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WASA, Fondes Amandes residents fight over land
The village of Fondes Amandes, St Ann’s, is peaceful and intimate; villagers say they grew up side by side and feel more like a big family than like neighbours. But since early this year, a battle has been brewing over the village and residents are no longer feeling peaceful. On February 6, WASA wrote to residents in the area, informing them they had “illegally and unlawfully entered upon the lands of the Water and Sewerage Authority…”
WASA also alleged, via the eviction letters and in a letter to the MP for the area, that the residents were polluting the river that runs through the 13-acre community. The letters gave the villagers three months to leave their homes, and the deadline was up on May 6. But the people of Fondes Amandes are adamant that no one is going to move them off the land.
“If we have to march, we will march,” said Martin Joseph. His mother started renting land in Fondes Amandes from a landowner when the price was $6. He and his brothers and sisters have all grown up and raised their own children there.
“We will fight for our rights.”
Sylvia Joseph’s frustration is clear in her sharp gestures, her forceful speech. She’s been living on what she called “family land” in Fondes Amandes for her whole life: 69 years. When asked if WASA had tried to acquire the land by buying it, she said no. “This is not about buying and acquiring. This is, ‘Get off!’” she said, referring to the eviction letter.
Another long-time resident, Kieron Letrent, is prepared to fight WASA’s claim. “I not leaving my peaceful place, where I could leave my door open, for them to send me in no concrete jungle.” Five villagers countered WASA’s eviction with letters written by their attorneys, saying WASA’s claims were false.
Some say they are landowners with deeds, which in one case dates back almost 100 years. Some claim they have been renting land for generations. The residents have also procured cadastral plans from the Land Registry that they claim confirm their stance.
Community used as a model
When asked about the allegation that they were polluting the Fondes Amandes river, residents were incredulous. Each of them said that before WASA’s existence, their grandparents and parents took the initiative to clean the river. Now, the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project is continuing the watchdog role over the Fondes Amandes watershed.
Akilah Jaramogi is the non-governmental organisation’s (NGOs) managing director, and she said the reforestation project has not only won several local and international awards for its work in watershed management, but has been working alongside WASA and other NGOs and agencies on an integrated water resource management stakeholders’ team that works on solutions for watershed management problems.
“And never one day I saw that Fondes Amandes was a watershed at risk,” Jaramogi said. “And for me it was really, really heartbreaking, because these are the same people who take care of their watershed. “Nowhere in Trinidad and Tobago would you see what is happening here in any other community. And we have been used as a model not just in Trinidad, but throughout the Caribbean.”
MP defends residents
MP for the Port-of-Spain North/St Ann’s West area Patricia McIntosh also spoke out in defence of her constituents. “They have been exercising their social responsibility as good citizens and they’ve been involved in the Fondes Amandes Reforestation Group in terms of taking care of their environment, in terms of ensuring the integrity of the water supply here,” McIntosh said.
“Why are they penalising my constituents and having them relocated? And I have to wonder if there is not a hidden agenda.” Up until mid-April, the Fondes Amandes residents had received no response from WASA to their claims.
‘WASA on drive to safeguard its landholdings’
However, when InDepth contacted WASA, general manager for corporate communications, Ellen Lewis replied with a statement. Villagers at Fondes Amandes say the land that they occupy is privately owned. But according to Lewis, “The lands, approximately 13 acres, were vested in the authority pursuant to Section 11 of the Water and Sewerage Act 1965.”
Lewis said WASA has been on a drive to safeguard its landholdings since February 2011, serving legal notices to individuals and entities that have “encroached on assets belonging to the Authority…” the statement said. Some trespassers include Carib Brewery Ltd, Food Basket and the Niherst/NGC National Science Centre.
Without extensive legal research, there is no way to verify whether or not Fondes Amandes lands are indeed private land or are included among the lands vested in WASA. When asked how exactly the Fondes Amandes villagers were polluting the river, Lewis said the river is a major contributor to WASA’s St Ann’s Reservoir, used to service numerous water consumers.
“Given the fact that this river serves as a main source of raw water, it is important that the quality of the water, particularly upstream of the Fondes Amandes Intake, not be compromised by anthropogenic (human) influence,” the statement continued.
Using pesticides and fertilisers while planting and letting “grey water” runoff from domestic cleaning products like bleach, detergents and disinfectants get into the river are some of the practices that could pollute a watershed, Lewis explained. Lewis’ written statement did not specify which pollutants produced by Fondes Amandes residents were contaminating the river.
However, WASA did provide InDepth with footage of potential river pollutants that they found in the village: two discarded bottles; pit latrines and residential drainpipes on the river bank upstream of the raw water intake. The footage does not show where the effluents from the outhouses and drains come into contact with the river.
WASA confirmed that there is a programme to educate residents living in watershed areas about preserving their rivers from human influence. It’s called the Water for Life Community Water Champion Training programme, an initiative of RBC. WASA did not confirm whether or not residents of Fondes Amandes, through the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project, were part of this programme.
After InDepth contacted WASA for a response, WASA invited the residents to a meeting on May 4 to discuss this issue. One person who attended said it appeared the matter had been resolved. “WASA confirmed that moving the residents would not be necessary and they are willing to work with the community on any perceived environmental issues,” said the resident, adding that the residents have agreed to continue working along with WASA.
But Lewis had a different take on the meeting’s outcome. “We had an extremely productive meeting with a group of Fondes Amandes residents who attended a meeting with us,” she said in a telephone interview. “Coming out of that meeting, WASA has committed to undertake a fresh survey of the lands at issue. And we have asked residents to bring forward all documents to support their claim as to the ownership or title of the lands in question.”
There is no way to know when the fight over Fondes Amandes will end.
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