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Reflecting on Earth Day

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I searched the Caribbean media for information on Earth Day celebrations and realised that very little seemed to have taken place, at least within the CARICOM region, so it is kudos for St.Vincent and the Grenadines which celebrated it for the first time under the theme ‘Think Globally Act Locally’.{{more}}

It is not clear to me what was the focus of our celebrations and the nature and extent of the activities that had taken place, but at least I am aware of the fact that some attention was paid to the youths whom I saw marching from the Peace Memorial Hall to the Victoria Park. The problem with these types of celebrations is that after the day has passed we all get back into our normal ways of doing things until next year when hopefully we will again celebrate ‘Earth Day’.

Earth Day, among other things, aims to draw attention to increasing environmental problems. Of course, in this era of globalisation, what happens any and everywhere could affect us and should, therefore, command our attention. This year, in the United States of America, we have been alerted to the number of floods, forest fires and tornados, among other disasters. The issue of global warming is now widely talked about everywhere, even by the American President George Bush, who appeared at first not to have considered this a major problem needing urgent attention. Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States of America, won the Nobel Prize for his efforts in alerting the world to this issue. We must also not forget that three scientists associated with the University of the West Indies had with others shared this prize.

What is needed by us first of all is to begin to focus on the environment and on how we relate to it and the consequences of some of our actions. At home we seem to lack any serious awareness of environmental issues. I had a long time ago been critical of the proposed Cross Country Road on environmental grounds. The Consultants who had been asked to do an Environmental Cataloguing Study as a prelude to the project had recommended an Environmental Impact Assessment Study, since they were concerned not only about the impact on the watershed areas but also about other environmental problems. As far as I am aware, this has not been done. Then later we had the famous Tobago Cays issue when a group of concerned citizens under the name ‘Friends of the Tobago Cays’ raised objections to the manner in which the management of the Tobago Cays was going to be handled. On both issues, many people, based purely on political grounds, resented any efforts to be critical of both projects. Even the National Trust, which one would think would be raising environmental concerns, seems to be on a different wave length.

It is with these concerns that I welcomed the efforts made this year to focus on Earth Day and, by extension, the environment. The topography of this country should always remind us that we have to be extremely sensitive to the environment and how we deal with it. Since the eighteenth Century, the passage of legislation declaring King’s Hill a Forest Reserve has demonstrated a profound concern with the environment. For a large part of our history, habitation and agricultural production were centred on the coastal areas, while the interior of the country, through which a mountain range passed, was left as Crown Lands in the hands of government which, for a variety of reasons, not all just, passed laws against squatting. We have since then moved further into the interior, and the Cross Country Road will be the ultimate in intervention. The world is now more aware than ever before of the implications of the kind of development that we have for long been undertaking. Actually, this was the pattern set by the developed world, and we in the so-called developing countries have for very long blindly followed them, even though we lacked the resources that they had. To us, development had meant being carbon copies of those countries, creating concrete jungles, importing their foods and becoming societies focused heavily on consumption. Really we consumed what we did not produce and produced what we did not consume. Now with rising food prices we are beginning to panic. All Caribbean countries are crying out about the astronomical cost of food, and in Haiti there have been riots and the Prime Minister has had to be dismissed. CARICOM has been meeting on the issue of food prices and there is now a call led by Guyana to put more emphasis on food production and on eating more of what we produce rather than being net importers of food. There is in all of this the issue of nutrition, for we had for long been discarding our more nutritious foods and focusing on imported tin stuff.

Rapidly increasing oil prices, the use of some staples for bio-fuels and the high cost of electricity and food are sending us back to the drawing boards. But we still cannot get our act together. The Jamaican Government has applied to CARICOM to suspend the Common External Tariff to allow it to import rice from outside the region, albeit for six months, despite assurances from Guyana about its ability to meet the demand. The ECGC Company here is facing strong opposition from Antigua in its bid to increase the price of its flour. This exposes a problem in this call to increase local production and use more local produce, for produce like flour depends on the importation of wheat, whose prices are going through the door. Even with indigenous produce, the extent to which they depend on imported raw materials and on things like pesticides will limit the ability to reduce prices. The problems besetting the Banana Industry have led to a turning toward Fair Trade Bananas, and there is a growing concern and interest in organic foods. Are these just fads or are we beginning to look for a new path?

A special day, ‘Earth Day’, has been set aside to heighten awareness of the environment and environmental problems, but this must remain on our agenda. There are certain things over which we have no control, but we have to join networks and lend our voices for what happens elsewhere would impact on us. We have to extend our horizons and develop an interest in what is happening elsewhere. We have to continue our dialogue with our people in the Diaspora and make them aware of issues that impact on us for they might be in positions to do things we cannot do. Those in the United States of America have to become more politically active. They can start by joining the movement to ensure that we do not have another five years of Bush coming via the policies of John McCain. But even while we become aware of the linkages and of the global village, we also have to be reminded that there are things at home that we can and need to do. We have to move beyond seeing our country as political camps. We have to understand the issues and act on them as far as we can. Let us start by developing a consciousness of our environment and what damages and can damage it. As we think of development, we have to pay attention to what is sustainable. As we strive to develop this country, the path that we take must be one that is sustainable. Failure to do so will be to leave mounting problems for our children and grandchildren.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a historian and social commentator.

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