By Peter Espeut
It seems that politicians from both parties have bought into the idea that poverty is a cause of environmental degradation. Minister Phillip Paulwell was quoted last week as saying, "The most damaging aspect to the environment comes through poverty … . When people are poor, then the environment suffers. What we are trying to do is to create wealth and jobs, and that, for me, is paramount."
In his exuberance, the minister is saying that environmental advocates must shut their mouths and stop complaining about the damage that mining does to the environment; he, Phillip Paulwell, is working hard to provide jobs to take people out of poverty, which is protecting the environment.
And Minister Paulwell's statement unmistakably contains the innuendo that environmental advocates (like myself) are keeping Jamaicans poor by advocating for environmental conservation.
I find this whole line of argument distasteful, beginning with blaming poor people for being the major cause of environmental damage. It is undeniable that the poor, in their desperation to survive, do damage the environment; but do the poor destroy the environment more than the rapacious wealthy?
And are either the wealthy or the poor more to blame for environmental destruction than the Government itself?
WEIGHING THE DAMAGE
One rich man with a bulldozer can wreak more environmental havoc than a hundred poor people with machetes and forks. One high-tech vessel with fish-finding sonar and dragnets or trawl nets can cause more overfishing than a hundred fishermen in small canoes with fish pots and hand lines. One wealthy entrepreneur exporting one containerload of charcoal per week is responsible for more deforestation than a hundred small coal burners with their mud-packed 'skills' (kilns).
It is true that the activities of Jamaican artisanal fishers have contributed to Jamaican waters being declared the most overfished in the Caribbean (and probably the world); but this is largely caused by an outdated Fishing Industry Act designed to increase fishing pressure and increase fish yield (which has succeeded admirably), rather than to manage Jamaica's fisheries to optimise the catch.
Rather than to control fishing efforts in order to catch fish at the same rate that they grow to maturity (therefore, maintaining the fish stocks at a high level), lack of government regulation has allowed fishing pressure to explode, such that fecund breeding females are being caught, and 'pickney gal' fish are being killed before they are old enough to reproduce. It is the equivalent of being a goat farmer and slaughtering all your nanny goats, yet expecting your herd to increase.
Even though it is poor fishermen who use small mesh and damaging gear, it is weak legislation and poor (or no) enforcement which have facilitated it, the responsibility for which lies squarely at the feet of successive governments of Jamaica. These governments then turn around and blame the poor for environmental degradation.
It is true that the activities of Jamaican charcoal burners do contribute to deforest-ation, soil erosion and siltation of the sea. And we cannot exclude from blame the hundreds of drum-pan operators who cook on the roadsides who drive the demand for charcoal, not to mention the thousands of households which daily cook on coalpots.
CAN'T RUN FROM PAST
The choices people make to use firewood, charcoal, kerosene or gas are usually rational ones based on many factors, including cost and availability.
Some years ago when Robert Pickersgill, then minister of energy, removed the subsidy on kerosene, I and others predicted that this would lead to widespread deforestation and environmental degradation. Pickersgill invited us to a meeting and announced a scheme to provide free gas stoves across Jamaica to encourage use of gas rather than charcoal. Now, that gentleman is minister of the environment and his previous actions have come back to haunt him.
Charcoal comes from wood, and wood comes from trees, and trees grow at a known rate. Cutting down trees faster than the wood can grow is unsustainable, and will result in deforestation. Some years ago, Jamaica was named as having the highest rate of deforestation in the world!
We are just as good at deforestation as we are at overfishing.
And this is largely because of weak laws on tree cutting and tree planting, and poor (or no) enforcement, which is the Government's responsibility. But it's easier to blame the poor for environmental degradation.
Messrs Paulwell and Pickersgill and their Cabinet colleagues (and Edward Seaga and his cohort in the past) must take responsibility for the actions of their governments in damaging the environment, and for sustaining poverty over these last 50 years.
What have we learnt? Not much. We are set on a course to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and an environmentalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.