Sacred Waters

To touch the river is to understand her divinity. You must walk the path of the river to pay your respect. You must experience the shocking coolness of the water in the early dawn, the sharp jab of stones, the yielding softness of mud. The sun barely peeps through the thick forest cover in those early dawn hours when the only noises are forest ones: raucous birds and a whispering river.

 

Excerpt from a short piece I wrote on the Hindu River festival Ganga Dhaaraa in the current issue of Caribbean Beat. 

Foil Vedanta, Shakti revolution and other Wednesday morning thoughts.

 

Wake up, Murderer

“At 8am this morning Anil Agarwal was woken up at his £20 million Mayfair apartment by seven demonstrators with pots and pans and whistles. They shouted ‘blood on your hands’, ‘murderer’ and ‘Vedanta ka anta ho!’ meaning Vedanta should cease to exist, and held placards. One placard cited the communities in Zambia, Australia and India who are affected by pollution and ill health from Vedanta’s mines and industry. Another named two tribal activists – Sukru Majhi and Arsi Majhi – allegedly killed by Vedanta at their Niyamgiri mine project.”

Last summer in Babylon-don I had an amazing opportunity to take part in this protest in central London.  The occasion was the Annual General Meeting of Vedanta Resources PLC.

After my own adventures with the local anti-smelter movement, it was another chance for me to get involved in the global struggle against the aluminium monster, which is well documented in Out of this Earth written by Samarendra Das and Felix Padel.

All the Villains

I spent the day before with Sarbjit, part of the Foil Vedanta crew making posters.  It was also a chance for us to share stories of struggles and I was reminded once again of how important women are to protest movements around the world.

Sarbjit for all intents and purposes was a typically quiet Indian woman. She made me amazing chapatis in her kitchen while we talked about revolution and traditional expectations and love and other things that women like us talk about.

The next day, Sarbjit’s voice rang out clear and unrelenting ‘Arrest Anil Agarwal, criminal, criminal.’ She called out for hours, her voice vibrating along the street. I imagined her refrain making the people in the AGM upstairs increasingly agitated.

For murders and environmental crimes

The other person who stood out in this protest for me was Miriam a young English woman I met in Iceland in 2007 when Saving Iceland held their Summer Protest camp.  I consider that trip one of the significant events in my life for a number of reasons but mainly because I got to experience firsthand and with people from very diverse backgrounds that multi-nationals like to play the same dirty tricks wherever they are in the world.  And so the stories described to me from Orissa or Brazil or South Africa rang true to what I had experienced right here in Trinidad.

Without a doubt there are some amazing men involved in these global struggles for the environment, for people, for communities.

But women bring a truth to activism that is undeniable and pretty much uncelebrated.  If women aren’t involved as more than the back-up, then the movement will fail. This is why our labour movement is so weak and lacking credibility. Because it is not rooted to anything. To real people or real issues. All I can see is a bunch of men fighting over who can piss further.

More women need to understand their role in making a difference.  Beyond environmental struggles, activism among women needs to happen in terms of social interventions and taking back our communities from anything and everything that threatens to destroy them.

If we cannot change the notion of women as nurturers, life-givers, the primary source of life and living. Then we have to change the notion that women are somehow incapable of defending that which is closest and dearest to them.

All of which is to say, I’m missing my friends and sisters and brothers in London today.   And wondering how to cause a Shakti revolution up in this place.

 

Women 350 – Climate Action in Trinidad!

We are a collective of women of Trinidad and Tobago.
We are gathering to add our voices to the international call.
Trinidad and Tobago is a wealthy small island developing nation rich in oil and natural gas. But we are also seeing the damaging effects of aggressive industrialisation on our islands.
This is an opportunity for women’s voices to be heard.
Our event centres around a smoke ceremony from the most forgotten voice of indigenous women of Trinidad and Tobago.
We are asking all women to come to the Queen’s Park Savannah wearing white. We are asking men to come and lend their voices in support at 3.50 p.m.
We will make the 350 with our bodies, in this way, we all take responsibility for making 350 a reality.
We all have a part to play and Saturday is a call to arms for women from all communities to begin to be conscious of climate change and how it will affect the lives of all islanders.

Splitting of Her Breasts.

One of my favourite people in the world, Uncle Ravi-ji, told me this story one day. It was raining that day two months ago. I was sitting with him after the Ganga Dhaaraa celebrations up at Marianne River in Blanchisseuse. It was one of those perfect Trinidad days, with a perfect dawn, and beautiful children and music and rain and mangoes and a river.

