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Earth Today | Conservationists bid farewell to Mike Schwartz

Published:Wednesday | March 7, 2018 | 12:00 AMPetre Williams-Raynor/Contributing Editor
Mike Schwartz
A section of the Cockpit Country, the place Mike Schwartz called home.


BLUNTLY HONEST. Passionate. Pragmatic. These are words used to describe Mike Schwartz, an Englishman and engineer who made Jamaica his home for some three decades and worked unceasingly, from behind the scenes and in the public eye, to safeguard its natural resources.

His base of operations was none other than the ecologically sensitive Cockpit Country, which no doubt fired his passion for conservation.

"Anytime you caught Mike, he was going to give you the time of day. And if it was about Cockpit Country or conservation, he was definitely going to be a part of that conversation," recalled Hugh Dixon, head of the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency.

Schwartz ran the Windsor Research Centre (WRC) with his partner Dr Susan Koenig, and was at the forefront of the extended lobby to secure the ecosystem services of the Cockpit Country - from the provision of fresh water to a significant percentage of Jamaicans to being a habitat for a variety of species.


The Windsor Research Centre


The WRC, operated out of the historic Windsor Great House Schwartz called home, reflected his commitment to the Cockpit Country and to conservation in general. Incorporated as a non-profit in 2002, WRC's mission is "to promote research in natural sciences with particular reference to the conservation of the Cockpit Country, to act as a repository for this research, and to disseminate information to ensure the best possible protection and management of the Cockpit Country."

That mission was reflected in, among other things research work on bats, parrots and the economic valuation of the Cockpit Country.

"We have lost somebody who put forward a sterling fight for conservation. His life and his engagement, for me, is evidence that it is not just a 'hip' thing to talk about environmental conservation, but that protection works and that conservation is sustainable," Dixon said.

Schwartz's conservation commitment, he added, also manifested in his private life.

"He decided that he wasn't going to eat anything that was imported. He only ate Jamaican-produced food, and he planted his crops. If you went to his home, you would have to eat Jamaican; nothing on his table was imported," Dixon said.

"Also, his house, from the very beginning, was fully powered by solar [energy] long before it was fashionable," he added.


Cockpit Country passion


Former Jamaica Environ-ment Trust (JET) chief executive officer Diana McCaulay said that it was with a heavy heart that she learnt of Schwartz's passing.

"He did the most incredible work on Cockpit Country. Without him, I doubt we would have got the result we got - a declared boundary and a Government of Jamaica commitment that there would be no mining within that boundary," she said.

"Mike did an immense amount of work with maps and the really outstanding presentation on the Cockpit Country boundary that was given by him to many, many political leaders. But I think his most extraordinary contribution was the work he did with the communities of Cockpit Country," McCaulay noted.

"He drove miles along awful roads, spent hours upon hours speaking with people in bars and church halls and town squares and schoolyards, organised presentations and demonstrations, [and] brought people into Kingston so their views could be heard. It would take a long time to list everything he did. And it was no flash in the pan; he did it over many years, building and building on the growing awareness among the people of Cockpit Country," the environmentalist said further.

Current JET boss Suzanne Stanley, too, had high praise for Schwartz.

"Mike's contribution to Cockpit Country and to conservation in Jamaica was nothing short of amazing. He really was a great person and a stalwart supporter of JET. Everyone at JET will all miss him much," she said.

Ingrid Parchment, head of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, noted her own respect for his work and the passion he brought to it while refusing to suffer fools.

"He wanted to know that people had a voice in development decisions, and I think he tried his best to fight for that. He also did not waste time. If he came to a meeting and people there formed the fool, he would leave," she said.

"His passing is such a loss. He was somebody that we worked with for years. We didn't always agree, but we have always been able to work together, which is the important thing," said conservator of forests and head of the Forestry Department, Marilyn Headley.

She added that Schwartz had supported the work of the department by not only turning up to meetings they organised, but also through hosting team members on assignment in the Cockpit Country.