I have never understood the politics of poverty. Since hurricane Tomas I have been following not only the destruction and recovery process, particularly in Bexon and Soufriere, but also the seemingly incurable communicable disease that had been destroying us long before the October 30 storm and with much greater force.
Last Thursday I received news that the government of Saint Lucia, through the ministry of housing, would be relocating the residents of Fond St Jacques, Soufriere. Some of the worst affected residents were living in tents on the Soufriere playing field following Tomas. According to Usibia Jn Baptiste of the Soufriere Foundation that coordinated the process on a rainy December 23 afternoon, the transition went smoothly from their end. But there was a nasty hitch. As with most things in Saint Lucia, politics entered the fray and the picture got uglier than the mud and silt still strewn all over Bexon and Fond St Jacques. Some of the residents refused the “order” to relocate, on the grounds that the houses were not fit for dwelling. However, it was clear the guts of most of the arguments against the relocation effort were swollen with politics. One displaced resident said: “The people playing politics with us. They want to make Chastanet look good so we not going nowhere.” Another saw the relocation as a move to flatter the prime minister’s image and to help him and his party retain power at the next elections.
The residents of Fond St Jacques, who have been living in the shelters since Hurricane Tomas, are being transferred to a brand-new housing project in Crest Lands, Soufriere. Originally the development was meant for residents of Barons Drive, another depressed Soufriere community, (reminiscent of Conway before the partial transformation) and one that has been used for years as a political football. On Thursday thirteen of the houses were found to be “fit for human dwelling” and were allocated for transfer of persons from the tents. The idea was to make life more comfortable for them, not just for Christmas but long term.
On Wednesday this week I again visited the area under sunnier conditions and save for a few minor missing fittings the houses all appeared fine. However, on the day of the relocation last week, a few of the houses were without electricity and with damaged WASCO pipelines in the area there was no running water. Some of the resisting Fond St Jacques refugees refused to move in, even after it was promised that all of the houses would be provided with electricity by the weekend.
I spoke to Vernetta Joseph, who has been managing the shelter and also assisted with the transfers last week.
“I do not understand why some of the people do not want to move,” she said. “The people complained about the electricity and when we came here the Thursday we were provided with some big candles to see us through the night. By Christmas Eve there was electricity.” Joseph also disclosed that communal water tanks were placed in close proximity with the houses by the weekend to alleviate the water problem. But that still doesn’t seem to be enough to quell the fire of dissent and defiance by those who refuse to leave the tents.
Sean Alcindor, one of the town councilors assisting with the relocation of residents, says he has washed his hands of the matter. “You cannot tell me you are going in there to do a job to help people and people taking cutlass, they want to chop you and they cursing you,” he said. “That cannot be right.”
Over the weekend the police were called in to bring about some calm and to clear the tents. However, on Wednesday several of the tents were still occupied. One Fond St Jacques resident insisted there are persons in the tents who are not supposed to be there, who go about their business in the daytime and just come there at nights. She also felt that laziness is preventing persons from moving, since moving would mean having to fend for themselves and stop depending on Red Cross and NEMO handouts.
Prior to the tents, several of the homeless from Fond Jacques utilized the church as a shelter. But some parishioners complained that “nothing is sacred” when it came to the burning desires of the loins and that church pews were being put to uses not in keeping with the Bible. This no doubt hastened the evacuation from the church to the tents on the nearby playing field.
I spoke with Harold Dalson, MP for Soufriere. He said: “First of all, I was not even aware last Thursday, that the people from Fond St Jacques were being relocated. Since the hurricane there are many things which go on with regards to the residents that none of the agencies get me involved in, including when the tents were placed on the field. I do not think that the people do not want to move, they just want to be assured that where they are going to is better.” He said that from speaking with some of the residents he discerned they want to move back to their original homes, which with some help, can be restored.
“However,” he said, “Since Government has declared the area a disaster area, that means WASCO and LUCELEC cannot come in and do any work which would help make the living conditions in these houses better.” Dalson denied suggestions he is encouraging residents to resist relocation. He says he stands ready to enter into dialogue with the various agencies, government and people who would bring about a resolution to the problem.
Meanwhile Fond St Jacques remains a “disaster zone,” since being officially declared as such following Tomas. I have also been informed that Cabinet is expected to meet in the New Year to decide whether the area will also be declared a “no build zone.”
A post-Tomas STAR article revealed that a report from the Red Cross had forewarned of pending disasters from floods and mudslides in the area, but this was largely ignored. So now it is anyone’s guess whether politics will be left out of that final decision or whether innocent lives and continued poverty will be sacrificed for the colour of a vote. Call me a cynic, but I am not holding my breath.