When Hindus came to celebrate the connection between ecology and spirituality. Because if you see the river as sacred, you wouldn’t put the goddess out of your thoughts and pollute it, right? I was telling Uncle Ravi-ji about all the potential environmental disasters this country is going to have to confront in a few years time. And how important it is for people like him and other well loved and respected spiritual leaders to come out and condemn some of the things that are going on in Trinidad. And in that way that I love about people who have a lot more sense than the politicians, he started to tell me a story. The story is about him and his grandfather.

He paints a picture and I see it clearly; him as a young boy, among the first children in his village to go to secondary school. And one day a man from Neal and Massy turns up. He comes to talk to these children of indentured labourers about purchasing tractors. The salesman’s pitch is slick. The salesman paints a picture of an easier life, of children like Ravi-ji who will be able to study in peace without having to engage in the backbreaking labour that brought their ancestors here. Of no more hungry children in their village. Of profits from sales of all their agricultural produce.
Ravi-ji’s aja (grandfather) listened at the meeting. His father was excited and so was he.

When they got home his grandfather spoke up. And here Ravi-ji quotes his grandfather in Bhojpuri and for moment the old man is there with us. Ravi-ji’s aja was against the purchase of a tractor. He said, the tractor would split open Mother Earth’s breasts. How can a wounded breast continue to sustain life? And Uncle Ravi-ji admits to me that he was angry at his aja, because all he wanted to do was go to school and have a different kind of life. The tractor represented to him all that was modern, different and progressive.

His aja was keeping him back. The villagers got their tractor in the end. And Uncle Ravi-ji went to school. His aja went the way of all flesh. But the tractor did split Mother Earth’s breasts. And now there are more tractors, but as Uncle Ravi-ji concludes his story, he observes that even today there are still starving children in that village. How did his aja know and understand the effects that industrialisation would have on the environment? Without all the book learning and the slick facts he was able to articulate a concern for nature that none of them could understand? The simplicity of that story reverberates now with me as I look around at a society that is eagerly chasing after more tractors. And those who share a concern for Mother Earth’s split breasts are sidelined and silenced. They are unwilling to pay the price of progress.

We live in a society where decorum and decency and adherence to laws are upheld as benchmarks of the good citizen, but the reverence we feel for the things that sustain us, well you could get laughed at for expressing concern. It’s not that the tractor is the only alternative now. We’ve come a long way from those days. It grieves me that it is the tractor that still represents modernity when it is our ajas and our grandmothers and our tanties whose ideas are timeless and more sustainable. I wish some people had even one millionth of Uncle Ravi-ji’s aja’s wisdom. Then they wouldn’t write bizarrely stupid headlines like “Are environmentalists anti-people?” Because they would understand that it’s not how many tractors you have or how much oil you drill or how many smelters you build. But the humanity and the humility of what you do with your knowledge and your resources.

That progress and destruction don’t have to always go together and the destruction excused as some kind of by-product. Like all those ads for drugs on cable TV whose lists of side-effects seem to far outweigh whatever benefits the drug was intended to have. That it’s not about financial profiles and projections but how the people of your country are coping under the crushing weight of your greed. How your gluttony looks to those under you who have less than nothing. How your excess feeds their resentment and how ultimately they will be made to pay for your gross and sloppy mishandling of Mother Earth’s breasts.

Rain down on Me.

The rain comes like a pleasant surprise on a Thursday night. And you forget the crushing heat of the day. The feeling that you would melt into a puddle of sweat and be evaporated, leaving behind a pile of hair and salt as the only reminders of your existence. When it gets that hot even the hummingbirds forget which way is up. Reason abandons you and all you want to do is think cool thoughts and then you turn on the radio and Papa Patos is saying something to make your brains sizzle.Your plants protest, the fever grass leaves turn into spears protesting that the morning’s offerings were insufficient to survive the day. The ground is dry again. The sun relentless. The ineptitude of politicians unchecked. The emptiness of your bank account consistent. But then the clouds gather because the universe takes pity on your helplessness. A breeze passes to cool your hot brains. The rain comes like a sigh of relief. Making you want to drop everything you are doing and retire to bed where, under the galvanize it sounds like the best possible symphony. Thunder rumbles and you resurrect the smells of my grandmother’s kitchen—chocolate tea with an oily film at the top of your favourite cream chipped enamel cup. The smell of cheese as it melts between a piece of bake.  It’s the simple things you conjure in the magic of night rain.

