automobile tinting is too dark and thus illegal – it’s at the discretion of someone in positional authority.

Positional. Sex Toy. Umm.

If only someone with journalistic integrity and maturity would delve deeper into this issue for the ladies – and I suppose at least some men.

For lack of anyone with these attributes, I decided to do it myself.

Before I left for Tobago, I went on Amazon.com and searched for what might be considered an ‘adult toy’ for women – men tend to take things in hand – and was amazed at the wide…. array… of things available to women. My. Word. Ladies, I had an idea, but my word, are you catered for.

Since I’m presently not in a relationship and have no idea what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ one might be, I opted for something that might be less likely to be fingered by Customs and Excise. After all, though I was making sure I had a vacation in between, I wasn’t too interested in being called a ‘rogue’ or ‘vagabond’ over this, and I certainly didn’t want to spend 2 months among hardened criminals:

“What are you in for?”
“Customs…”
“Smuggling?”
“You could say that…”

So I did a search related to internal massage. Given the number of orifices on the average human – are you counting right now? – I thought that might be more likely to pass the test versus, “BIG LIFELIKE —– VIBRATING D–D- WITH MOUNTING SUCTION CUP”.

I ordered it. While it spent it’s time in a box being shipped, I considered the possibilities. Should I do a faux interview with it about Customs and Excise should it make it through? I decided it should have a stutter, but since it was made in China I wasn’t sure how to do the voice. It took a while, but it got here . When I spoke with the young female clerk when I picked it up, she confirmed my suspicions.

It’s really about what you call it.

What’s more, it seems that they threw in a ‘finger massager’ as well. I didn’t even know that was a thing.

So ladies – and I suppose some men, too – just be careful with what it’s called. ‘Discrete’ shipping is typical with such items, I saw, but what they call it might mean the difference between pleasure and pain.

Items for this research have already been donated to a suitable… charity. 

A New Chapter for Trinidad and Tobago

P1070144
Petrotrin at night, courtesy Gavin, made available through this Creative Commons License.

I’ve never written about the oil and gas industry. I’m certainly no expert – there are plenty of people claiming to be with or without credentials, and I don’t wish to intrude upon their space.

Oil and gas, after all, is a messy affair. In Trinidad and Tobago, even more so since it has and continues to depend so much on this sector for income – something that I do write about in the context of diversifying the economy through technology, which in turn could finance further development in those areas. That’s crazy thinking in Trinidad and Tobago for anyone in a position to do anything about it.

So first I’m not going to write about Trinidad and Tobago. I’m going to write about a place few from Trinidad and Tobago have ventured to before I bring it all back to Trinidad and Tobago.

The place?

Beloit, Wisconsin Watertower
Photo by me, July, 2010.

Beloit, Wisconsin.

This was a place that Margaret Mead, a renowned cultural anthropologist, once called ‘America in microcosm’. Many families there once worked for a company some have heard of – General Motors (GM).

The nearby GM assembly plant was open in 1919, and lasted until 2009 – 90 years. So it was pretty much settled that as children grew up, they’d get a job at GM. In 1970, the peak employment of that plant was 7,000.

When I got to Beloit in 2010 or so, it was a very different Beloit. I didn’t get to see it on the upswing – I am too young for that – and I didn’t see it dwindle. I saw the results – a small economy within Wisconsin that had high unemployment and all the stuff that goes with it.

An interesting and unrelated thing to note is that the city fines people who don’t keep their lawns mowed or their houses painted. This had resulted in even small time criminals maintaining nice lawns, and some pretty annoyingly colored houses as a form of rebellion.

The economy was hyper-dependent on GM. And I expect that even now, the recovery from that weaning was difficult.

Now, Beloit was in a quandary when GM shut down operations in the area. They likely still are.

Downtown Beloit Sunset
Downtown Beloit at Sunset, also by me. 2012.

