Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Burning Season

As soon as the rains stop, the fires start. It's particularly prevalent at this time of year as folks clean up for Christmas. Upper class households with regular garbage collection burn, communities with no garbage collection at all burn, construction sites burn, government agencies burn, official projects using taxpayer money to "spruce up" burn vast areas of land - and complaints to public health and environmental agencies yield not an iota of action.

The Gleaner covers this today at http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20081223/lead/lead3.html

In my neighbourhood (middle class, very central), fires are burned at dawn and dusk every day, unless it's raining. I go to bed with a headache and wake up with one. And like many such areas, our garbage collection service is regular. On a recent drive to the western end of the island, I counted over thirty large fires - not including the small, four-breadfruit-leaf-dem type of fire at the side of the road. As noted in the Gleaner story, some fire-setters use vehicle tyres to give a good, black and highly toxic smoke.

Where are the public health and environmental agencies? Where are the public health inspectors, the environmental wardens, the police? Is there any more fundamental right than that of drawing unpolluted breath?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mining and Development

At a recent public consultation on the new mining policy http://www.mmt.gov.jm/News%20Stories/minerals_policy.htm, Minister of State in the Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications, Hon. Laurie Broderick, challenged the audience (largely those engaged in the mining industry, particularly bauxite, along with the usual five or so members of the public) to name five countries which had developed without exploiting their mineral resources "for the benefit of their people." Wish I'd been there to respond to this question. I'm doing some research on such countries (Egypt? Switzerland? Israel? Barbados?), although the question Minister Broderick asked also requires a definition of that slippery term "development" and possible even the word "benefit." More on this soon...

But a counter question occurs to me and I'd like to ask the good Minister to name five countries that developed, presumably for the benefit of at least some people, WITHOUT using a range of practices we now regard either as crimes or highly undesirable. I'm compiling a list of these practices and invite you all to contribute to the list...


Conquering other people's territory and taking away their land (including the minerals)
Expelling people from their home places, turning them into refugees
Murdering entire populations of native peoples, a.k.a genocide
Eradicating entire ecosytems and species
Systems of wage labour that make people sick or cause them injury
Systems of wage labour that use children
Systems of wage labour that involve people in degrading and harmful work
Annihilating languages, religions, cultures, rural communities

The logical extension of the Minister's argument is : if others have done it and it brings the (often highly dubious) benefits of development, proceed. So why not use any or all of the above tried-and-tested practices, Minister Broderick?

Like tourism in Jamaica, bauxite mining is something of a sacred cow. You're not really allowed to wonder about its net benefits - to ask perfectly reasonable questions about mining practices, the enforcement of the laws to protect people and places, the short- and long-term costs and benefits. To ask these questions is to expose yourself to personal attack and ridicule.

Well, now Jamaica's Parliamentary Committee on Economy and Production is asking those very questions with regard to bauxite mining:
In a report dated December 2008, the Committee makes a raft of recommendations, including closing ecologically important areas to mining, finding uses for the enormous amount of waste generated, the enforcement of laws (including arms' length monitoring, instead of the self monitoring now tolerated) and a thorough investigation of bauxite mining's costs and benefits. Hopefully the august committee's recommendations will be treated with a bit more respect than those which come from the common folk...even though it IS chaired by a member of the opposition...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

WHOO HOO! A Sand Committee (for a change...)

The Daily Gleaner of December 10th reports the setting up of ...oh wait! It's not a committee! Bad blogger! It's a "project team." This is, of course, entirely different from a committee...what? what's that? In what way is it different, you want to know? (Weary, condescending sigh.) Well, it's perfectly obvious that the term "project team" has two words, in fact, could even be described as a phrase, while "committee" is merely a single word. Now can we move on?

The Prime Minister has set up a project team "to examine solutions to the beach erosion problems now (! Now!? Must be a misprint...been a problem for at least two decades) threatening sections of the Negril coastline." The team will be "headed by the Minister of State for Project Implementation in the Office of the Prime Minister, Daryl Vaz (and) anchored by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA)." There are the usual attendees from civil society groups as well. What a relief. Sand is now sure to start behaving as the tourist industry dictates.