In the rain listen to a little Lata Mangeshkar, understanding what she sings only from the sheer pain in her voice. It is a love song no doubt, they are always love songs.  Love for God and man and the trees and all the other things that live in your ecosystem. Imagine your plants revelling in the wet earth. In the rain your can hear things growing and you are glad to be here and part of it. Things that set root and push out of the ground. Mangoes and manicous share the joy of the rain. And in the morning after the rain the night before, the pumpkin leaves are bigger and the peppers redder and the pigeon peas a little taller. Mint and tomatoes push purposefully upwards. And if you were a better farmer, you would plant people too. You would sow good politicians and men who love their children and their women. You would plant a crop of humans who would take root in the soil and nourish it. Hold on to it. Give to it and take from it in an endless cycle.

In the rain and the rumbling of thunder that vibrates your bed and the wood of your floor and your old windows and the beautifully rusting galvanize you are glad to live in the tropics. Glad that most of the time it is pleasant enough for you to wander about without having the fix your mind to be in confrontation with nature.  When it rains here, you can dance in it, catch rainflies, squish your toes and hope that some parasite doesn’t take up residence in your nails. The rain continues all night into the morning. Keeping you rooted there. You don’t have to get up to wet your plants. You don’t have a job to be reporting too. It is dark and warm like a womb must have been. You are glad for the extra time. When it rains here people stay home to hug up their loved ones, to find the warmth and love they thought they had lost, to dream dreams that sometimes are missed in the quest to beat the traffic, be productive citizens, join the rat race.

The rain slows us down to remind us of the things that perhaps are more important. The unnoticed things. Things growing and dying and living in our ecosystems that we might not notice in the hum of our electric lights in the concreteness of our jungles. And you hope the rain can wash away the thick film of stink that settles over everything here. You hope that the rain can wash away all the blood, all the disappointment, all the confusion and frustration. You hope that the rains will keep this gentle tempo and not rise into a rushing roaring torrent to punish us for our many many sins. You hope that this rain only brings good things. That this rainy season stays wet but not drowning. Delightfully moist but not too soggy so that the roots of your growing things drown from the excess. Drown before they bear fruit.  Are destroyed by the very thing that gives them life. The rains are tears that bring joy. A necessary sadness to bring new life and make you love the sunlight and the greenness of the hills some more.

A victory for justice

So now that we moving
Let we move in one accord
Is time we get closer
and give thanks and praise
O Lord
We are here to shine our light
Keep you fire burning bright
Never give up never give up never give up
It will be all right
Life is full of ups and downs
We are here to carry on
Never give up never give up never give up
Don’t stop No

—Never Give Up, 3Canal

Dear Justice

Dean-Armorer, to tell the truth I was afraid. I was terrified that you might have ruled in favour of the Government and the EMA. I couldn’t bear another disappointment from Trinidad that day. I couldn’t bear the heartbreak of knowing that injustice continues unchecked. Too many examples to call. Too many things that break my heart every day. I couldn’t bear the heartache, Madame Justice. I stood outside Woodford Square for a while. Watching the cameras, and activists. Wanting to be there with them. Wanting to give my energy to the gathering crowd. To go down with them fighting. And I don’t know if I am getting old and bitter or falling into the new fear that paralyses all Trinidadians/Tobagonians these days.

But I slinked away from my friends. From people with whom I have fought for three years. I didn’t know if I could hold it together if you ruled in favour of the Government. I didn’t know if my heart could take another dose of Trinidad tabanca. But in this yes man town, I am relieved that there is a woman willing to say no. In this yes man town you have managed to restore some small piece of faith. Some small beacon of light that shines with the possibility that, yes, the people can win sometimes. The people can see justice done sometimes. I don’t know if you fully understand what you’ve done for people like me. Who spend many days shouting at and berating friends and strangers to take responsibility for this place. To take some kind of emotional interest, to make some kind of investment in making it better.

We walk through this landscape feeling so disempowered. We stick our fingers in our wounds not knowing how to heal them. We are lost in a limbo of leaders who don’t know how to lead, preachers who don’t know the power of their words, children who have forgotten how to be children. We are so familiar with failure we don’t know how to win anymore. And what is worse is that we don’t know that we have the right to fight to win. I don’t know if you understand this is not just about the smelter. This is about everything that is wrong with T&T that we now have the opportunity to make right. This victory is for Amy and Sean and Akiel and Tecia and Richard. This victory is for denuded hills and depleted fish stocks. This victory is for every unsolved crime, every unkept campaign promise. It’s not just a victory for the people of the community.