Yet, they have one of the most highly rated Main Streets, and in 2015 Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index ranked the Janesville-Beloit metropolitan area #4 by how well they created and sustained jobs and economic growth.

I don’t know much about what happened when I left – what I do know is that Beloit was in trouble. And I saw opportunity for technology companies there – and some showed up, though I’m not certain how that all worked out.

But I do know one thing. Beloit’s still there.

Petrotrin oil refinery
Petrotrin Oil Refinery at Night, made available by Marc Aberdeen through this Creative Commons License.

Back to Trinidad and Tobago and Petrotrin: There are parallels with Beloit, and there are some things that are not. For example, Petrotrin is only a part of the oil and gas sector in Trinidad and Tobago – and also, it’s government owned – though the Wikipedia article presently discusses Petrotrin in a past tense.

This morning, I watched Curtis Williams say that the Trinidad and Tobago government bought the refinery, now being closed according to a leaked internal memo, to save 3,000 jobs. He went on to say that this seemingly remained the main thrust of what Petrotrin did in later years – profitability was never really seen as important.

Now, some people talk about this as a business – as they should. Still, the government buying the refinery was a risky proposition for the long term. But politics requires jobs – and every political party that has been in power has kept that ball in the air.

That ball in the air is now a can being kicked around on the ground now.

And so, the conversations about privatization I’ve seen have been lacking in understanding that it’s simply a bad business proposition for a private entity to run. The cost of production is, from most reports, too high.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t dig into the financials – I could, but if I dig into the books of any company, I’m only looking at what is reported – and no one has reported anything good.

So the question is whether it’s worth keeping at all. There’s enough inefficiency that it should be a wake up call; to me it seems an indictment of a culture that allowed it to happen – something no one in Trinidad and Tobago wants to hear.

But if they look carefully, they can see it.

I will point out that Beloit, Wisconsin has found ways to recover – and I’m pretty sure there are at least parts of it that are unpopular. Beloit survives. So will Trinidad and Tobago. But there are necessary differences between what they were and what they must become.

The time for thinking about economic diversification is over. With a lowering interest in oil and gas technologies, it’s time for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago – as well as it’s stakeholders, every citizen, to start working on that diversification.

Want things to change? Read more. Think more. Think about repercussions of actions at even the most personal of levels – there is opportunity in even the most dire of circumstances, if only the Government and people would get out of their own way.

Or you could paint your house a bright orange in protest – an appropriate mix of red and yellow political filters – and hope for the best.

I’m not a big fan of orange, yellow or red.

Writers Without Borders.

Chimpanzee playing with a laptopWhen Renard Moreau wrote about the six things that baffled him, I had to respond – and I did. Yet there is more I’d like to say on the topic of, “Where are the bloggers from Trinidad and Tobago?”.

There was a time when I was considered to be a blogger from Trinidad and Tobago. Geographically, right now, I would have to agree to the fact that I’m blogging from Trinidad and Tobago. And I’d also have to agree that I’ve been writing a few posts lately that are about Trinidad and Tobago, because I happen to be here and I happen to notice things.

GlobalVoices once thought I was a blogger from Trinidad and Tobago, but then they realized I lived in South Trinidad and that I didn’t write incessantly about Trinidad and Tobago.

I lost clique status, quietly, and my feelings were not hurt. That’s just not what I write. And I also don’t write about places where unicorns dance around rainbows with leprechauns, for that matter, and much of what is written about Trinidad and Tobago seems to be that. Just like everywhere else I’ve lived or experienced. That’s just not what I see.

I believe writers are witnesses of a sort. What we witness defines what we write, be it science fiction, be it fiction, or be it obituaries.

I see dead people”, said the obituary writer.

There are more places to list than a single nation, and to define me by one nation is a little insulting.

The truth is that there are two things that legitimize a writer: Actually writing and not being horrible at it, and being read. My dues in that department are so old that the receipts add up to broken links.

