Making Peace With The Past …for The Future

Building An Energy Bridge To Africa

By GREGORY McGUIRE

THIS Emancipation Day arrives with a new sense of urgency. Once, not so long ago, we were afraid that the past would be lost to us, so anxious were we to put distance between ourselves and the past in a desperate bid to get to a different future. Well, as this weekend’s festivities and observances have shown, the past is acknowledged, honoured and embraced. Not perfectly and not completely, but we’re coming to terms with us. What should worry us, however, is the prospects for our future.
There is a cacophony abroad in the land, a rising din coming from all quarters. Incoherence is the order of the time as our collective failure to weld a nation out of the many fragments of Europe’s experiment in the Caribbean, continue to trip us up. Heading into 50 years of political independence, the question remains: What is our shared project for this society?
This is the question we urge our readers to ponder as we move from Emancipation Day on August 1st to Independence on August 31st, from where we will launch ourselves into the year leading up to the Golden Jubilee of Independence. Hopefully, this year will be seized as a period for introspection and action and not for sheer fete in our usual orgy of escapism.
2011 is the United Nations’ International Year of People of African Descent, or more conveniently, IYPAD. This declaration makes this year’s anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 173rd one at that, even more meaningful. The IYPAD is meant to bring awareness to the historic legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and institutional African enslavement and, in so doing, promote and protect the rights of people of African descent worldwide. Certainly, the lasting economic implications of the transatlantic slave trade, and the colonial system which propagated it, are still visible in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean.
Inevitably, much of the conversations about IYPAD and emancipation focuses on the recap of past atrocities and injustices of slavery and the debt owed to people of African descent. But the urgency of the challenges facing this country and the wider Caribbean would suggest that the past could be nothing more than a trap unless we recognise it as a springboard for action in the present to improve our prospects for a better future.
To its credit, the Emancipation Support Committee has been a long-standing tireless proponent of creating trade and investment connections with the African continent —reinventing the triangle. Such overtures would not only create a new avenue for local entrepreneurs to exploit, but can also facilitate modernisation, industrialisation and ultimately a higher standard of living for many Africans.
The exodus of ex-slaves from the plantation in the immediate post emancipation period was a movement of great courage, determination, self belief, innovation and entrepreneurship. In his History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (his independence gift to the nation), Dr Eric Williams describes it as a refutation of deprecation and disparagement faced by people of African descent. This blunt refusal to work for wages instead of lashes surprised the colonial masters. The conventional European wisdom at the time was that the “negro” would return to the estate to work for minimal wages. He is idle, unambitious as to worldly position, sensual and content with little. Another commentator surmised his expectation in the following manner: “The poor black man was a faithful servant as long as he was a slave. As a free man, he is conscious of his inferiority at the bottom of his heart and would attach himself against the rational white employer with at least as much fidelity as a spaniel”.
History records that far more than just eking out a living, our foreparents prospered. Williams quotes William Seawell as observing everywhere that production had increased the “negroes” were industrious, the standard of living had risen and the standard of housing had improved, and that emancipation was a success, not only socially but also economically. Seawell documents further that the condition of those who abandoned the estates to become independent entrepreneurs were infinitely above the condition of those who stayed on as labourers. In their book A Short History of the West Indies Parry and Sherlock reports that “a vast land settlement scheme was in fact put through in Guiana by people who acted entirely under their own leadership and by pooling their resources. The result was that up to the end of 1848, over 400 estates had been bought and more than 10,000 houses built.”
Faced with the imposing challenge of extricating themselves from a production system that had run aground, the first generation of Africans to be freed from slavery had stood strong and built a prosperous economy outside of the plantation. Today we face a not dissimilar problem. Our challenge, as we have repeatedly said, is to build a strong on shore economy thereby reducing dependence on oil and gas. There are perhaps five key lessons distill from our emancipation reflections.

The first is self- belief. The ex-slaves believed in their capacity not only to survive but to prosper. They were adamant in their refusal to return to the estates. They debunked the myth of African inferiority and associated disabilities. Today, in both public and private sectors, the dominant view is that someone else has the solution. It is a philosophy that is pervasive and evident in fields of education, security, health, energy, urban planning, sport, you name it. The irony of this is that while we continue to boast about how Trinbagonians excel abroad, one cannot recall a single Government initiative to lure such people to return home. When in fact they do return voluntarily to work or invest the response is bureaucratic and sometimes even hostile.
The second lesson is the use of existing knowledge and skills. The ex-slaves built on what they had acquired in the many years on the plantation. For most, it was rudimentary artisan skills. Yet through a process of self development and innovation many of them found a way to become very successful in business. We now have an opportunity to build on the expertise gained from over 100 years of involvement in the hydrocarbon. During this period, T&T has reaped the benefits of diversifying its hydrocarbon exports away from simply crude oil, to natural gas and its derivates i.e. LNG, ammonia, methanol and now petrochemicals further downstream. This sector has generated multiple benefits in terms of revenue, employment, skills development and the creation of an ancillary energy services industry. The emerging hydrocarbon rich countries of Africa wish to emulate the T&T experience. However this kind of monetisation requires significant capital injection, capability, dedicated policy and execution.
Arguably, T&T is poised to be able to offer capital, technical guidance, service provision and skills transfer. As demonstrated in other articles in this edition, positive steps are ongoing to realize this opportunity .
A third important lesson of the post-emancipation period is the importance of pooling resources for success. Faced with serious constraining legislation that set minimum limits to size of land plots what could be purchased, the ex-slaves pooled together to purchase estates. Our lack of understanding of how economies function has allowed us to lose these instincts and cultural responses, preferring as we have, to mimic the world of modern and sophisticated financial intermediation. But are these financial intermediaries serving the purposes of promoting new investments? Are they capable of being the modern version of the communal investment schemes and sou sous?

Evidence suggest that demands for collateral make it extremely difficult to even look into the small business windows set up by the major commercial banks, while issues of bureaucratic delays and confidentiality continue to beset the state-owned institutions. Opportunities that now present themselves in the hydrocarbon sector in Africa will require the support of the financial institutions in Trinidad and Tobago as well as a rediscovery of the pooling of resources that worked so effectively in the post-emancipation period.
Fourthly , the ex-slaves invested in assets previously owned by the state or the planter. In other words, divestment was a means of stimulating the flow of investment in the post-emancipation society . Today, we have the ironic situation of an economy in statis , notwithstanding high levels of excess liquidity and low interest rates in the system. Drawing from the post emancipation experience the State has the opportunity to stimulate the flow of new investments by pursuing such as the divestment of equity in profitable state enterprises, the privatization of utilities, and the seeding of new investments in both the energy and non-energy sectors. The indicators thus far are that such initiatives are not a feature of the agenda of the PP Government.
On this Emancipation Day, as we continue to seek a way forward in our enduring struggle to break out of the bandage of the mono petro-economy, we hope that the spirit of our emancipated ancestors will inspire renewed confidence and fresh ideas among our leaders and people . Happy Emancipation Day to all.

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