What you have done has made it possible for our children to give us some respect. For them to look back 50 years from now and say, you know it was a good thing that happened on June 16, 2009. That day when someone stood up not just in defence of fragile environment, but for the people who depend on it too. Justice Dean-Armorer, I am not putting water in my mouth to tell you that I felt a great sense of relief wash over me on Tuesday afternoon. That I held back tears, three years worth of emotion. Three years worth of being on the wrong side of public opinion. Three years worth of being accused of being anti-development. This is not time for tears. Whether they are happy tears or not. And I know this is another beginning. I know that Papa Patos is not going to let go of his beloved gas-guzzling smelter, although you gave him the sweetest of meggies Tuesday afternoon.

I expect that he will be even more wrong and strong now. I expect that we who stand in defence of the environment and fair consultations between the Government and communities will become the new terrorists. But it is a relief to know that there are those who know and understand. Who feel and know and have logic on their side. I want to thank you not just as a tree hugger but as a woman, as a human, as an earthling. Thank you for understanding. Thank you for standing up for ordinary people. Thank you for seeing regular Trinidadians/Tobagonians as having valid voices. And for saying to the State and all its functionaries that the people are neither crazy nor stupid. And I hope that because of your landmark, groundbreaking, revolutionary judgment, future generations might not in turn judge us so harshly.

De place gettin warm…

Every other morning for the past couple weeks, I’ve received calls from friends in La Brea about what is happening down there.  You would never be able to tell by watching the nightly news broadcasts, but hundreds of residents in that part of the country have been engaged in daily protests against Alutrint, the government owned aluminum smelter plant that they have recently begun construction of.

This morning things came to a head. My sistren called me to say that a police officer had just fired a shot, in the midst of women and children in Union Village.  He had to be quickly escorted out of the community, as this angered many of the residents who have been engaging in various non-violent protests since 800 acres of land were first cleared from around their village five years ago.

Tomorrow morning Prime Minister Patrick Manning is carded to turn the sod for the Alutrint power station.  Word is that attempts will be made to stamp out any sign of protest, from destroying their camp to arresting anyone seen to be making the Prime Minister look bad.  La Brea is a PNM stronghold, which is why the initial resistance to the smelter was able to be overshadowed by what seemed to be overwhelming support from the community.  But the promises of jobs have turned out to be, well, not exactly true and now even the people pro-smelter people are taking to the streets.  

The following statement is from those members of the communities who are standing firm against the building of the Alutrint smelter.

PRESS STATEMENT

JUNE 9, 2009
FROM ORGANISED CITIZENS OF SOBO, UNION, VANCE RIVER, VESSIGNY, AND SQUARE DEAL VILLAGES

We understand Mr. Manning is planning to come La Brea tomorrow to turn the sod for Alutrint’s power plant.

Protests involving the villages of Sobo, Vance River, Vessigny, and Union are growing. The citizens involved are against the building of the Alutrint Smelter. We now have the information that Alutrint has been hiding since February 2008 on the health risks of the smelter and the facts on such things as the loss of our beach that has been hidden from us since 2005.

Please note protests that started about two weeks ago were for jobs and fair relocation practices. However, our protest is by villagers being left to live near this smelter and we do not want it! The residents scheduled for relocation and the residents being left behind are standing together.

Those who want jobs in Alutrint have a separate platform. However, we sympathise with them as we have all been fooled that there would be safe jobs for our people. Instead we have hundreds of Chinese roaming about our backyards.

The representatives on many village councils and in the Parliament are representing Alutrint not us. They are trying to shove the smelter down our throat to silence us. This is why we are in the streets, we are representing ourselves.

Today the police discharged a firearm in the air in the midst of children in Union Village. Our protest is non-violent. We will not back down.

The State wants the people of Trinidad to believe that only a handful of residents of La Brea do not want the smelter. This is not true. For example, last week when C-news came to do a feature on La Brea they were only taken to La Brea Village where some persons told them they want the smelter. We waited for them but they never came to our villages. Please note the La Brea area consists of many villages. It is the some 4000 plus residents of Sobo, Vance River, Union, and Vessigny villages that have to be tested every two years for cancer. The residents of La Brea Village do not have to be tested. They cannot speak for us! We speak for ourselves. We do not accept this hurtful smelter.

The State is trying to create the impression that all is well and that the smelter is moving ahead at pace and is unstoppable. They want the people of Trinidad to believe we cannot stop it. This is not true. There is no plant on the ground yet. No plant will go on that ground.

We are calling on right minded citizens of Trinidad to support our call for justice and fairness. This is not just about the environment. We will continue our non-violent protests tomorrow and as long as it takes to safeguard our health and community.