Silence of the Lambs: the closure of Caroni (1975) Ltd.

Divali 2005, the festival of lights, seemed particularly dim this year. Cheap electric lights on strings seemed to take precedence over the elaborate patterns of thousands of deyas flickering in the night. Considering that Trinidadians are becoming more aware of their cultural heritage, the move away from deyas to electric lights seemed puzzling. There are theories, of course, one of which includes the spectre of crime hanging over all of us. Another view is that, maybe, it is best to light up for Christmas "one time". Economic reasons, no doubt, also play a part; deyas are expensive. And expensive is exactly what twenty thousand odd workers displaced by the closure of Caroni (1975) limited can ill afford. Twenty thousand? Yes, that's right. Certain politicians conveniently forget about Caroni's contractors, ancillary staff, private sugar cane suppliers who also lost their livelihood with Caroni's shutdown. In fact, certain estimates suggest that, with the inclusion of worker families and support workers in the sugar belt, the Caroni closure has affected in between 120,000 and 360,000 people.

In July of 2003, the end of an era was heralded by the closure of Caroni (1975) Ltd. Without much of even a whimper from its vociferous champions over the years, 117 years of history came to an end. Some in society rejoiced as the perceived last vestiges of colonialism and indentured servitude was brought to a close. The concerns of those involved, however, seemed far more prosaic. "How am I to survive now? How do I feed my family?", laments a former employee. "With your Voluntary Separation Package!", would be the Minister of Agriculture's response. Unfortunately, two years on, many of the nine thousand workers who accepted the package have almost expended it. Retraining of the former Caroni employees has been unsatisfactory with many companies not recognizing the certificates obtained from these programmes. Unemployed and unemployable, with finances dwindling and nowhere to turn, once empowered people are reduced to begging for welfare. The sharing of Caroni lands to former employees has finally begun, two years after Caroni's closure. Of course, the state will control the majority of Caroni's 77 000 acres of arable farmland, the ultimate purpose of which is to build slums, euphemistically known as 'housing projects', stadiums, and shopping centres.

Although there are no economists on board at Trinidad Dreamscape, we are aware of the importance of a country's ability to feed itself. We are curious as to whether politicians have discovered oil as the new national staple diet. Surely, that is what we all will be eating after agriculture was so effectively broad-sided. The recent national sugar shortage seemed almost like comedic irony, but few were laughing. We view it as an omen of things to come.

Caroni has long been a drain on the Treasury. Past governments knew this but evaded the issue. They were, understandably, reluctant to deal with a problem that would have substantial political, social, and economic repercussions. Many argue that the closure had to happen, and few would disagree. However, the sudden closure with laying off of thousands, with no feasible long term programme for revitalization of human and material resources is beyond comprehension. Many believe that there are other, more sinister, reasons for Caroni's closure. Also, how is it that when so much was at stake did such a huge event occur so easily? Where were the protests? Where was the opposition in Parliament? Like lambs to the slaughter, Caroni workers meekly accepted a cheque and gave up their heritage, for good.

Caroni was a cultural icon and a contributor to the wealth and power of the British Empire. Through Caroni and its progenitors, through the blood and sweat of our ancestors, through exploitation, England is what it is today. Through Caroni, before the days of oil exploration in Trinidad, we were dependent on the income generated to run the fledgling economy. Although no longer economically viable, importance cannot be solely gauged on the basis of monetary return.

In part 2 we shall explore a bit of history concerning Caroni. Is the closure of Caroni a bid to undermine the IndoTrinidadian rural political base of the opposition? Who knows? We will also explore the issue briefly in part 2. And, of course, more photographs to come!

- October 2005

Update - September 2006

We have been following the development of ethanol from sugarcane as an alternative energy source. Apparently the process has been successful in Brazil and Ecuador. Belize, Peru, the United States, Japan, and other countries are now eager to capitalize on the process to reduce energy costs, and to help meet their respective emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol (with the exception of the United States). Ethanol produces less than half the amount of greenhouse emissions than gasoline. Brazil will soon be the world's largest exporter of ethanol, and will be energy self-sufficient this year. All automobiles in Brazil use a hybrid gasoline/ethanol mixture. Brazil and other countries faced the downturn of the sugar economy like Trinidad, but have managed to find important alternate uses for their huge sugarcane crop. Once again, Trinidad Dreamscape is impressed by the lack of vision repeatedly evinced by the proponents of "Vision 2020". We also wonder about the research priorities of the University of the West Indies. All developed countries, without exception, are dependent on the research conducted at their Universities. Research fuels the scientific and economic breakthroughs of the First World. When will we ever understand?

One article from Yale University on Brazil's success can be found here.

- September 2006


 

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