By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” April 28, 2023)
Last Tuesday, the government of SVG took a leap of faith. The government threw caution to the wind and decided to allow Aecon Construction, the company contracted to build the Kingstown port, to dredge sand less than a mile from the Argyle airport. It dismissed all of the environmental and economic concerns raised by nationals.
The arguments against the dredging of sand along the eastern, Atlantic coastline are numerous. They range from the evidence that the effects of climate change are visible with sea defences in Owia, Sandy Bay, and Georgetown, the annual budgetary allocations earmarked to fight climate change of tens of millions of dollars, erosion of Brighton Beach, the threat to the livelihood of fisher folks who for decades depend on the fishing banks in the area of the dredging, the endangerment of the fragile marine eco-system located just off Stubbs, Brighton and Argyle, and the potential threats of flooding to the Argyle Airport and the surrounding area.
As it stands now, the argument for dredging just off the international airport is economic. Aecon has convinced the government to accept EC$20 million for the 1.17 million cubic metres of sand it proposes to mine from the area. Aecon says it has taken samples of sand from different sites around SVG, and the sand off the Argyle is most fit for purpose. Based on the climatic problems we are experiencing on the island’s eastern side, one would have thought that no amount of money could have enticed our leaders to dredge there for all of the reasons highlighted.
But in less than three short months, the nation’s leader went from claiming to have expressed vehement opposition to Aecon’s plan to dredge in the fragile area to being satisfied that all of the safeguards are in place to allow problem-free dredging with no environmental fallout.
The government now claims the area is barren, and the seafloor has no reefs or marine life. Apparently, all of this was “discovered” following a study done by a German company for whose independence we cannot vouch. For a few dollars more, researchers, like politicians, can be on the take. Scientists once told us that there was no harm from cigarette smoking. Vioxx was developed based on “sound science”. More recently, many were convinced that the COVID vaccines were completely safe and effective and were developed at the “speed of science”. The science was dangerously wrong in all three cases cited, and the fallout was deadly.
You must be naive at best to believe what the government says about this dredging issue. It is now apparent that Gonsalves’ primary concern was the price of the ticket. And that concern only arose after the story broke about the proposed dredging. Aecon Construction’s initial plan was to import the sand from Suriname. When it convinced the government to allow it to mine off our shores for the sand, an Aecon executive said that the savings were a “commercial secret”.
Only then did the government realise it was giving away the nation’s treasures for “peanuts”. Camillo Gonsalves made the silly claim that the permit to mine was only provisional. It’s unlikely that an experienced construction company will plan the execution of its project on a provisional permit. As mighty explainer, PM Gonsalves erroneously claimed that the cabinet rather than the planning board had the final authority. Gonsalves threatened to withdraw the permit, and Aecon sweetened the pot by raising the fees from $4.5 million to $20 million. Remember, Aecon’s saving is a commercial secret.
For SVG’s sake, we hope and trust that there is no significant environmental repercussion from this unfortunate decision.
There needs to be more room for dispassionate conversation on any area of national development. The slightest shade with anything proposed by the government meets with immediate pushback.
A tsunami of propaganda, pushed mainly by Ralph Gonsalves and peddled by his supporters, labels any critical comment directed at anything he proposes or implements as being against progress. One cannot have a contrary opinion on anything that comes from on high. All statements, thoughts, ideas, plans, or progress begin and end with Caesar. Anyone offering a contrary view is said to be pregnant with malice, hate and a bad mind. Worse, it’s claimed that all comments not supportive of the government and its policies are intended to bad talk the country.
Such a heavy push to condemn, silence or destroy opposing ideas or persons cannot be healthy for our democracy. It amounts to what the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie calls the danger of a single voice.
We need to develop a culture of argument based on research and reason. It is much too late for us to accept what is said and done in our name without question. History is replete with examples where wrongheaded leaders in religion, business and government made and defended decisions that had deadly consequences on the institutions they led. We cannot allow such misfortune to befall our beloved SVG.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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