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Illegal quarries threaten the State

Monday, August 3, 2015

I was threatened. It wasn’t an outspoken threat. It was disguised in a nearly friendly phone call: “Can I come to your house so we can meet?” These words sound innocent. However, the message was the messenger. On the other end of the line was a man, a self-described “businessman,” who had been accused of four murders in an east coast village surrounded by legal and illegal quarries. 

I forgot about the incident until I read about his early death in the papers. Maybe two or three years had passed. He was a young man, just 25. The newspaper report read “Central businessman killed in gun attack.” He was in his car when a gunman approached him. Several rounds were fired at close quarters. He died in surgery. Another newspaper story said his killing might have been the result of a land dispute. 

A few days before the phone call I was in a forest, surrounded by felled Mora trees. Nearby the earth is churned up and dug out. Straight trenches cut through the forest, leading away from craters in the ground. It could be the site of a World War One battlefield but these trenches are not for men to cower in, artillery shells did not cause the craters. This is the site of an illegal quarry. The trenches are drains and the craters areas where aggregate has been extracted. 

A local community member is my guide. He explains that the criminal gang that quarries the area first removes all valuable trees. They are transported to lumber mills, something that cannot be done legally unless a permit is given by the Forestry Division. Sometimes boards are ripped on the spot to make transportation easier. The value of each tree is tens of thousands of dollars. 

After the trees are removed, the excavators and trucks move in to remove the aggregate. The aggregate gets sold at a competitive price. The value is millions of dollars. The setup is simple. Excavators are bought cheaply, a simple washing plant is needed; the land may be privately owned or squatted. There are few overheads. It is practically an open market for those bold enough to enter it. 

I filmed the devastation that I saw and voiced the fears of the community. I spoke about the allegations that had been made about several people having been killed in connection with the quarry. 

One alleged story was that a local resident tried to be a Bad John with the illegal quarry operator. He claimed rights to the area being quarried and demanded a “security fee” from the operator. At first his request was adhered to and he was paid thousands of dollars. This ended when he became too greedy. Eventually somebody plunged a knife into him.

Another allegation was that a person had complained to the authorities in far off Port-of-Spain, demanding that the illegal quarry be stopped. He was killed a few days later. Somehow word got back that he had squealed. 

Some community members were profiting from the quarry. They weren’t getting rich, just employment to make a day’s wage and maybe a generous bonus but that was enough to convince one or two to become henchmen and informants for the quarry owner. The result was that the majority of villagers in the area lived in fear. Open opposition to the quarry died. 

I put all this in the video and posted the video online. Not many people viewed the piece, maybe about 500 or so. One of them was the Minister of Energy and Energy Affairs. He spoke out in the media against illegal quarries and soon the army and police raided a large illegal quarry operation. It was not the quarry I had exposed but a far larger one. According to the media, millions of dollars worth of quarry equipment was confiscated. The quarry was shut but not for long.

To show you how powerful and wealthy the illegal quarry industry can be: information came back to me that within 48 hours new equipment was on site. The quarry was back in operation. For some reason the police was not able to intervene. 

From that day on the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs seems to have done some things right in the quarry sector. Monitoring of quarries has increased; to what degree that is effective I do not know. I’m sure some environmental damage has been mitigated and the State has probably seen an increase in royalties from minerals.

The Ministry identified many illegal quarries but it seems that instead of closing them down the operators were allowed to make their businesses legit by regularising them. 

The young “businessman” whose illegal quarry I filmed seems to have gotten out of the business, involuntarily. A more powerful individual or gang forced him from his quarry site. Maybe that is the “land dispute” referred to by the newspaper that reported on his death. I understand that his quarry was being “regularised” at the time of the takeover. 

Illegal quarries are a source of income for criminals. Some of these criminals are powerful enough to challenge the State. They spread terror in the communities in which they operate, and beyond. Their wealth undermines the foundation of law and order in T&T.


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