The resettlement issue
Normally in this week which marks the anniversary of African Liberation Day, my topic for this column would have been pre-chosen. This year, in addition to Africa Day, as it has been renamed, May 25 marked the 90th year since our country first received electricity; it was also one year
since the police murder of George Floyd in the USA which continues to have huge repercussions; and was also an indicative date given for persons who were evacuated from the “Orange Zone” in the north of the country following the volcanic eruptions of last month, to begin to return home.
Clearly it is impossible to cram comments on all these issues into one limited column, so I will attempt to spread out the comments over this, and the following week, giving priority to the more pressing local issues.
None can rank higher than the critical question facing the government and people of this country, and those most affected, persons evacuated from the Orange Zone in particular. Following indications that the Soufriere volcano has gone into a relatively more quiet phase, persons so affected have been encouraged to return home and begin their cleanup and resettlement process. Exceptions have been made for a few communities in North Leeward, still ash-covered, and some adjustment in North Windward.
As is customary in politically-partisan SVG, the matter has become a political talking point. To look at it from this perspective can only be detrimental to the national interests and particularly, to the welfare of the persons directly affected. It is a complex and complicated matter with no ready-made answers or solutions. There are many factors to be taken into consideration in making decisions on this very delicate and vital matter.
It is unfortunate that there are those among us for whom what Prime Minister Gonsalves says is used as a bellwether, an indicator of what their response must be. If he says “Go”, we must stay put, and vice versa. Those who support him blindly will follow the line unquestioningly. But this is far too important for such narrow approaches, we have to weigh up all the sides and take a mature, unbiased position.
There must be no doubt that above all, SAFETY must be the most important consideration. That means being guided by the scientific advice of the hardworking monitoring team, with no attempt to massage their advice for our own purposes. What the team has said is crystal clear – volcanic activity has clearly lessened but in the absence of more detailed information due to the destruction of vital equipment; one has to proceed with caution. Time and again, all three lead scientists who have addressed the public have emphasised that it is possible for the volcano to erupt violently with little warning. This must always be borne in mind, not as an excuse for inertia, but to ensure that we do not take undue risks with possible disastrous consequences. Take into consideration as well, the mindset of persons who have to go back to live in such areas with the back of the mind ringing with the question, what if we have to evacuate again?
The evacuees will face differing circumstances, not only varying from village to village, but even from household to household. A number of factors must be considered, including extent of damage to households, type of damage, the ability of the affected families to engage in rehabilitation etc. It is not a blanket issue which can simply be solved by issuing monthly cheques, a series of sometimes very personal matters are involved which must be handled with sensitivity.
Above all, one must avoid giving the impression that the evacuees are some sort of nuisance who need to be sent back home. I have heard that sentiment expressed, particularly by persons in the relatively safe “Green” zone, who want the schools to be freed up so that their children’s education can resume. The volcanic tragedy is a national one, not just one which affects or concerns the residents of the Orange and Red zones only. The entire country has been affected, in one way or another and we must be ready to equally shoulder the burden of recovery.
If we continue to manage the crisis efficiently, we must always be on the lookout for routes to recovery, resettlement and reconstruction; we cannot remain in a relief mode. We must understand the fears of those, some of whom have had to be evacuated twice before, and not just think that people are so happy in centres that they don’t want to return home.
It is important that we get as broad as possible support of all in this massive venture. Can’t an effort be made on the part of the government, to forget the snipers, “Internet crazies” and side-shows, for a broad national consensus on the way forward, including the political opposition, business community, religious community and the broad civil society movement?
We need a more enabling environment if we are to come out of this stronger. It is in our best interests to try and create it.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.