The oil won’t spoil and the gas will last!

“The oil won’t spoil and the gas will last!” – ancient Trini proverb*

(*actually attributable solely to my friend and designated driver during today’s roadtrip, but very much representative of the ethos undergirding Trinidad’s development in the past and today…. )

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From the oil derricks of Mayaro, to the flaring refineries of San Fernando, to the weed plantations of eastern Trinidad (!); today I saw the wealth of Trinidad in all its incongruent wonder. Apparently I can now say I have seen more of Trinidad than many Trinis (this according to my Trini host).

After setting off at midday by car, we were able to see a pretty large chunk of the island in around 6 hours, with a stop for lunch in the coconut tree-lined and sea-spray-swept southern town of Mayaro and another for much in-demand Indian delicacies in Debe as dusk fell.

Highlights of the day included: Passing the town with the best name in the world, Tunapuna (pronounced “Too-nah-poo-nah”); visiting a place called Penal (“Pee-nal”) that had nothing to do with punishment; pondering how surreal it is to see a Hammerhead shark at the side of the road (sadly for the shark it was dead and strung up on a string, for sale to passersby); mentally noting some tsunami warning tips at a beach side stop (for future reference: “Run to higher ground if: you feel a very strong earthquake; see the water withdraw an unusual distance and hear a strange roar”); and cruising along the Trinidadian coast surrounded by hundred-plus feet tall, swaying coconut trees that once formed the basis of a coco oil industry.

Besides the famous Tunapuna, our trip took us through Arima, Sangre Grande, Sangre Chiquito, Manzanilla, Mayaro, Guayaguayare, Rio Claro (en serio, no era un rio claro), Debe, and San Fernando before we reached back to Port of Spain at night fall. As you travel around Trinidad, place names reveal its diverse Spanish/British and French colonial heritage, as well as hints of Amerindian (the original inhabitants, lest we forget).

Our route (I think):

Along the way we whizzed through the daily routines of Trinidadians from various corners of the island as we passed through towns and villages, each littered with more rum and roti shops (shacks and shops selling two of Trinidad’s best loved consumables) per square foot than the mind of any non-Caribbean person could ever conceive of the need for.

Roti Nation

The Trini life, it must be said, seems to be a very decent one. Colourful homes of all shapes and sizes, natural beauty in their backyards, heavily-laden fruit trees to be picked, and good infrastructure to move around. Tropical, multi-ethnic, polytheistic, and most importantly, with subsidized fuel and energy (due to their abundant oil and gas industry)- what more could you ask for? Well, there are things…but it is good to see that the country’s wealth seems, by and large, to be making a difference in the lives of its general population. After all, unemployment is the lowest in the Caribbean – at between 5 and 6% (much less than the US- which is over 8!) – and although only 5% of employment is in the energy sector itself, clearly the trickle down effects are significant (exactly what massive proportion of the population is employed in the “Rum and Roti” sector would be a statistic I’d like to see…).

So apparently at ease with their resource-rich growth are they that despite the potential to develop a tourism product within Trinidad itself (rather than solely in nearby Tobago) – especially an eco-tourism product that would show off Trinidad’s biodiversity and beauty – that tourists are almost non-existent in Trinidad itself. The thinking (for better or worse) seems to be that Trinidad simply doesn’t need to bother.

(As a side note: much to my surprise, a fair bit of manufacturing takes place in Trinidad, no doubt in large part because the industrial sector benefits from the low energy cost in its manufacturing process. So instead of a $US7 jar of Peter Pan peanut butter, I can get a $US2 jar of Trini peanut butter, for example, which tastes exactly the same. This means that money that is pumped into the economy through the sale of oil and gas is not leaking back out to the extent that it might be otherwise if the entire food supply was being brought in from outside. Of course, a significant amount of importation takes place, but I think these small gains from domestic production make a positive difference in an economy and society – especially a small, economically open, island one like Trinidad. It’s definitely a contrast to The Bahamas. Another point worth noting relates to how oil wealth affects education: In Trinidad education is free from primary school level all the way up to PhD. Definitely not the norm in the Caribbean – or anywhere outside of Scandinavia or Cuba, as far as I’m aware. Additionally, technical colleges have curriculums directly designed to feed graduates into the energy sector. For this reason Trinidad has even been able to capitalize on exporting the knowledge and skill ingrained in this relatively energy-extraction and production-proficient population to other countries who are looking to develop their own oil industries. However, the downside is that despite these educational opportunity and very low levels of unemployment, Trinidad’s crime rates remain high; going against the common perception that lower unemployment would be a significant factor in reducing crime, and raising the question of exactly what it is that lies at the heart of this problem).

Back at the office, I am working on a few projects. One is a literature review for a major paper that ECLAC hopes to put together on trade over the next couple of years. This involves writing summaries of relevant academic articles which can be reviewed by the Economic Development Unit team for reference/background on the most current thinking in this area as they move ahead with forming their own work on trade which relates more specifically to the Caribbean and its circumstances.

Secondly, there’s a communications-related project to assist the UN ECLAC head office in Santiago, Chile, with the launch of a new publication. In the meantime, I’m also involved in reviewing some papers that were put together by two Caribbean academics for ECLAC to advance new policy proposals for regional growth. Having achieved some enviable advances vis a vis the rest of the developing world in the 1980s and 1990s (increasing health, literacy and other key indicators), The Caribbean faces declines in its growth and development prospects in the 21st century for a number of reasons which the global economic crisis has only serve to bring into stark relief. The thinking is that now is a better time than any for the Caribbean countries to begin taking steps to restructure their economies to produce better development outcomes going forward. My review will, along with those of the others in the unit, contribute to the creation of a summary of the papers which will allow more easy dissemination of their key points and findings to stakeholders (mainly governments who ECLAC hopes will benefit from the work).

And all the while, momentum towards the most critical component of any strategy to propel the small island states of the Caribbean to their next stage of development – greater integration, politically and economically – seems weaker than ever before, at the time it is needed most. Not only has the global crisis has taken attention away from the integration process, as Caribbean governments turn further inwards as they struggle to combat rising unemployment, crime and debt, but the end itself as an ideal outcome is also being questioned in international fora. Some might say for strategic geopolitical reasons (a strong Caribbean bloc has a bigger voice in global affairs) or simply because years without progress towards greater integration have diminished interested parties’ capacity to believe it is worth pushing in its current form. Either way it makes for prolonged and interesting staff meetings at ECLAC.

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Posted on July 7, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I actually think that we are very limited on the supply of oil and if we don’t find alternative energy in the next few years, bad things are going to happen. Great article by the way.

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