Peter Espeut | Wishes and hopes on Earth Day
Tomorrow, April 22, is the 47th celebration of Earth Day, when more than 193 countries, including Jamaica, focus on dealing with the threats to the health and integrity of the natural environment.
It is also the 18th anniversary of the creation of the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) on Earth Day 1999. At 724.4 square miles, Portland Bight is Jamaica's largest environmental conservation area, containing three fish sanctuaries, four game sanctuaries, and a huge Ramsar site (a conservation area for wetlands and waterfowl, declared by the United Nations to be of global significance).
At the time the PBPA was created, a draft of a suite of environmental regulations was prepared to govern activities in the area; 18 years later, those regulations still have not been enacted, which means that the PBPA is 'protected' in name only, a real scandal if you ask me.
One of the challenges facing new PNP President Dr Peter Phillips is to reverse the image of his party as environmental enemy number one! Over the last two decades, the PNP treated the environment portfolio as its Cinderella, appointing environment ministers who knew little about their portfolio, and cared less. Although they talked the environmental talk, neither the Patterson nor the Simpson Miller administration walked the environmental walk.
Even though the Manley government signed the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol to the Cartagena Convention on January 18, 1990, until now - 27 years later - it has not been ratified. This is another ongoing environmental scandal! Ratification will free up UN and other funds for the protection of Jamaican wildlife and to manage Jamaican protected areas.
By giving serious consideration to port construction around the Goat Islands, electricity generation using coal, and mining in the Cockpit Country (among other ill-advised schemes), the PNP government itself became the biggest threat to Jamaica's natural environment.
This profound conflict of interest (where the entity charged with defending environmental integrity is the same one promoting development activity that could be damaging to nature) has been carried over to the new JLP government, which has subsumed the environment portfolio into the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation.
Nevertheless, on the face of it, this present Jamaican Government seems to be a little more friendly to environmental causes. The decision to save the Goat Islands, announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, is a good sign, as is the suggestion that the JLP government is not in favour of coal as a fuel to generate electricity. Talk of banning plastic bags and containers is new and different; and welcome!
To cement its environmental credentials, this present Government needs to ratify the SPAW Protocol, actually ban non-biodegradable plastic, require solid waste to be sorted at source, have a serious recycling programme, make a definitive statement banning coal, and needs to announce wide boundaries of the Cockpit Country within which no mining or prospecting will be permitted.
In Cabinet, the minister of the environment (who is the prime minister) needs to forbid the Ministry of Energy from using the term 'clean coal' and the Ministry of Mining from using the term 'sustainable mining', both of which are oxymorons. Every time public officials use these contradictory and really meaningless expressions, they sound silly and incompetent.
Are things getting better? Only marginally. Over the last 20 years, Jamaican environmentalists have little of substance to rejoice about. Our waters are still the most overfished in the Caribbean (and not because of poachers), our forest cover is still declining, our rivers and bays are no less polluted, and our wildlife numbers continue to decline. I have no evidence that enforcement of our environmental laws is improving; certainly, convictions for environmental crimes (illegal logging and sand mining, fishing without a licence, etc.) are insignificant.
Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that things will improve. This younger generation is more environmentally aware than their elders, and environmental non-governmental organisations have a new resolve. This Government - so far - seems to listen, but it is early days yet.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.