Friday, July 31, 2009

Losing our Treasures III - Pellew Island

I dreamed all night about the island, the Little Island, we called it when I was a child. It had many names. My parents called it Monkey Island, although there is another Monkey Island in Portland. Its real name is Pellew Island, a corruption of Peleau, named for a shadowy French hermit, who reportedly lived there, on coconuts and seafood, until he was drowned in a storm surge.

Pellew Island was given a title in 1953 – part of the land titling of Goblin Hill and San San Bay. The original plan was that there would be gracious houses on the land, each with a title to a small coastal plot, where the owners could have boathouses or cabanas. Decades of official disregard for the intentions of these titles have allowed cabanas to become mansions more or less sitting in the sea.

The Portland coastline is one of the most gorgeous in Jamaica, edged as it is by the soaring Blue Mountains. And the San San coast is nothing short of stunning, curving from Alligator Head to Whale Head and Blue Lagoon, with the jewel of Pellew Island set just offshore.

The early advocates for tourism saw this beauty and immortalized it in a 1960s Jamaica Tourist Board poster, the caption of which said: “In a world of bad air, poisoned water and litter, there are still a few virginal places. Enjoy. Quickly.” Serious t’ing.

Generations of Jamaicans – not just Portlanders – have stopped at the side of the road and looked out at the island, generations of Jamaicans have swum or rowed or rafted to the island, over the shallow seagrass beds to lie on the tiny beach, or to climb to the top and look over the miracle of the reef, and listen to the surf, rolling over and over and over.

Pellew Island is a jewel, and like a jewel, it has been privately owned - mostly by women - since the 1950s. It was bought by Baron Heinrich Thyssen in 1953 for 60 pounds Sterling, as a valentine’s gift for his fiancĂ©e, Nina Dyer of New York. The marriage didn’t last, and they divorced two years later. Nina then married Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan. I remember the island when it was owned by the Princess Aga Khan – Princess Island, was another of its names – she built a bamboo raft to one side of the little beach and scandalized everyone by sunbathing nude there. Even when owned by a Princess, though, the island was undefiled by concrete and there were no gates or security guards to keep people off. The Princess committed suicide in 1965, and in 1983, Betty Estuvez, a close companion of the Princess, bought the island for US$7,000. In 1995, the island was sold again to its current owners.

Now Pellew Island is to be “developed.” The owners seek to construct two villas – one seven bedroom and one four bedroom – on this steep, fissured, forested, fragment of limestone in the Caribbean sea. There will be decks and plunge pools and a bathroom for every bedroom, and electricity and water will have to be taken to the island via underwater conduit, and somehow a barge like boat will take the construction materials across without any damage to seagrass beds or corals, although the draught of the boat exceeds the depth of the water close to the island. The island is said to be “lightly vegetated” and virtually no trees will be touched, no land clearing will be done in the rain, there is little diversity of flora and few birds, although those who are fortunate to gaze out on the island every evening report many flocks of birds. A plateau at the summit of the island will be used – but there is no plateau worthy of the term, just a small, flattish area in a grove of bamboo. Promises, promises, I thought as I sat in the public meeting, hearing all this.

But the island is privately owned, and as we understand it, the private ownership of land conveys the right to do anything at all to that land. The Government of Jamaica could, of course, acquire the island for the public, deem it part of a scenic coastline, and keep it in its natural state for all of us. The GOJ purchases land all the time when what is needed is a road or a bauxite mine. But for a natural asset – I doubt the GOJ has ever done it.

So here’s what I’m thinking. The Tainos "owned" Jamaica until the men in Columbus’s ships took it and killed off the Tainos. And then the British captured Jamaica. There’s been a fair amount of taking and capturing, and I figure I have as much right to do some capturing as anyone. So I’m gonna invade Pellew Island with my flag of Taino symbols and I’m gonna declare it mine – mine; and the world’s. Ours. Ours to see and love and visit and snorkel the waters around and lie on the beach and sit in that grove of bamboo and hear the wind in the trees and the surf on the reef and the solider crabs rustling in the dead leaves. Ours.

I know my invasion will be symbolic rather than real; but it will be my statement that some things belong not to a single person, no matter how monied, but to humankind. Pellew Island is one such thing, and so, while we’re on the subject of Portland, is Blue Lagoon. Anyone who wants to join my invasion can e-mail me at And I will accept all suggestions for other precious places, whether private or public, in dire need of similar invasions.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Green Blues

Any Monday morning, 4.00 a.m.

OK, I give up. I’m not snoozing and will not soon go back to sleep. I’m officially awake. Brain churning. That **** public meeting. That **** chairman of the public meeting. Those **** farmers/vendors/fishers – why do they believe the rubbish they have been told for generations, if not centuries, when the lies are evident?? Why don’t they believe ME? And what the **** is wrong with regulatory authority? Why don’t they ever SAY anything at a public meeting? Wonder what the cash flow at the office is like. Did we pay the motor vehicle insurance? Think that was donated. But not the health insurance. That must be due now. Wonder if anyone is pregnant and not telling me. Love my young, all female staff, but there are…issues.

5.30 a.m. Get out of bed, groggy, sweaty, due to energy conservation commitment to not use air conditioning. Couldn’t sleep? Husband asks. He is up early, due to long daily commute in giant vehicle, therefore eliminating all hope of family attaining carbon neutrality. Let us not even discuss my overseas travel schedule. Husband hands me a cup of Jamaican coffee. I sip the deforestation of the Blue Mountains. Being an environmentalist, I reflect, means being comfortable with cognitive dissonance.

6.00 a.m. Am seated at my venerable computer. I have three computer devices – (1) the wood burning computer at home. (2) A donor funded laptop at work. (3) A Blackberry that my tech savvy sister gave me. I can never remember where anything is. E-mail count this morning – 16. 12 are work related. I start to reply.