But back to these borders, these boundaries that people want to neatly place other people in when their sock drawer is likely in need of more attention instead. I write. Others write. And when people write, certainly they color their writing with what has made them… them. Yet, unless they marched around under a specific nation’s flag all the time, it’s hard for me to imagine a writer to be from anywhere.

What writers write, though – that’s something completely different. If you write solely about Trinidad and Tobago, I’d say you’re a Trinidad and Tobago writer (small market). If you write solely about the United States, I’d say you’re an American writer (big market). If you write solely about Jamaica, someone’s going to annoy you with a poorly done Jamaican accent and tell you they love Bob Marley.

It’s the way of it.

So, while there are boundaries in this world, writers that I read are not limited by those boundaries.

Stories practically write themselves everywhere. Recently in South Oropouche, a man was dismayed to walk into his own wake – and I know the fellow. The sex toy ban has everyone murmuring with friends, laughing and joking, but the ineptitude related to that government and media conversation is something out of a Pink Panther graphic novel.

But that’s not what defines me as a writer. That I am a writer has taken over a decade for me to admit, even after having published through O’Reilly publishing, writing numerous articles, and so on. But I’m a writer.

And that’s enough, really. I’m not out there flying a flag for a nation. I’m writing what’s on my mind. Nobody’s paying me at this time – feel free to send me money – but don’t expect me to change what I’m writing.

It’s my thing. It’s what I do. And I’d like to think that writers themselves are larger than the borders they live within.

The Failure To Communicate. [Updated 22 Aug 2018]

Giant cucumbers from Doug and Ariana.
Cucumbers, which are not sex toys, provided here as a neutral image for this article. Use through a Creative Commons License which can be found by clicking the image.

I found yesterday (21 Aug 2018) that I had made an error in this; the Customs Act does in fact have something on obscene materials. The mistake I made was in assuming that they had searchable text. They do not have searchable text in the PDFs they have online, something worthy of note – but not an excuse. Lesson learned. 

When the Great Ban on Sex Toys in Trinidad and Tobago was announced, I was both slightly amused and curious. It’s not that I write about such topics, it’s that I’m human and that Trinidad and Tobago in it’s entirety doesn’t cease to surprise me when it comes to odd things.

You see, there were articles written as if it weren’t a developing story – there was no notation, as an example, that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’s Customs and Excise Division website did not make mention of ‘sex toys’. Of course, maybe it just wasn’t updated, but a search of the Trinidad and Tobago Gazette didn’t reveal any new changes either. That took me less than 30 minutes to go through as an uninterested person, not a journalist. And I’m not a lawyer. So it seems to be a spurious claim, one that doesn’t jive. Update: Section 45 l of the Customs Act does mention things that can be related to ‘sex toys’, but not directly. 

The law being quoted is Section 46(g) of the Criminal Offences Act which says: “Any person who offers for sale or distribution or who exhibits to public view any profane, indecent, or obscene, paper, print, drawing, painting or representation may be deemed a rogue and a vagabond and if found liable, to imprisonment for two years.” Update: They were quoting the wrong law in the article. The Customs Act was the appropriate Act to quote, which would have been 45 L. 

It says nothing about importation. Granted, the last group of people I’d want to know what I do with myself would be the government and it’s employees, but the published Acts and Amendments related to Customs and Excise says nothing about sex toys, or anything profane, indecent, or obscene…

So I’m writing this, despite my misgivings about the topic, because to me the topic at issue is not sex toys, but instead appropriate research for an article that is supposed to inform the public. There is a big question here that, sure, Ministers should be able to answer – but they’re ducking it.

Selling the items is one thing. Importing for personal use seems to be quite another.

And while I wouldn’t want to know what the government would tax on sex toys, given how much I paid on a simple book recently, I don’t know that anyone would think it worthwhile – but articles that are about an alleged ban of importation of sex toys doesn’t make sense to anyone who bothers with a short amount of research.

