Trinidad Express / If you could find an exact location, a single address, to understand what the Debe and Mon Desir segment of the highway extension has done to people living in its path, it would be at the dead-end of Monteil Trace, Fyzabad.
The lagoon land there was purchased by Ramroop Robee, the son of an indentured immigrant, in the early years of the 20th century.
Robee raised the money for the 20 acres of hilltop and swamp by pawning the gold jewelry belonging to his wife Baboonie.
Back then, there was only a track through the bush from the main road to the place where he chose his house spot.
But with seven children and the grandchildren that followed, Robee, in small measures, would transform this place.
With rubble collected from the abandoned oilfield company bungalows, he laid, bucket by bucket, a road leading to the wooden home that would be rebuilt several times over the years, the last one, proudly, out of brick and mortar.
The family planted rice in the lagoon near where the horses and milking cows grazed, grew short crops, and earned money, making and selling charcoal that was then the fuel for cooking.
Most days Robee would return home with a tree, fruit or timber, to plant on the land that was then under cocoa cultivation.
The hilltop he levelled with fork, shovel and bucket, working with a ‘Temple in the Sea’ vigor to create a space where the children would later build their own homes.
It was always his desire, the family said, that the land be passed down from generation to generation, and that it be sold to no stranger.
Before his death at age 96, Robee saw his property at the end to Monteil Trace grow to eight homes.
So that when the government-hired surveyors first came that day in 2005 with news that the land was wanted for the highway to Point Fortin, no one was interested in moving.
The surveyors, attached to Trintoplan Consultants, faced similar distrust when they began clearing land and poking around in other places along the route from Debe.
Except being mentioned in the annual national budget statements, not much was heard about the highway by the people living along the proposed route.
Not until after the 2010 general elections and the victory of the People’s Partnership, did talk of the highway started sounding serious, with the promise of work and the redevelopment of rural communities.
Homeowners began receiving notices, signed off by the Secretary to Cabinet, advising that ” it appears to the President that the parcels of land described in the schedule and situated in the counties of Victoria and St Patrick are lands likely to be needed for the purpose which, in the opinion of the President, is a public purpose, namely the expansion of the trunk road network of Trinidad and Tobago by the construction of a highway between San Fernando and Point Fortin” .
The notice also revealed details of the massive scope of the project, stating that the lands of the acquired comprised approximately 5,243,390 square metres (5.24 square kilometres or two square miles) situated along a corridor with a minimum width of one hundred metres (328 feet).
Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar gave the highway her blessing.
The consultations began. Representatives of the National Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (NIDCO) made a good case.
The inducements were compelling. Compensation for house and land at open market value, the Land Acquisition Act instructed.
A “disturbance allowance” to help with the cost of moving. A plot of land being developed at Petite Morne in the former Caroni Ltd canefields between San Fernando and Princes Town.
Many at Monteil Trace were convinced then they were doing the right thing.
The majority did not buy the arguments of Dr Wayne Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement.
Which was why, when Kublalsingh began Hunger Strike No. 1 on the land being cleared at Monteil Trace in 2012, few from the area joined.
For the highway supporters at Monteil Trace, this was their contribution to the development of the country.
On the advice of the State representatives, owners hired private valuators and submitted reports detailing what their homes and land were worth. So sure were some that they went ahead and found places to settle elsewhere, paying down on the properties.
Homes were stopped mid-construction. Others cancelled plans to build on the acres they owned.
Several kilometres to the east, there was mayhem at Debe, with Kublalsingh’s Highway Re-Route Movement members facing off with police, politicians and soldiers, pitching a protest camp to fight the plan to push the highway through the wetlands of the Oropouche Basin to Mon Desir.
The protests seemed far away, until the day after Divali 2012 when a fleet of trailer trucks came to Monteil Trace, and the bulldozers began pushing down the trees.
Neighbours could see each other from their homes for the first time. Some appeared paralysed by the speed with which it was all happening.
Then the earthmovers reached the backyard of the houses belonging to some members of the Robee clan.
What old man Robee took years to accomplish with his fork, the excavator took an hour.
What he spent decades planting, the teak, cocoa, and fruit trees, were bulldozed.
Then everything stopped.
Kublalsingh went hungry from November 15 to December 5, ending his fast where a decision was made to conduct an independent review of the Debe to Mon Desir segment.
The Armstrong Report recommended that the segment not be constructed until the results of a hydrological study, a social impact assessment and an environmental cost benefit analysis.
Meantime, the Brazilian highway builders OAS Construtora began reporting multiple delays, and cost overruns on the $7.2billion project, the single largest project in the country’s history.
When the PP decided to push on with the project in August 2014 despite the Armstrong Report recommendations not being implemented, Kublalsingh went on Hunger Strike No. 2, during which the infamous ‘bag of aloo’ protest happened in Debe while Persad-Bissessar was visiting.
The segment that the Robee family lived along was crippled, but contractors pushed on in other segments leading to Point Fortin.
It is now history that the Peoples Partnerhsip lost the election, OAS went bankrupt and was fired, and the highway project stopped while the new administration tried to find out what the country got for more than US $4 billion of tax payers dollars.
Few paid any attention to the disrupted lives of the people on the highway route at Ghandi Village, Bunsee Trace, Suchit Trace, Gopie Trace, Tulsa Trace, Banwarie Trace, Jokhan Trace, San Francique Main Road, Murray Trace, Timital Trace, Siparia Old Road, the Fyzabad Main Road, Pepper Village, Seelal Trace, and Berridge Trace, Mon Desir.
In these areas, the excavators carved a path that separated family and neighbours, and ended a way of life – the land, the cattle, the rice, the religion and its traditions – that was three or four generations deep.
In the crueliest twist of all, not all the descendants of Robee were compensated because not all the homes were in the path of the highway.
Some members of the family built new homes nearby. Some left the village. The clan, who never had reason to build a fence between homes, were separated.
The last home of Ramroop Robee was demolished.. Visit today and you will find a heap of brick and concrete. The Hindu temple contructed in the front yard surives. In it you will find murtis and iamges of the many incarnations of the Hindu God. At the centre of the shrine, and honoured every day, is the picture Robee Ramroop and wife Baboonie.
Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan told us that completing the Debe to Mon Desir segment was part of the plan.
“Right now, the part we are putting all the emphasis on is from San Fernando to Point Fortin (through the Mosquito Creek) and so we have to do it in phases. Once we have completed that segment then we are going to revisit the other sites” he said.
One day, Robee’s temple may fall.