Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago can now benefit from unhindered access to critical information about the environmental and social impacts of development projects on their communities.
This follows a major win for environmental transparency by watchdog group, Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), which successfully challenged the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) in court to gain full access to the findings of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs).
The EMA’s website describes an EIA as a study which identifies the likely effects a specific project may have on the environment and society. In explaining to the court why they believed that information generated by these EIAs should not be accessed in full by the public, the EMA claimed that third party copyright restrictions limited them to sharing only 10% of the results of each EIA for parties seeking copies.
This was the premise of the EMA’s legal defense which was rejected on January 12, 2021, by High Court Justice Rampersad who ruled in favour of FFOS and labelled the EMA’s claims as, “unreasonable, irrational and improper.”
It was determined that the EMA could not prohibit access to full copies of EIAs to the public as they are obligated to facilitate access to information – including EIAs – for effective public comment and participation to meet its statutory duty outlined in the Environmental Management Act. The judge also determined that the EMA’s policies and procedures were inconsistent with international best practice.
This judgement establishes a precedent that will allow for civil society to play a role in decision making processes by advocating for sustainable development and seeking the interests of fence-line communities affected by industrial activity.
During the course of the High Court’s deliberations, 16 such civil society organisations from across Trinidad and Tobago had written a letter collectively to the High Court supporting FFOS’ assertions that free and unfettered access to EIAs must be upheld as a matter of national public interest.
Cari-Bois News reached out to some of the groups who contributed to the letter to learn how they felt about FFOS’ victory. Ryan Allard, Corporate Secretary of Environment Tobago, said his organisation was overjoyed by the successful outcome of their colleagues at FFOS. “Environmental data and information are critical to sustainable development in T&T,” Allard said. Roma Price, manager of the Toco Foundation, shared that sentiment and said she now feels “change is on its way”.
The president of the Valencia Community Council, Eron Melville, described the judgement as an important reminder that activists aren’t fighting a losing battle all of the time. “This will give us the confidence we need to keep pushing back against multi-million dollar corporations when they come into our communities,” Melville said.
A Bittersweet Victory
When Cari-Bois News contacted FFOS corporate secretary Gary Aboud, there was a sombre touch to his celebratory tone as he warned of a bittersweet side to the victory.
“Although we should be celebrating and although the battle is invigorating, the victory is tainted by the battle itself,” Aboud stated. “It’s sad and disheartening that we should be forced to defend such a basic preliminary right to access public information for the public good,” he lamented.
Aboud’s disappointment stems from the fact that the judgement represents a return to normal rather than a new advancement in environmental transparency. Prior to 2018, EIA’s had always been accessible to the public, upon request. The EMA decided to change this policy, limiting full access to 10% of an EIA based on copyright restrictions. This led to a stand-off with FFOS, who refused to back down, branding the restriction as, “another attempt by the Government to silence civil society.”
Despite his disappointment, Aboud still expressed optimism that the momentum created by this victory could bolster other ongoing efforts by civil society to advocate for greater environmental transparency.
“We can use this as an opportunity to encourage the government in the spirit of access to public information and public participation in the environmental decision-making process to sign and ratify the Escazú agreement of which we were a major negotiator and drafter,” Aboud said.
In their release to the media, FFOS paid special commendation to the legal team that represented “the cause of the environment” that was led by Anand Beharrylal QC, Alvin Pariagsingh, Ganesh Saroop and the internal team of FFOS’ volunteers.