And can someone, please, give a legal definition of a sex toy that isn’t subjective?

This is a failure of the media, in my eyes, though my eyes see the world differently than others. I view the media’s job to inform and question appropriately. The very first article should have been able to say that no one has mentioned the laws related to customs and excise, that the law quoted was about the sale of the items.

This has blaring questions attached that are so apparent that they might as well be painted bright neon pink.

And made to vibrate.

Now, if they start dealing with Internet Enabled… devices… and privacy issues, such as this data breach, I’ll write more about it. But to me, this is all about improper communication from the people we depend on to communicate.  

The Reading Tax: Trinidad and Tobago.

The last copy I'm buying. Too many given away or stolen.While we live in an era where digital books are prevalent, and I have many of them, there are certain books that I like to have physically. And I like to have them in hardcover because, if a book is worth having physically, it’s worth having the hardcover.

So I ordered the book on the right through Amazon.com- the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. It’s somewhat rare as seen, so it ended up costing me $58 U.S. from a third party vendor through Amazon.com. I got it today, after Aeropost covered customs for me – which cost an additional $24.39 US (or $164.35 TT).

All in all, this specific book cost me $82.39 US, or $555.18 TT. It’s something I’m willing to pay for; it’s an important book for me.

Still, that is a little pricey, isn’t it? If it wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t bother.

I recalled that Nigel Khan’s bookstore used to do special orders years ago, and I thought maybe it would be worth exploring – they do, after all, import books. So I wandered into Southpark and asked the lady about it, and she said ‘yes’. I provided her a few titles I wanted in hardcover, English translations… and started off with ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (Paulo Freire).

She dutifully tapped away at her keyboard, then asked me to come around and choose which edition I wanted. When I wandered around, my mind’s internal jaw dropped.

I was staring at Amazon.com’s page search for ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

Still, this was an experiment and I wanted to see where this would go. Maybe they had a better deal for me. Maybe it would be something worthwhile, maybe there would be some value added to me somehow. So I chose the 50th year anniversary hardcover of ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, which I saw was clearly was $64.47 US.

And we worked through the other book – Musashi’s, “Book of Five Rings”.

Then, she whipped out her calculator – because no one uses the calculator on the computer they access the Internet on (there’s money down the tubes) – and she started working out the pricing.

Now, I paid about 30% markup on the Douglas Adams book myself, which is pretty steep for any book – but let’s work with a 30% markup. So, at $64.47 US, I should be looking at about $84 US to bring the book in. That’s about $566-570 TT.  In my head, I averaged roughly $575 TT, which wasn’t too far off as I write this.

That solar powered calculator had other numbers in mind.

It spoke with the woman’s voice and told me $1200 TT/$180 US.

For a $65 US book. For something I could bring in myself for roughly $84 US.

What?! For one book? That’s effectively buying the same book almost 3 times and getting only one copy. I buy the government a copy they don’t get, I buy the bookstore a copy they don’t get, and I get one.

I’ll bring it in myself when I’m ready. Or, at those prices, maybe I should fly to the U.S. and bring in a suitcase of books.

Everybody knows it.

But people in Trinidad and Tobago, largely, know this. And this is one aspect of living in small economy with little purchasing power, subject to pricing necessary to maintain a business presence in Trinidad and Tobago based on importation. I can get screwed by the government alone by bringing it in myself, or I can get screwed by the government who subsequently screws a business that’s screwing me.

Yet not everyone can order the books off of Amazon – foreign exchange is a commodity unto itself in Trinidad and Tobago. So if you want a book and you can’t get the foreign exchange together, which is just about everybody these days, you get charged about 3 times the book price for a special order.

And can everyone afford that? No.

Reading in Trinidad and Tobago seems to have become a luxury. We live in a global information economy, and these prices for books in the Trinidad and Tobago Information Fiefdom do not bode well for the future.