“The Beach” (a generic term) occupies a special place in the heart of every Jamaican. What does The Beach mean to us? For some it means socialising – with a group of friends or family. For others, it is “fish and festival” or the equivalent, and some drinks. For the children, it is play, play, play in the sand and sea. For nature lovers, a chance to “reconnect.” For weary city dwellers, most of all, the beach is where you can simply relax, dig your toes into the sand, feel the sun and breeze on your skin, take a dip in the sea. After a day on the beach, you always have a good night’s sleep.
Whatever it means to you, you might forget that the beach itself is a fragile ecosystem. Invaded by pleasure-seeking humans on weekends and public holidays, it suffers quite a bit of wear and tear. We take it for granted; it’s always there for our use, and we give very little back. Not only that – it has other challenges, almost all related to human activity of some sort.
The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has once again proved its ability to enhance environmental learning in a fun and competitive way. Big Up Wi Beach is its third annual Clean Coasts Project Secondary School Research Day and Competition, supported by the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF). The project received very welcome funding from the increasingly eco-friendly Wisynco Group. The National Environmental and Planning Agency (NEPA) and Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) also provided support through JET’s Schools’ Environment Programme.
The eight competing high schools had superb and detailed displays on their research projects. Along with their teachers the students were more than ready to describe their research over a two month period, during which they examined beach management, the importance of beaches, beach policy and beach conservation. Some schools also did performances for the judges; I missed St. George’s College’s lively contribution!
I talked to Dunoon Technical High School, a city school that might not bother with beaches – but they did. Their area of focus was a place called Bob Marley Beach at Nine Miles in Bull Bay, St. Andrew. It’s not a pretty white sand beach, but is a popular hangout spot, where parties take place. I used to know it by a different name, I think; but the fishermen apparently named it after Bob because it was one of his favourite places. The students – members of the Tourism Action Club at Dunoon – soon identified the problem at this beach, however: a gully that empties into one end of the beach, bringing garbage and silt.
Spalding High School in Clarendon is also pretty far from the sea. They researched Farquhar Beach, not far from Milk River, and found the same problem: Garbage, plastic bottles. It’s no wonder that this project is an extension of JET’s Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica campaign, under the Clean Coasts Project. The beach is not white sand, and is used by fishermen; the students were perturbed to see dead fish in the water. The garbage, they noted, washes down from the roadside above, along with soil (deforestation and erosion in the hills). They noted “pollution in the sea.”
In her comments, JET CEO Diana McCaulay waxed nostalgic. She remembered playing in the sand dunes at Hellshire Beach – yes, sand dunes! – at age fourteen. She noted the importance of dunes as a “sand bank” that stores up the sand, then releases it at intervals. Of course,the young people could not imagine this – nor the wide, white sand beach I used to enjoy in the 1980s. Now, the beach is essentially gone, and restaurants selling fish and festival are standing in the sea.
“If you don’t like something, don’t just complain, change it! C-dot-T-dot-W – Change the World!” said radio personality Paula-Anne Porter Jones (who is also by the way an avid birder, along with her children). Ms. Porter Jones was the guest speaker at the event, and she sought to motivate the students by citing some great examples of “starting small” and building. She also told us that, compared to her excursions as a new Scuba diver in Barbados and Belize, her dives in Jamaica’s waters were virtually devoid of fish – just a few little ones “scuttling around.” This was a huge disappointment to her. Sometimes you just have to see these things for yourself.
It was interesting that the two people representing the funders – the new Chairman of the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) Dr. Carey Wallace and Managing Director of Wisynco William Mahfood – both dwelt in their remarks on the need for a “change of mindset” as Dr. Wallace put it.
Mr. Mahfood also described the deplorable state of our beaches and our attitude to the environment as “an issue of culture.” He referred to the National Anthem, which we had all sung heartily at the beginning – a rather good a cappella version – and its reference to “true respect for all.” We must respect each other – and the environment. The references to “vision” and “knowledge” in the National Anthem are also significant. You now have the knowledge, Mr. Mahfood told the students: “Share it.” Participating in a program like this is a nice, feel-good activity, especially if you win something at the end of it; but keeping the knowledge you have gained to yourself is pointless. Go out and be “ambassadors,” Dr. Wallace urged.
So, who won? Morant Bay High School in St Thomas emerged first place winners for their project on the Rudolph Elder Park Beach. They studied the origin of garbage found on the beach, as well as local attitudes towards solid waste. The remaining prizes went to Clarendon schools. Kimberlin Gauze from Spalding High won the award for Best Spokesperson (I noticed her energetic and articulate style while speaking to the students), and Spalding High also won second prize for their project, examining the impacts of deforestation, soil erosion and pollution on the coastline.
Bustamante High School from Lionel Town placed third for their research on the Rocky Point Beach (they had a “before” and “after” model – the after being their ideal for the beach). Congratulations to Bustamante’s teacher Dilip Ragoo, who organises their Science and Environment Club. Congratulations to all the teachers, in fact!
“We were very happy with the creativity and enthusiasm of the students,” said Suzanne Stanley, JET’s Deputy CEO and research judge, “We hope the research conducted will motivate students and their communities to take better care of our beaches.” Pausing and beaming as she announced the winners, she looked like a celebrity about to announce an Oscar, but wanting to
“We are always talking about Jamaica Land We Love,” said Diana McCaulay, returning to our National Anthem. “But we don’t treat it as if we love it, do we?”
She added, for emphasis: “Young people, this is your fight!”