Earth Today | Conservation: A fight against the powerful

A LONG-TIME advocate for the environment has mooted that the battle for environmental preservation is one to be fought against the powerful, challenging some old stereotypes about poor people and their relationship with nature.

“When I talk about environmental protection, I am never talking to those on the margins of survival – I am talking to those in positions of power, influence and leadership, those granting permits to deplete and degrade nature, the countryside, the land, air and water, when everyone – everyone – regulator, technocrat, environmental consultant, activist, advocate, investor, private-sector manager, every uninterested bystander knows the promise of monitoring and remediation will not be kept,” were the fighting words of Diana McCaulay.

She was delivering her address to the Norman Manley Foundation on receiving her Award for Excellence for Protection and Preservation of the Environment in October. McCaulay, who has committed more than 30 years to environmental activism, is founder and former chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), a non-governmental organisation.

“The many environmental ministers and other senior government officials often told me this: poverty is the main threat to the environment. It is a mantra, an article of faith that is trotted out without understanding or nuance,” she said, in reflecting on her work over the last three-plus decades.

“The belief is that only economic development can alleviate poverty, and unless that is done in pretty much the same way it has always been done, which is to say considering natural resources as a zero value, poor people will continue to cut down trees, burn coal and overfish the reefs,” she added.

“But I will say to you here that affluence has as large, or larger, impact than poverty – to paraphrase a line from Stephanie Black’s film Life and Debt, ‘A man with a machete cannot compete with a man with a machine’, and men with machines are blazing across our country, laying it waste,” McCaulay said further.

Jamaica’s National Development Plan, she noted, paints an accurate picture of the challenges, including that some 94 per cent of the island’s forests are disturbed; 30 per cent of mangrove forests have been lost to development such as hotels, houses and roads; all watersheds degraded in some way; the persistent presence poor air quality and inadequate sanitation; and the island is under strain from plastic pollution.

“And now we face the ravages of the climate crisis … yet, what are we about to do? Continue extraction by a sunset industry, bauxite … . We draw a line on a map and say this is not the Cockpit Country, so it’s okay to mine it. But the people who live there say it is, and the river which is connected to the vast aquifer that supplies us with 40 per cent of our fresh water says it is,” she argued.

Ultimately, the former JET boss said, it is necessary to honour and protect the natural resources.

“If these places, the plants, animals that live there, the shape of the land, the breezes, the smells, the sounds, the way they make us feel. If these are not worthy of our stewardship, our love, our protection, if these are not what makes us truly Jamaican – what does?”