This project team has arisen out of a study by coastal engineers, Smith Warner, who told us what we already knew - the beach at Negril has been eroding at a rate of about one metre per year, due to "numerous causes," including poor water quality, excessive development, overfishing and the die off of coral reef communities. Hmm. I wonder if the Minister of State for Project Implementation is the best person to deal with "excessive development."

I was at the meeting in Negril when Smith Warner presented their findings. The hoteliers were conspicuous by their absence - about five were present, I believe, and only one or two were senior players. The consultant from Smith Warner did outline the reasons for the beach erosion - which were as stated above. Their solutions, however, were meat and drink for coastal engineers - groynes and breakwaters and beach "nourishment" - read taking (maybe even stealing...) sand from somewhere else, sometimes the sea floor - and the construction of reef reinforcing structures. Why not, I asked, ever the popular public meeting attendee, improve water quality, halt excessive development, and control fishing - all of which would result in a resurgence of the reef? Well, those could be done as well, the consultant conceded, but... He shrugged in an I'm-just-the-consultant way. I could have finished his sentence for him...that would mean much less work for coastal engineers. So maybe a year later, we now have a project team.

Definition of a beach? Sand in motion, guys, sand in motion. It's gonna wax and wane with seasons, currents, storms. It needs the beach vegetation and sea grasses for stability, it needs a living reef to protect it from storms. If we build groynes, mostly the sand will build up on one side and be depleted on the other. If we dredge to "nourish" a starving beach, we damage the organisms that live on the sea floor, as well as releasing silt around the dredge, only partially controlled by silt screens. If the "nourishers" bother to use silt screens at all.

Talk to anyone over a certain age in Negril and they'll tell you about the old beach - see Ivan Goodbody's 1956 photo above, how wide it was, how stable, how the morass drained in a series of small streams, about the bountiful fish catches. (They will also mention the mosquitoes.) No one listened as Negril was "developed" and then overdeveloped, while a few people tried to say, hey, this is a mistake. They're still not listening. In fact, mention the word "environment" and you're immediately accused of being anti development, anti people and anti job. A colleague recently seriously suggested we stop using the word. No, having learned nothing at all from our earlier mistakes, we've entered a new phase of development blitz - massive hotels in places where there are no beaches, but tourists must have a beach, we've planted in their minds a certain image of a tropical holiday, and a beach is non negotiable. So sand is now a hot commodity.

Are we worried, though? Nope. We've got a high level project team...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Welcome to the Snail

Say hello to SnailWriter! And thanks to Lee Daniels for his gift. If you'd like to see more of Lee's work, check out http://www.leedanielsart.com

On the edge of Cockpit Country

Just returned from three days on the edge of Cockpit Country. This is real country, not fake country like, say, Ocho Rios. It had rained so much in November that what used to be the sinks between the rolling hills were now lakes. Every day it rained, the people there told us, from ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. Every day. And look, they said, even though the water is falling now, the land looks burned. The land has been here forever, I said. It will survive a wetting.

So for these particular days, the landscape was somewhat foreign- Jamaica not being given to lakes - but in other ways it was all Jamaica - the blue-green of the poincianas, with their acid-green new-leaf tops, the massive guangos with mossy beards and spiky bromeliads, and the stony, muddy, reddish paths - red with the bauxite that might very well doom this part of the world - and the quarrelsome jabbering crows. I asked an ornithologist friend how long jabbering crows had been in Jamaica - she said, millenia. Figures. Should be our national bird...

(There's a rumour in Jamaica that our other crow - the John Crow - is disappearing. The story goes like this - there is an old disused silo somewhere in the country with a dead body - a human, of course - at the bottom. The John Crows fly into the silo for the decomposing flesh, but then cannot spiral out again. Then they die and other crows come to feed on their flesh...and that's why there are fewer and fewer John Crows. I can put this remour to rest. There are many John Crows in Cockpit Country - you seem them in the morning on the guangos, holding their wings out to dry...)

I'm thinking about the nights now, because I'm back in Kingston, and it's dusk, and I'm smelling fires and diesel and I'm hearing the whine of trucks. In Cockpit Country, the night belonged to frogs and owls and unseen creatures, rustling, as they went about their business. The moon was full, the night sky was pale grey and in all that light, hardly any stars were visible. Gound mist drifted over the land and I waited for the duppies; surely even they would be heard, there, in all that silence.