7.00 a.m. The landline rings. It’s a radio station. Can I do an interview on global warming and the hurricane season at 7.20 a.m.? I say OK, abandon the e-mails and Google the latest research on global warming. I’ve got an 8.00 a.m. meeting with a consultant who wants to find out the definitive answer to corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt while he gets paid and I don’t. That means I’ve got to get dressed while doing the radio interview. Don’t want to print out the Google research on global warming, because of the toll on trees somewhere. Try to memorize a figure or two in order to sound totally up to date.

7.20 a.m. Phone rings while I am in the shower. Radio interview is not about global warming but about an illegal development I’ve been making a fuss about. Other person being interviewed is the irate contractor whose bulldozers have been stopped by my anti development meddling. All like you, he bawls to the radio listening public, all like you waan sen us back to di day of bullfrog and peenie wallie. That’ll have to be the last word, I’m afraid, says the radio talk show host. I take a mop to the bathroom floor.

8.05 a.m. At work. Internet is down. This is a several times a day occurrence, for which Internet Service Provider blames person who installed the Local Area Network who blames Internet Service Provider or possibly the computers themselves. Tech savvy sister’s advice has been this: Every computer has a duppy (a ghost, for any non Jamaicans). Some days the duppy wins and some days you win. For this she went to college for four years??

Consultant calls to say he will be late. Weekend e-mail count on laptop – 19. Only two are SPAM from people telling me I have won the lottery.

8.30 a.m. Consultant arrives, straight from DC, apparently. He’s already sweltering. Office has no air conditioning. I invite him to take off his jacket and he does. I give him my stump speech about corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt and he writes furiously. I will never see his report and corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt will continue apace.

10.00 a.m. Staff member advises office environment intolerable due to rat infestation. Are the cats not working? I say. We have a flock? pride? fleet? herd? of cats at the office – well, they just appeared, along with a rooster – we didn’t organize them or anything. Staff member shrugs and mentions leptospirosis. Call pest control then, I say. Start Googling impacts of rat poison on soil and ground water, but Internet still down. Muse on likelihood of raising money to pay pest control bill. Conclude nil.

10.10 a.m. Continue with e-mails, all piling up in outbox. Note am being berated by other environmental people for insufficient consultation. Feel aggrieved.

10.20 a.m. Phone rings. It’s a woman unable to breathe due to neighbour’s constant burning. She waxes eloquent about deficiencies of environmental regulators and health ministry. Phone beeps – call waiting is destroying my sanity, I think. I ask the breathless woman to hold and pick up the beep. Is that the Hotel Four Seasons? A man says. No, I say. You don’t have any rooms? The man says. No, I say, this is the Jamaica Environment Trust. But see yah now, says the man, rhetorically.

Return apologetically to the woman with the pyromaniac neighbour. She wants to know what I can do for her. We can help you take legal action, I say. Who me? She says. No way! Turns out she thinks neighbour might unleash the horsemen of the Apocalypse on her. Not much I can do then, I say. Well, what good are you, she says, and hangs up the phone.

10.30 a.m. Am sweltering myself. Go to ask administrator about Internet. She is sitting at her desk, staring into the middle distance, holding on to speak to anyone at service provider. Looks like she’s been there awhile.

10.32 a.m. Programme Director advises multiple project proposals for education/advocacy/tree planting/cleaning beaches projects have all been turned down. We’ll figure something out, I say, seeing the worry about her job in her eyes. But what?

11.00 a.m. Mail arrives. Two requests for talks to service clubs, both mentioning that no payment can be made. One request for materials for inner city group, no payment possible. One request for free collaboration on summer camp at uptown high school. Very likely that children going to that school have higher pocket money than my salary. Feel more aggrieved. Two invitations to workshops on corruption/overfishing/squatting/debt. Must be the policy flavours of the month. Three responses from regulators on Access to Information requests, saying they have got our requests and will soon respond. One invoice from auditors approaching J$300,000.00. Bill from pest control now looks like champagne picnic.

11.15 a.m. Whoo hoo! Internet is up. Send out e-mails. Landline rings. Environmental person on the other end tells me about land clearing on large scale in wetland area on north coast. Do something, Diana, environmental person says. (With or without consultation, I wonder, but do not say so.) But be careful, environmental person continues. I hear man behind it is dangerous. Great.

11.30 a.m. Call regulators to report devastating land clearance. Get only voice mail. Send e-mail. Error message. Internet down again.

11.45 a.m. Staff attorney brings in affidavit on sewage treatment plant that has not worked in 25 years. Start reading it. Blackberry buzzes. Is reporter asking if I know anything about devastating land clearance on north coast. Yes, I say. Do I have a comment, reporter wants to know. Bad thing, wetland protects us from flooding, storms, habitat for fish, bla bla, I say. Hear guy behind it is a badman, the reporter tells me. Uh-huh, I say.

Straight line rings. Is that the cabinet office? A man says. Sounds like the same guy who wanted Hotel Four Seasons. No, I say, but if you get them I have some suggestions. What? He says, annoyed. Never mind, I say, my attempt at humour falling flat. It’s NOT the cabinet office? the man says again. Is this 555-5555? It is, I say, but trust me, it’s not the cabinet office. Well, says the man, that’s the number on their website! He slams down the receiver. I wonder if the cabinet office is likely to be able to solve more complex problems if it can’t get the right telephone number on its website.

12.15 p.m. Lunch at desk. Cheese crunchies. Wonder about environmental impact of cheese crunchies – seems like nothing can be eaten anymore without causing poverty and environmental annihilation somewhere. Look at watch. Gosh. It’s not even NEARLY time to go home!