The Sangre Grande region, which stretches from Valencia in the west to Matelot in the north and comprises approximately 900 square kilometres of land (larger in size than Singapore, Barbados and Tobago) with a population of approximately 100,000 persons, is the least developed part of TT. In development terms, the region has lagged the rest of the country. In terms of the prevalence of poverty, Sangre Grande has the poorest people per 100 in the national population: 39.1 per cent of the Sangre Grande population was deemed to be living under the poverty line.
The region has one of the highest unemployment rates among 18-29 years old in the country, with over 28 per cent unemployed. This has negatively impacted on the medium and long-term viability of the community. (Source: Kari Consultants on the state of the poor in TT).
Since 1984, Sangre Grande has been recognised as a key component of the growth centre strategy of the approved National Physical Development Plan in which the eastern town was selected as a centre for the development of a growth pole. This potential, though long recognised, has gone largely untapped.
According to the Prime Minister at the sod turning ceremony for the Valencia to Toco Highway, “It was most depressing to read that this part of the country, with so much promise, residents were in fact at the bottom of the economic barrel of Trinidad and Tobago.”
The reason for that, Dr Rowley continued, is because of the paucity of the infrastructure. "That is why the income in the area is the lowest. If there is infrastructure, that automatically makes possibilities available.”
Government’s plans to develop the rural part of the country in a sustainable manner by building a highway from Valencia to Toco; a port at Toco thereby creating an additional and vital link to Tobago; and the extension of the Churchill Roosevelt Highway into Manzanilla is not a ‘vaps’ decision, as some would have the population believe. These plans are in keeping with the approved cabinet decision in 2009 for the implementation of an integrated development plan for the sustainable development of the Sangre Grande region, which provided for, among other things:
(1) The acceleration of the public sector development projects identified by ministries, like the highways and the port;
(2) An invitation to the private sector to submit recommendations for private/public partnerships on development projects to facilitate the economic, social and physical transformation of said region.
This cabinet decision was based on local government consultation with the people of the region between 2003 and 2009. Consultations, including the presentation of the draft development plans, were carried out in the 41 communities that comprise the region. Presentations were also made to the 12 high schools from Valencia to Matelot. Consultations were also held with other stakeholders, including community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations, ministries, state corporations, statutory authorities, the Sangre Grande Regional Corporation, the Sangre Grande Chamber of Commerce and civil society as a whole in 2007 and again in 2009 at the Sangre Grande Civic Centre. These consultations determined and finalised the elements of the integrated development plan for the region.
The Government again hosted a public consultation regarding the Toco Port on April 12 at the Toco Regional Complex, and on May 8, hosted a public consultation on the highway extension into Manzanilla at the Duranta Gardens Community Centre. As recent as July 24 and 25, public consultations were held regarding the Valencia to Toco Highway at the Duranta Gardens Community Centre and the Toco Regional Complex, respectively.
To the detractors and to those well-meaning people who are not cognisant of the history and potential of the region and who describe the highway infrastructure in the east as the “highway to nowhere,” we who reside in the east view this differently. We recognise that the Prime Minister is not on a frolic of his own but has acted in accordance with his vision and the cabinet-approved development plan for the region.
The Government’s highway development programme in the east has encouraged at least five local developers from Sangre Grande (Bravo Hill, Foster Road, Cunapo Southern Main Road, Coalmine and Oropouche Road) to invest in major housing development projects. Consequently, contractors, hardwares and people both skilled and unskilled in the construction industry presently benefit from these ongoing projects in the area.
Homeowners from throughout TT are now purchasing homes in Sangre Grande, as the estimated travel time from Port of Spain to Sangre Grande will now take less than an hour. Also, as a result of the highways, three major investment initiatives from the private sector are in different stages of development following the approved private/public partnership model for the town centre development, which includes the establishment of a mall, a cineplex, a major pharmacy chain, restaurants, administrative complex and additional housing projects in Sangre Grande.
Each of these projects will benefit Sangre Grande and environs through increased employment (1,500 during construction and 1,000 upon completion); improved living quality and the reduction in the poverty levels; creation of new entrepreneurs and contractors; capital and direct cash-flow to the regional economy; increased spending and support for local businesses; and establishing Sangre Grande as a major shopping centre.
The highways in the east and north east will open lands along the route for further investments in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, cold storage facilities, warehouses, housing, and so on. The Toco port will provide a faster alternative sea route between Tobago and east Trinidad and will itself open up the entire north east region to new industrial, residential and commercial developments supported by Government’s future development in the health, fire services and the energy sector. The people from the area and other investors would benefit from these commercial opportunities. The east will certainly be part of the economic conversation of TT.
The public will have an easy drive to Toco, where they can stop and shop in Sangre Grande or Toco, and thereafter have a short journey to Tobago. The tourists visiting Tobago can easily visit Toco and environs to experience our rivers, beaches, waterfalls, fauna and flora, and experience eco-tourism at its very best.
In the final analysis, the holistic approach to rural and sustainable development adopted by the Government in the east, which includes major infrastructural works and projects undertaken by the private sector and facilitated by the government, together with the reform of local government, is highly commendable.
We who live in the east appreciate these major infrastructural developments and rebut the notion that it’s a “highway to nowhere” but rather, a highway that would establish the east as the new economic frontier of TT.
* Roger Boynes is the former MP for Toco/Manzanilla