I was comfortable in a house, but there, right there, not one minute's walk away, was the real Jamaican bush, the forest, the chalky green river, swollen with the rain, and the men in the morning, walking to work in water boots, swinging their machetes at the tall grass, saying mawnin. I ate an orange, ripened on the tree, warm from the sun and the juice dripped down my chin. In Kingston, we do not have such oranges. Even the cowboy pineapples, usually white and acid, fit only for the buffets of all inclusive hotels, even the cowboy pines from that rich red soil were sweet.

Best of all, there were no newspapers, no TV. I took three books with me, but I did not read them. In such a place, you get to keep your own company.

Somewhere close now, a sound system is tuning up. In Kingston, that's who the night belongs to...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The PM, the Tainos and the Environmentalists

According to yesterday’s press, Prime Minister, the Hon. Bruce Golding – why are PM’s automatically “the Hon?” Suppose they act in ways that are not Hon? Subject of another blog, I suppose. Anyway, as I was saying, speaking at the opening of two new hotels on Seawind Cay in Montego Bay, the PM apparently said words to the effect that “the environmentalists” wanted to take us back to the time of the Tainos. Now I’m sure Mr. Golding knows the story of the Tainos – Jamaica’s indigenous people murdered by Spanish Conquistadores in the 15th and 16th century. Considering we are now facing a different kind of Spanish invasion via massive and non Jamaican resort development, I would have though the less said about the Tainos, the better.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard the PM say something offensive about “the environmentalists.” The first occasion was at the opening of the office of the Jamaica Institute of Environmental Professionals back in roughly October – this is a blog, I’m not checking dates. He said then that there were folks in Jamaica who regarded “the environmentalists” as akin to terrorists. My husband, sitting beside me, wanted to know sotto voce, where were our bombs, our WMDs, our tanks. (Are you allowed to say ‘bomb’ in a blog these days? Stay tuned…)

So I thought about the weapons we environmentalists had used over the years. Words – oh gazillions of words – words spoken, shouted, argued, pleaded, written, bleated, whispered, yup, we’ll admit to using words. And we’ve attended hundreds of badly organized and hostile public meetings, sat on scores of useless committees, contributed to dozens of policy documents fated to retire to a shelf after the high profile launch, to await the future updating, when the unused policy is inevitably deemed to be obsolete. I’ve even attended a street demonstration or two in my time, where generally the police security detail outnumbered the protesters, and there WAS that heady moment when we blocked a busy new Kingston street by walking in a line across a pedestrian crossing while singing “By the Rivers of Babylon” to protest the shipment of nuclear material through the Caribbean sea. We’ve made films, visual records of gorgeous places being lost to short-sightedness, stupidity and greed and interviews with the Jamaicans who live there, about their lives, their livelihoods, their hopes, their disappointments. Not a single bomb building session comes to mind.

You have to see with the PM, someone said later that night. I was out, dressed in my uniform head-to-toe black to avoid the what-to-wear-dilemma, I was at a bank function, and then a birthday party. The PM had to sing to that audience. No, I said. He didn’t. He could have displayed some leadership. He could have told investors that they were welcome, but the laws of Jamaica would be enforced and they had to respect both the Jamaican people and our landscape. You’re not practical, Diana, the person said, patting me on the shoulder. At least it wasn’t on the head.

How will “the environmentalists” respond? asked a radio talk show host. I conducted the interview while getting dressed for the bank function, passing my cell phone through my sleeves to my amused husband, who thought I was talking to a colleague and not to the radio listening public. How TO respond? How to respond to a PM who apparently thinks requiring coastal development to have a few garbage receptacles on site, to take waste to approved dumpsites (as opposed to dumping it in nearby wetlands, those few that have so far survived the development blitz), to retain one or two big trees, to conserve endemic plants, to keep the dust down, to put screens in the sea to keep silt off the coral reefs - is tantamount to a return to the primitive? For even these few and basic requirements are routinely ignored by our investors…and ignored by our own government. Indeed, in his speech, the PM referred to breaches as “mere misunderstandings…”

When I got to the bank function, I saw myself in the mirror for the first time. My hair was only combed on one side and my shirt was on back to front. Pesky environmentalists. Can’t even dress themselves, much less build a bomb or organize a good back-to-the-cave movement…