Catalysing Communities: participation of civil society groups critical to achieving sustainable development (newspaper column)

By September 12, 2019 August 5th, 2023 No Comments

ON September 6, an open letter which was signed by 60 civil society organisations was hand-delivered to the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), urging the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to sign and ratify the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (also known as the Escazú Agreement).

The Escazú Agreement is a landmark treaty, developed by countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, that seeks to secure the rights of access to environmental information, public participation in the environmental decision-making process and access to justice in environmental matters, particularly for those persons and communities whose voices are often silenced.

This advocacy around the Escazú Agreement is made even more important as the Government gets ready to make its first voluntary national review on its implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

‘We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.’ These aspirational words are taken from the preamble of the 2030 Agenda, known for its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seeks to provide an interconnected and indivisible framework for working towards development worldwide.

Forced distance from national agenda

To those of us who work closely with communities, the focus on ‘leaving no one behind’-ensuring that development reaches everyone, regardless of any mitigating status or circumstance, is vital. In many circles, this is referred to as ‘localising’ the SDGs, ensuring that countries take a ground-up approach in resource allocation and the design of interventions. Communities are vital to this approach as they are still powerful levers for innovation, collaboration and solution-building. True engagement with communities is vital to development that is inclusive and strategic.

However, as The Cropper Foundation has learnt in its years of working with communities, most recently in the European Unionfunded action ‘Civil Society for Good Environmental Governance’, communities in T& T still feel powerless within the national development decision-making process.

We have been working with about 20 community groups and civil society organisations (CSOs) over the last ten months, in building their ability to be partners in environmental governance, and have encountered a stark reality of alienation and helplessness. These community groups, along with many more, feel a sense of forced distance from the national environmental agenda, often due to issues as literal as geographic distance between communities and where decisions are made. At other times, communities endure disparaging instances of being made to feel like ignorant ‘countryfolk’ speaking to their ‘smarter betters’.

Such perceptions have resulted in communities and many CSOs not just lacking confidence in their ability to engage these national decision-making processes but also lacking confidence in their representatives to seek their best interest. Communities and CSOs then find themselves reverting either to a corner in which they remain silent or towards a scenario in which protest seems to be their only option to ensure their participation in decisions that impact their own well-being.

It is critical, therefore, that civil society and communities have access to the decision-making process and infrastructure, as well as the information and data that help them to understand and communicate their own lived realities.

Building more than boundaries

Possibly, the most important thing that we have learnt over these ten months however has been the importance of community building, not just a community of geographic boundaries but a larger social structure that supports and lifts up its individual members. Creating a critical mass of community action based on shared purpose and interests is vital in the journey towards environmental governance that is scientifically sound, equitable and just.

We do recognise that in many instances, environmental legislation in Trinidad and Tobago is strong and plays a central role in our development trajectory. In the National Development Strategy (Vision 2030), the environment and people are placed at the centre of the country’s developmental trajectory, while in the National Environmental Policy (2018), heavy emphasis is placed on the meaningful participation of communities and CSOs in national environmental management. However, this needs to be more than just lip-service.

Civil society organisations strongly urge the Prime Minister to consider the open letter delivered last Friday, and advise

his Cabinet to sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, signalling T& T’s dedication to ensuring a sustainable future for all its citizens.

Omar Mohammed is the CEO of The Cropper Foundation, a technical non-profit organisation advancing sustainability in the Caribbean region. The Cropper Foundation and its partners-the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI), the EquiGov Institute and Environment Tobago are leading on public awareness and advocacy for the signing and ratification of the Escazú Agreement by the T& T Government.