Compelling Voices for Climate Change

While the politicians and others are enjoying the launch of Reggae Month today, we know – we know – that music is in Jamaica’s DNA. It goes without saying really. The recent designation of Reggae Music on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO (belatedly) underscores this. However, I would question the comment on the UNESCO page linked above that “Students are taught how to play the music in schools from early childhood to the tertiary level.” Musical education in our schools is quite inadequate, in my view. And it’s Rebel Salute, not Reggae Salute. Cheers!

Be that as it may, reggae has been a vehicle for positive messages over the years, as well as a kind of protest music at times (particularly during the Bob Marley era). Social justice is not just human rights of course – although environmental and climate change issues definitely impinge on our rights, now more than before. “Climate justice” and “environmental justice” are real. The pounding bass and wistful vocals of standard “roots reggae” does, therefore, seem appropriate for getting the message across on climate change. We need people to sit up and take notice, and we know music is a powerful medium. Alongside the music, materials and media messages are also critical.

Voices for Climate Change have been singing for a whole decade now, under the leadership of Panos Caribbean, a regional non-profit organization headquartered in Haiti that is all about communication for development. The project was recognized by the United Nations as a Communications Best Practice for Latin America and the Caribbean in 2011. A mix of established and new singers has travelled all over the island, engaging decision-makers as well as schoolchildren, educators, community members and youth in general in a range of activities. Including, of course, concerts.

This year there’s a new campaign – the Voices for Climate Change Education Initiative, which was launched on January 30 in Kingston.  Four rural communities are involved: Annotto Bay, St. Mary; Rocky Point and Lionel Town in Clarendon; and Ridge Red Bank in St. Elizabeth. The Jamaican Government’s Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR) is funding the project under the Planning Institute of Jamaica’s Improving Climate Data and Information Management Project (ICDIMP), along with the World Bank and Climate Investment Funds. This is a part of the ongoing climate change awareness campaign with the slogan: “Smart and Steady – Get Climate Ready.” 

The eight-month campaign will include a number of activities. Some of them are with schoolchildren, including video and short story competitions and a reading initiative (love it). Six school and community concerts will take place between February and August, combined with “community linkups.” At the same time, new artists from the communities will join in and learn to craft messages and perform with guidance from workshops. Social media messages will be out there, besides podcasts, videos and the like – as well as a planned radio soap opera. The community representatives themselves, such as Ruel in Annotto Bay and Dilip in Lionel Town know what they want to say – it’s how to say it that is key.

The atmosphere at the launch was warm, friendly and supportive. Dub poet and social activist Miguel “Steppa” Williams – one of the best communicators I know – guided the proceedings with humour and precision, and gave us an impromptu climate change rap at the end. The singers were marvellous, together and separately. Pam Hall, whose versatile and husky voice sounds just as good singing jazz, by the way, sang with her daughter Deondra, a petite young woman with a spirited personality. Aaron Silk, who generally takes a leadership role among the singers, crooned in his wavering tenor, his broad face often breaking into a smile. Minori Russell is tall and cool. See my photo gallery below from the launch event.

The goal of the programme, so far as I can see, is sustainability. It’s an overworked word, I know. The idea is, I believe, that the ways and means of adapting to the local impacts of climate change – sea level rise, for example, affecting small beachside restaurants, or crops wilting in the fields – become ingrained in people’s actions and behaviour. Community members will know how to respond. Adaptation will become second nature. Strategies will evolve, will continue and be shared. The participants are looking for a “ripple effect.” It must be flexible and it must be inclusive, also – so the needs of people with disabilities, elders and so on must be considered.

Now, this isn’t all being imposed from the outside. These communities have already been working on their own solutions, with support from organizations such as the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ) and the Japan Climate Change Project. Annotto Bay, a coastal town below sea level, is working on protecting itself from flooding and also protecting the watershed behind the town with reforestation and agroforestry. Ridge Red Bank is seeking sustainable systems that work, and training farmers. In Rocky Point, community disaster plans are being developed and drains have been built to channel flooding seawater. And in Lionel Town, educator Dilip Ragoo (one of my favourite teachers ever!) has been galvanizing students and the surrounding community with his greenhouse and other projects. At the same time,  the social challenges cannot be ignored, either: unemployment, marginalized youth, crime and violence are real factors to contend with.

At the launch, I asked whether the local mainstream media was really picking up on and addressing climate change issues. It was conceded that reporting on these issues has actually declined in the past year or so. Voices for Climate Change are creative, expressive and truly understand what climate change is all about. They are, in a very real sense, educators in their own right. I wish I could say the same for our local journalists, who are either unwilling or unable to do the research and make the connections (with one or two major exceptions).

Creativity and imagination are required – not merely reporting that “farmers have lost all their crops” or “rivers overflowed their banks.” Come on! What is really happening here, and why – and how? And why are what they like to call “natural disasters” happening more and more frequently? There have been several workshops for journalists (including the excellent one I attended organized by the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management and the Meteorological Service of Jamaica, last year) and attendance by working journalists has been underwhelming. Either they think they already know it all – or they feel that they can just call on “the experts” to explain everything, should something happen out of the blue; like the tornado like the one that hit Havana, Cuba the other day show up in Kingston.

The voices are compelling. They can sway people. Now we need the media to take up the banner.  They can do better.

As one community member noted at a planning workshop organized by Panos last year, “Climate change is here now. We are feeling it. We have to live with it.” 




6 thoughts on “Compelling Voices for Climate Change

  1. The climate is certainly crazy; in north mississippi, family sent photos of one child playing in a sandbox – the toddler was shirtless and barefoot… others were playing outside while wearing short sleeves.. highs in the 70’s (F) they said. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that the midwest is recovering from such horrid below-zero temps…

    Here we are down here with lots of rain – they’re still wondering if this is another el nino year or not, following two/three years behind the last one… the rains continue — the earth is soggy – almost sickly soggy….

    So glad to see so many positive people working together in your country. I’m going to check youtube for voices for climate change…. would make for great rainy-day music!


    1. I should have posted some links of the voices! Actually I have some video on my phone and should probably tweet it or something! Yes, we are really feeling the effects of climate change now. We’ve had a lot of rain but it has abruptly stopped and is very dry now in Kingston. The traditional rainy seasons don’t seem to apply anymore.


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