It was never Rhonda Hackett’s battle.
Yet the lion-hearted Crown Point, Tobago, resident fought for the 100 households displaced by the construction of the $1.2 billion ANR Robinson airport expansion project to the bitter end.
On September 15, more than four years after the news of the land acquisition was first announced, tears flowed as the last group of residents, some under the watchful eyes of police, reluctantly left their homes.
One week before, the High Court had given the green light for the state to continue acquiring lands in Crown Point and surrounding areas for the airport expansion project. It came after the court dismissed the applications for an injunction made by seven occupiers of the land.
For Hackett, who founded the PEECE (Provide Equitable Compensation for Everyone) movement to advocate for the residents, the true story of how the project has affected their lives is still to be told.
“Most Tobagonians are clueless,” she told WMN.
“When you meet people one-on-one and you converse with them, it is always a wow moment and an eye-opener because the impression and picture that they have via the media. What goes out there is vastly different from the stories and testimonials that you would get from persons affected. So the real experiences are not known.”
Even now, Hackett believes the land acquisition exercise could have been handled differently.
“I think the entire process could have been by far better and the experience could have been one that was a win-win situation for both the government and residents given that the purpose of the project was for a public good.
“But the manner in which it was handled and how persons were dealt with and treated via the relocation process would have been unfortunate. It left much to be desired, especially given that this (land acquisition) is no new process.”
Noting that land acquisition for a public purpose has taken place in the country before, Hackett claimed in those instances far better was done.
She claimed when the lands were acquired to construct the Claude Noel Highway, the residents who lived along its path were successfully relocated.
“I always lean on the side of precedent and a precedent was set here in Tobago. So you did not hear anything where that was concerned because of how the matter was handled. Persons were resettled and then the lands were acquired.”
The Piarco airport expansion project, Hackett said, is another example of a seamless acquisition.
“That was also an airport project and observing how that matter was handled, the residents were relocated, resettled and a new community, Oropune Gardens, was built for them. Persons were advanced in terms of their living conditions and then the lands were acquired.
“So knowing all of these examples and more, it is quite clear that the government of Trinidad and Tobago is aware of how relocation can be done in an amicable manner but for today, and in Tobago, differently was chosen to be done.”
She maintains just due was not done in the ANR Robinson airport expansion project.
Hackett questioned why the National Infrastructure Development Company (NIDCO), which is managing the Tobago airport project, did not follow suit on this occasion.
While the majority of residents have negotiated with the government, Hackett claimed the packages offered were inadequate..
“Let’s say you built your home in 1996, the value that was given to you may be able to build back your home in 1996 but not for today. Persons got sums of money that cannot rebuild their current structures. So they have actually been demoted.”
But she claimed some residents who had started to rebuild their homes at the Cove and Shirvan estates, after negotiating with the government early in the process, have not been able to complete them. Hackett estimates about 90 per cent of them are completed.
She said the acquisition affected families primarily in the Crown Point/Bon Accord area, stretching from Gaskin Bay Road to Store Bay Feeder Road.
“So you would have had a mixture of residential, commercial and some agricultural land use. But those were not even honoured and the kind of consideration that should have been given to these individuals, it would not have been substantial.”
She claimed the consensus was that people were not compensated for what they were actually worth.
A geography teacher at Bishop’s High School, Hackett is no stranger to the spotlight.
Years ago, she was an athlete who represented the country in track and field and was nominated at least on two occasions for the Witco sports awards.
The mother of one is also a devout Seventh-day Adventist who pushes her students daily to be the best version of themselves.
“I strongly believe in having that strong spiritual foundation and background because to me that is the backbone of everything you do. My motto is ‘Put God first in everything you do and the rest will fall into place.’”
Hackett, who lives in the Store Bay Feeder Road/Crompston Trace area of Crown Point, recalled that when the issue of compulsory land acquisition for the airport project arose, she and others were initially earmarked to be relocated.
But a decision was taken to reduce the scope of the project and her family was spared.
Hackett said although the fear and inconvenience of uprooting was no longer an issue, the pain of what some of her neighbours and others in the community were experiencing was more than she could bear.
“There is a saying in the Bible, ‘He who knows to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.’ I knew that I could have supported the powerless, the voiceless and seeing and feeling the pain of my neighbours and community members, I could not sit idly by and see the level of advantage and injustice meted out to individuals who did not even have the capacity to help themselves and understand the entire process, especially in the manner in which it was done. I could not allow that level of onslaught to take place.”
Hackett’s desire for justice for the residents gave birth to the PEECE movement.
“I got an inspiration thinking together we stand and divided we fall. There is strength in unity and the only way to truly stand up and fight against the injustice that I was seeing and the only way to truly seek after the best interest and well-being of everybody was to unite, to have one voice and to have our desires and interests be heard as a community.”
At first, the movement drew support from the majority of the affected residents. Hackett estimates that over 75 households were represented at meetings in the Canaan/Bon Accord Multipurpose Facility and other venues.
But she said when some residents realised they were no longer affected, support dwindled. Some disappeared completely from the cause.
Dissatisfied with the response of the area’s representative and MP to the plight of those affected, Hackett said PEECE consulted with numerous attorneys, including Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Douglas Mendes, SC and Keith Scotland.
They also met with property valuers, held site visits and did extensive research on land acquisition throughout the country and externally.
“We sought the chain of command from area representative right up to the Prime Minister and President in seeking assistance for this to be done in an amicable manner, to give the residents a clearer understanding because that was never provided.”
Apart from organising a seminar on money management and financial planning through the Unit Trust Corporation, PEECE also arranged psychological support for the affected residents.
Hackett said within the past year, the Farley Augustine-led THA administration has been very supportive of the residents.
“I feel positive in terms of the approach taken by the THA. They expressed a willingness and commitment to seeking the welfare and well-being of residents. I think they maintained their commitment and whatever promises they had put forward in the public was not just PR to look good as a party
“I am seeing where efforts were made to genuinely assist the residents and to satisfy whatever void needed to be filled. The THA stood in solidarity and efforts continue to reflect that.”
Nevertheless, Hackett said the acquisition process and its effects on the residents still cuts deep.
“I saw my aunt dwindle. I saw my uncle dwindle. I saw a neighbour, a strong man, deteriorate within days to walking with stick. Over the period it is the most death that I have seen within my community and I know it is as a result of the direct stress and trauma associated with this entire experience.”
She said she also lost one of her close family members.
“Whenever I met with her and started speaking about this matter she used to sit down. She got weak whenever we started speaking about it and had to take a major operation which she did not survive.”
Hackett added the experience also created bitter rifts within families.
“I have seen families fighting like cats and dogs between themselves, domestic squabbles, because who held the deed in his name would be the one calling the shots and then greed would step in.
“How this matter was dealt with it caused distress and I found myself having to play peacemaker and counsellor. In some instances it helped and in others it did not.”
Although the last group of residents has left Hackett continues to stand with those affected as she maintains the process should have been handled better, and hopes those responsible would have learned what not to do in future projects where homeowners have to be relocated.