Fifty-one years ago, I was born in a Tapia house in Acono, a village located at the foothills of the Northern Range in the Maracas Valley which has suffered at the hands of a private quarry operation for more than 50 years. Despite two decades of advocacy there is daily ongoing environmental degradation of our Northern Range.
Driving through the one entrance of the valley, the bare hillside tells a story of unsustainable extraction. This quarry has been in existence since the 1960s and was bought over by Coosals Construction Company Limited in the 1970s around the time of a boom in infrastructural development. Up until 10 years ago, the Coosal quarry operated on a 24-hour basis. Before this, at any given hour of the night, villagers would be shaken out of their sleep by loud blasts of dynamite.
In earlier years the village often felt suffocated by the dust generated from blasting activities and transportation of material on our unpaved roads. Today we have narrow paved roads, with multiple heavy trucks moving in and out of our one entry/exit points, two to three times a day. Our children risk their lives every time they have to walk on these very same roads because of the absence of pavements in a heavy traffic area.
In my village, we have no community centre, no community grounds, no space to recreate. All we had was the Acono River which is now destroyed due to 50 years of unsustainable quarry practices. Growing up I remember fishing in the Acono River. Now, their feeding beds have been destroyed resulting in the death of more than 13 species of freshwater fish and much of the aquatic life in the river. The pools where I learnt to swim as a child are now filled with quarry waste. Just walk along the river bank and you will see the accumulation of silt and gravel which has raised the river bed. During the rainy season, it is easy for quarry waste to be dumped into the river without a trace. But come the dry season it is all exposed when the river dries up.
During the dry season of 2016, I captured video footage of quarry waste being washed down the river. My community group met with a foreman at the quarry who dismissed us saying that it was “just a leak” from one of the quarry’s holding ponds. Had it been raining, the foreman’s excuse might’ve been credible. However, the changing seasons, wet or dry, makes no difference . Quarry-related siltation is a fact of life for us, regardless of the season.
During the 2018 dry season, media attention on the damage to the river produced successful results for our community. Since then the fish population has slowly begun to regenerate; something not seen in decades. This shows that quarries can operate sustainably in the face of public pressure.
Overpopulation and water woes
Within the wider Maracas Valley the government and the Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) have only compounded the problems by their planning failures. Historically, Maracas Valley was an area comprised of big estates and populated largely by estate workers. Later, as agriculture went into decline and housing boomed in response to demand, estate owners subdivided and sold their land at very high prices. This gave rise to the affluent Upper Maracas Gardens community and, simultaneously, our water woes. Due to poor urban planning, very little provisions were made for the expansion of amenities for the burgeoning population.
Prior to such accelerated urbanization, Maracas Valley produced adequate water for the entire community. Because the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) is now required to pump water uphill to affluent households, it has become harder for residents in the valley to get water. One of our four water intakes, the Acono Water Works plant, was forced to shut down. We were told that WASA could no longer extract water from our polluted river. About two years ago our community group met with the CEO of WASA who informed us that the Maracas Valley is overpopulated and that there simply wasn’t enough water to serve the community. More water could be made available to the community, he said, if the siltation problem in the river was alleviated.
Despite recent studies conducted by the University of the West Indies (UWI) which concluded that Maracas Valley lacked the basic amenities to support its overpopulated communities, the Town and Country Planning Division continues to give approvals for land subdivision while the Government, having declared Maracas Valley urbanized, has constructed a 50-unit housing development.
Flooding in low lying areas
In recent years siltation of the Acono River and the increase in hillside development have intensified flooding in St Joseph, Valsayn and the Caroni plains. Gone are the pools which would have once decreased the speed of water coming down the river in the rainy season and as a result, these downstream areas continue to suffer the effects of these mismanaged hillsides.
The wider problem
The Maracas Valley is but one of the many valleys under pressure from the extractive sector. Its problems are replicated throughout the Northern Range where, from a geological standpoint, there exists a band of good quarry material. These valleys are easily accessible to extractors due to the presence of built development such as roads and sadly, are home to many voiceless communities like Acono Village. This is evident in Santa Cruz, Lopinot, the Arima Valley which is home to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, Valencia and Melajo.
If these extractors manage their quarries in an environmentally sustainable manner with phased rehabilitation, where there is minimum impact to downstream communities and surrounding environment, then communities would be more accepting of these operations. The responsibility for balancing the interests of industry with those of the community lies with the state agencies that are charged with reviewing mining applications and monitoring these quarries.
It is well known that there are many illegal quarry operations scattered across the Northern Range. These operations are not required to adhere to sustainable practices or rehabilitation and the relevant State agencies, including the Division of Minerals in the Ministry of Energy, seem to be neutered in their ability to crack down on those openly flouting the law. The question that Northern Range communities want answered is why are these agencies not fulfilling their statutory duties?
A ‘slow’ community
The average person in Acono is not equipped with the resources or capability to fully pursue a matter of this magnitude to secure justice. They don’t have a knowledge of the statutory procedures or access to information regarding permits and compliance monitoring. When people with money and education come across a ‘slow’ community like ours, they can easily take advantage of it. In the case of Acono Valley, many residents have quietly gone along because they have found jobs in the quarry. No one employed there can be expected to speak out against its negative impacts on the community for fear of losing their source of income.
In the past communities have taken their problems in writing written to the EMA and other state agencies, but to no avail. What we do know is that because this quarry was established prior to the CEC Rules 2001, it would not have fallen under the purview of the EMA in terms of statutory requirements. However, quarries existing prior to 2001 are now required to apply for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) in renewing their mining licenses. The CEC would then regulate future operations including rehabilitation. On May 22, 2015 a CEC was issued to Coosal’s Constuction for the mining and processing of limestone on 78.8 hectares of land in Acono Village. As a requirement of the CEC process, Coosal’s would have been required to submit a rehabilitation plan. Who is ensuring that these plans are executed? Are the authorities going to wait until the entire mountain is mined before insisting on its rehabilitation, or should it occur on a phased basis?
In the absence of a proper community space It has been a challenge keeping the youth in our community on a straight and narrow path. There is no avenue to keep them close, no place to teach and share and to keep them in the community. If the Government could see this and hear us out they would understand that we are fighting for our community and our youth. We do not want to lose them. We need a community centre and the basic amenities to keep our community together.
To Mr. Coosal whose company has made millions at the expense of the Acono Village community, we are simply asking for sustainable quarrying practices, rehabilitation of the mined hillside, rehabilitation of our river and the restoration of our roads. As a responsible corporate entity who has operated in our community for decades, you are in a position to help my community. Please do.