DESPITE the summer weather, the Independence celebrations felt like Christmas to me — a commercial event: advertisements on every page of the newspapers, upbeat videos on TV (my personal favourite is the man on a mission asleep on the bow of a boat!), corporate sponsorship of everything, branding, bunting (instead of pepper lights), billboards, bushing, slogans, sprucing up (often with fire), an explosion of sellers at traffic lights (flags instead of fireworks), painting of curbs and walls, numerous parties. Like Christmas, it all felt divorced from meaning, from any real reflection.
We Jamaicans love a party, and there is the phenomenal success of our Olympic athletes to celebrate. I am as inclined to tearfulness as the next person, watching the Jamaican flag being raised and hearing our National Anthem in medal ceremonies. And my heart was definitely full when Usain Bolt looked at the camera and said, “Happy birthday, Jamaica”, on winning the 100-metre sprint.
But after the party, what? I’ve looked for and read those thoughtful articles on the 50 years of our Independence. To assess whether our achievements merit the hype of the past few days, I ask myself this: If we had been told in 1962 that in 2012 we would face a stagnant economy, crushing debt, one of the highest crime rates in the world, a divided and bankrupt politics and, according to Dr Damien King, head of the Department of Economics at UWI, more than half our people considered poor, I am not sure we would have regarded such a future with joyous anticipation.
Apart from an article by the Jamaica Observer’s Petre Williams-Raynor, there has been little review of how we have treated the island itself in our 50 years of nationhood. It’s as if Jamaicans-the-people exist independently of Jamaicathe-place. Many Jamaicans do live elsewhere, of course, holding in their minds and hearts a memory of Jamaica, an idea of what it used to be — and is no longer.
To be sure, much of the island’s destruction took place long before Independence — forests were cleared, flat lands were converted to monocultures of sugar cane and bananas, and overfishing devastated marine ecosystems from as far back as Columbus’ time. There is the excuse that then, we did not know better. We can no longer claim that to be the case.
In 2012, we have nine declared national parks/protected areas under the NRCA Act, all are underfunded, all have been damaged and continue to be damaged by inappropriate development. Important areas, such as the Cockpit Country, remain unprotected. Less than 10 per cent of Jamaica’s original forest remains.
The degradation of Jamaica’s coral reefs, especially along the north coast, is a case study in the scientific literature and as a result of this and other poor environmental practices (such as removal of mangroves and sea grass beds), our beaches are eroding. We are also losing access to our beaches, more and more of which are disappearing behind barriers and gates requiring an entrance fee.
Jamaica’s waters have been described as the most overfished in the Englishspeaking Caribbean since the 1940s. Although the new fish sanctuaries are a hopeful sign, the fisheries law has not been changed, so the fine for breaches in a fish sanctuary remains $1,000.
We have no sanitary landfill in the country and our garbage dumps burn frequently, causing severe impacts to public health and the environment. Gullies are used as dumps and empty into coastal waters whenever it rains. Most “incinerators” are merely burn boxes and do not meet legal standards.
Many towns are not sewered at all, and according to NEPA’s 2010 State of the Environment Report, only 26 per cent of the National Water Commission’s plants met standards, and overall, only 40 per cent of all sewage plants were compliant.
We have no hazardous waste facility in Jamaica, one modern medical waste facility, and no facility to deal with radioactive or electronic waste. Our natural areas continue to be diminished by overdevelopment, overcrowding, ‘venue-isation’, and plain neglect.
Our native animals, including the crocodile on our Coat of Arms, are killed on sight, poached or threatened by conversion of their habitat. The rivers of The Land of Wood and Water are being trained, mined for sand, diverted for human uses and poisoned, the latter in order to catch fish and shrimp.
Whatever progress we may have made in other areas, our 50 years of nationhood have resulted in the significant depletion of our natural capital, while generating almost no economic growth.
On the 50th anniversary of our Independence from Britain, August 6, 2012, raw sewage ran in the gutters of Majesty Gardens. Might that say much about our nation’s progress, both literally and figuratively?
Diana McCaulay is the chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust