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Let us continue the dialogue across political boundary lines

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The Cross Country Road project is one that has me completely baffled. I believe that in its present form it is ill-conceived and crazy. The question I ask myself is what is the value of such a cross country road? As far as I know this has never been seriously raised much less discussed. Add to this the issues of economic feasibility and environmental impact then we have serious problems and are on the wrong track. {{more}} If we were even to assume that the project is economically viable then we have to ask ourselves if it is a priority given urgent and serious needs in our country at this time. The cost of US$50 to 100 million has been bandied about but clearly this is a guestimate. It is almost as if this was pulled out of a hat, because if we do not know the particular route that the road will traverse and consequently the terrain to be encountered then we are groping in the dark. How this country can embark on a project which is considered a flagship project without the necessary studies and surveys and without wide public discussion beats me.

There are a few unrepentant romantics among us who speak of having at sometime during their youth, walked one of the possible routes. We know that historically there were tracks running across the island. So what? I once walked from Chateaubelair to Georgetown via La Soufriere. There was an identifiable track. Does this translate into a route for a cross country road? Remember we are talking about tracks to be used by donkey and man, not tracks/roads to accommodate modern forms of communication.

I am assuming that one of the major benefits of this cross- country road is ecotourism. We certainly have no major industries whose transportation to the port will be facilitated. And certainly if even we are thinking of scenic views we are on to the ecotourism path. Among the ecotourism attractions for us will be the St.Vincent parrot. You would remember the energies and monies which had once been embarked on preserving it. I have certainly never heard in this particular context of highways being constructed to further ecotourism attractions. It is a paradox if ever there was one. Indeed, the environmental cataloguing study commissioned by the Government noted that ecotourism benefits can be achieved by the construction of nature trails which, of course, will never approximate the cost of a cross country road. The report stated, “If the road is not constructed or depending on its alignment, building a hiking trail from Rose Hall to Three Rivers following an old mountain trail should be undertaken. This would be an asset to the ecotourism industry…The trail would offer a wide range of some of the best mountain views the country has to offer, coupled with endemic birds and plants, and a host of botanical treasures waiting to be studied and photographed.”

We have to be very cautious about interfering with the interior of our country, opening up the forest reserves and water sources to the possibility of being tampered with. The water sources can become easily contaminated and let us reemphasize the fact that we have one of the best water supply systems in the Caribbean. Would we be able to police the road and the areas that it will open up? If we cannot, how do we stop squatting? How do we prevent people from cutting the trees? Will we be able to afford maintaining that road when we have so much difficulty doing it with roads in the inhabited areas? Let us remember Haiti where the destruction from floods caused by hurricane Ivan has been attributed to its environmental degradation. Will we ever learn?

Even more laughable is a situation where we are proceeding to start the road on both ends without knowing the kind of terrain to be encountered, thus not knowing how we are going to connect those ends, and of course, the cost. Would the route eventually agreed on necessitate the building of bridges and tunnels? Our landscape, we are told is even more rugged than Dominica and Grenada and this is saying a lot. In commenting on the slope angle in one of the areas, the Ivor Jackson report notes, “The zone is characterised by numerous knife-edged ridges and narrow valleys radiating from mountain peaks. Generally, slopes are steeper on the leeward side of the central mountains, where up to 50° valleys were observed measured and observed compared to slopes up to 45° on the windward side. In some parts of the area near vertical rock faces were observed with evidence of recent rock falls. A significant per cent of the area has slopes in excess of 50°. In higher elevations most of the steep slopes are heavily forested.” Have we factored all of this into our equation?

In some of the comments I have heard references were made to cross country roads in other parts of the world, including Taiwan. But let us look at Taiwan. Some one sent me a copy of an article of March 18, 2004 from the Taiwan News. It is entitled “Premier Yu inaugurates Snow Mountain Tunnel” by Taijing Wu. The article states that the project has drawn criticism from local ecologists who complained about the use of explosives and the contamination of underground water reserves. Environmental Activist Professor Chi Shu-ying stated that “‘Geologists have said that northern Taiwan’s most important underground water reserve has been seriously compromised and there would be no clean underground water in this area for the next 20 years” The major factor here was the building of a tunnel. We do not as yet know if we have to build tunnels or how many. In any event our concern is about tampering with the environment and the possible negative consequences. Professor Chi stated further, “ ‘Just imagine Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range as the human spinal column-if someone kicks you repeatedly in the spine it would definitely harm your entire body”. According to workmen who have been digging a pilot tunnel, it caved in at least 13 times. “The tunnel collapsed because of the type of soil encountered,” said one workman surnamed Lin. “When we see a mud slide in the tunnel, we just run for our lives!”

My objection is not to cross country roads per se but we have to examine them within the context of our topography and environment. Vincentians need to examine this project carefully and let their voices be heard. Let me at this point compliment Daniel Cummings for his presentation on radio on Tuesday last. It was an extremely useful presentation by one who has thought about the issues and is very informed about them. As one who has headed our Water Authority for a number of years and contributed immensely to its development, he knows what he is talking about and has a major contribution to make to this debate. These are not the days of idle romanticism but of harsh realities economic and environmental, above all. We cannot allow another Ottley Hall project, especially when it involves the strong possibility of serious damage to the environment.

This is a matter of concern and interest to all Vincentians regardless of political creed, colour, gender or age. We have to speak across political boundary lines and carry on the dialogue in a civilised manner. Since the authorities seem not to be providing opportunities for public consultations, civil society has to take the lead. Let the dialogue continue!

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