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Crossfire over cross country road

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The opposition New Democratic Party(NDP) promised protest actions over the ruling Unity Labour Party’s (ULP) approach to the much disputed Cross-country Road and they have begun in earnest.

Following an NDP-sponsored television programme last Friday evening, in which engineer and former general manager of the Central Water and Sewerage Authority(CWSA) Daniel Cummings presented arguments against the proposed project, it was time for the party to hit the road. {{more}}This came at a public meeting at the Belair /Fountain intersection, located in a constituency represented by the ULP’s education minister Mike Browne. Why the choice of that venue, is a matter of interest. After all, the incumbent, Browne, is not one of the ULP’s more vocal proponents of the project.

In fact, one may have expected a starting point for this project to be the Sion Hill community, in the heartland of the East Kingstown constituency which is represented by Opposition Leader and NDP head Arnhim Eustace. This, especially, since the government spokesman on the Cross-country Road, Senator Julian Francis, who is Minister of Transport and Works, has already thrown down the gauntlet to Eustace for a challenge at elections due in 2006.

Questioned at a press conference called Tuesday, why the choice of Belair /Fountain and not East Kingstown, Eustace responded with a brisk ” We’ll march in East Kingstown!”

But, the NDP came to Belair Saturday night to present their case on their opposition to the government’s approach to the road project, with a full slate of speakers including their self -styled “rising star” Israel Bruce, party public relations officer. Bruce was only two weeks ago the centre of controversy after chairman of the Constitutional Review Commission Parnel R. Campbell apologized to Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves for the attitude displayed by Bruce, one of the NDP’s nominated commissioners to the CRC. Bruce was to reportedly offer an apology on radio for his actions at the CRC booklet launching.

Tuesday, Bruce preferred not to go on record to comment on the “apology” except to say that the public would soon have the full statement he made.

Saturday though, the young Bruce was in fine form, and, like several speakers who followed him, repeated arguments presented the night before by Daniel Cummings. It was left to party leader Arnhim Eustace later though, to make the point that Cummings was not a politician, hence his non-appearance on the evening’s platform of speakers. One could almost sense, in that, a big YET.

The arguments the former CWSA boss put forward included concerns about the proposed band of national territory, in the heart of what he pointed out, with the aid of a map, was the country’s watershed. Cummings, whose credentials are unquestioned on the issue of water here, having successfully presided over this country’s water authority during the last twenty years, pointed to the dangers posed to our water supply by disturbing the watershed area. He made frequent references to the government-commissioned Ivor Jackson Associates’ report, to support his environmental caution to the government about the Taiwanese Government funded project.

Tuesday, Eustace was to point to the possible increased cost of living on the population, that may arise if the water sources are diminished, as a result of possible damage to the environment. A significant part of this country’s electricity supply is derived by hydro electricity, while the water supply, considered one of the best in the region, finds its sources in the island’s mountainous interior.

But Eustace, who came to the press conference flanked by his lieutenants Senator St. Claire Leacock and PRO Israel Bruce, repeated his party’s opposition to the road being constructed, without the government side conducting an Environmental Impact Study on the area selected for the two possible crossings of the road. That area is a band running from Colonarie/South Rivers on the eastern side of the mainland to the villages of Rose Hall and Troumaca on the west.

The government side though is adamant that, since they have a mandate from the people to build the road, they would go ahead with it, since it was part of their election manifesto plans. In fact, Minister Julian Francis told the nation in a TV broadcast two weeks ago, that those who oppose the project can “lie down in front the tractors.”

The Unity Labour Party(ULP), in its weekly column carried in two weeklies here, asserts that it is a BIG LIE that an “environmental Impact study” has been done for the road. The ULP says that “Ivor Jackson Associates conducted an Environmental Cataloguing Study and assessed the extent of the environmental resources in the area of the possible routes for the road and the range of possible environmental mitigating measures to be taken.”

The ULP states that this Environmental Mapping is “an essential pre-requisite” to determine the precise route of the road. That column further states that “when that route is determined, an Environmental Impact Study of that route will be conducted” to assist putting in place “the necessary and desirable mitigating environmental measures”.

Last week, the government signed an agreement with a Taiwanese firm, Overseas Engineering Construction Company Limited (OECC) to begin rehabilitation work on roads in the villages where the proposed project will be accessed on the west coast. Even in this, there is dispute, because, while the government calls this construction work the beginning of the Cross-country Road, the opposition says this is legitimate rehabilitation of a road to which they have no opposition. And NDP leader Eustace announced plans Tuesday for a meeting in Rose Hall to protest the road. His party also plans to boycott Parliament on Thursday 28 October.

But the government is adamant that it will “carry out [their] mandate”. They promise to deliver a cross country road, especially for the people of North Windward, North Central Windward, South Central Windward, South Windward, North Windward Central and South Leeward. This, since they assert, “the people accepted the economic and social case in the elections.” But, the ULP points out, “only the environmental details are left for precise scientific determination.”

It is on this latter point they differ from the opposition, which says the necessary studies must be done before embarking on construction. And the people of the country are left in the centre of the political crossfire.