The world of Twitter is one in which we jump to conclusions, misinterpret each other’s comments (deliberately or otherwise) and indulge in regular fits of outrage. We make mistakes and we irritate each other from time to time. Sometimes we are kind and caring. However, we tend to be judgmental.
Well, today I was a judge for JET’s Schools’ Environment Programme’s (SEP) Research Competition 2019. It was much tougher than a quick, flippant tweet. In fact, my team of three judges was begging for glasses of water and chairs to sit on by the end, and my head was crammed with thoughts, questions, mental notes, and score numbers. Before I go further, I should point out that the SEP is very much more than an annual competition and awards ceremony. It is a year-long program, in which school environment clubs and educators become immersed. There are four main areas: managing solid waste, greening the school grounds, building an environment club, and environmental research.
Nevertheless, it was illuminating in many ways. As Suzanne Stanley, CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) noted, we all learned a great deal – as, of course, the students from sixteen schools did during their research projects. Supported by their teachers, who stood right back as the students made their presentations, they did themselves (and their schools) proud.
Ms. Stanley declared that the competition was the most impressive she had ever been involved in, in the 21 years of the SEP’s existence. And she really meant it. Indeed, the depth of the research was remarkable. What was more, when probed a little more closely on issues indirectly related to the main topic, the students did not miss a beat, displaying solid background knowledge of environmental issues. Impressive, indeed.
Many of the research projects were focused on the school or its immediate environs. To me, these were the most impactful and although very local in nature, many of the issues could be replicated right across the island. Solid waste, in particular, plastic, was the most popular topic, especially in the context of the plastic bag ban established on January 1 in Jamaica. May Pen Primary School students talked to the Mayor and the former Mayor of the town. One major issue there is old and poorly designed drains, which are easily blocked by garbage. There have been floods in recent times in the town. They also talked about a place just outside town, called Bog Hole, which floods regularly. Well, the name tells you something, I think!
Mar-Jam Preparatory School in Ocho Rios took it all to the next level with a high-powered marketing campaign: No Plastic Wi Seh! Kicking off with a dramatic skit, in which Eco-Hero vanquished a bunch of plastic bags, we then learned about the school’s admirable activism. With the diminutive but highly persuasive Amirah Dixon as their spokesperson (she also gave a faultless introduction to guest speaker, Minister Daryl Vaz) they blew us away with their presentation. We also learned that they did a march through Ocho Rios to highlight the solid waste problem, with placards and all (and joined by some grownups, of course) but were told by some residents to “stop yuh noise.”
This is why it is so hard for children to express themselves. Many Jamaicans still believe in the old Victorian-era adage, “Children should be seen and not heard.” By the way, you can see young Ms. Dixon in JET’s “Save Cockpit Country” PSAs.
Two presentations greatly concerned me, both from western Jamaica. Sandy Bay Primary School in Hanover tackled the problem of air pollution and air quality around their school. Young men smoking cigarettes (or weed) at the back of the school was a problem. So was a nearby chicken facility. The habitual burning of garbage seems to be a persistent problem (almost a tradition), especially in rural areas. Several children at the school suffer from asthma and breathing problems.
Another presentation from Barracks Road Primary School in Montego Bay was positively alarming. They have serious, and unaddressed, pollution issues right on their doorstep, in the form of a community dump. There are rats and other pests, of course, and the problem is compounded by the presence of some “big fat pigs” that wallow in the garbage; and an open-air car mechanic’s workshop, with oil and other pollutants spilling onto the road. Their model, rather depressingly, showed a graveyard next to a hospital (not near the school, but just to make a point). Can the Mayor and Town Clerk, as well as public health officials, please get their skates on and deal with this? These are our children, and they are suffering daily.
The Glen Preparatory School’s project really resonated with me. During their research into deforestation and its impact on climate change, they visited Rev. Dr. Frank E. Lawrence in St. Ann, a gentleman of great wisdom and experience. I wrote about a talk I had with him here, a few years back. We discussed the particular problems of Sturge Town, Dr. Lawrence’s birthplace and Jamaica’s second free village. Bauxite mining in St. Ann was also cited as a major factor in deforestation – as well as the clearing of forested land for more and more housing developments.
St. Jago Cathedral Preparatory School in the middle of Spanish Town is a small but ever-vibrant school. With a touch of the surreal, one of the students was dressed in a white bridal dress complete with veil. Embedded in the long train were various pieces of garbage – juice boxes, plastic spoons and the like. This is a future bride, trailing filth and destruction behind her.
The intrepid students of Carrol Western Preparatory School ventured out into downtown Montego Bay (not a place for the faint-hearted) and interviewed shopkeepers on the pros and cons of the plastic ban. The response from many business people and customers was surprisingly negative and quite disheartening.
The students of Sanguinetti Primary School, whom I met on World Wetlands Day, sang a beautiful song about butterflies and had recommendations for plants that will attract them. Butterflies in their community are on the decline, as elsewhere.
And then I fell in love with Pisgah Primary School and their bees (yes, they brought a tray of bees with them). They know everything there is to know about pollination, the sometimes unpleasant behavior of the drones, and how climate change has affected the bees and thus agriculture and the food we eat. As did many of the other schools, they gave us a song (with the spokesperson dressed in a delightfully bulbous yellow and black bee outfit). The other children wore yellow home-made jackets inscribed “Bee Informed.”
There were so many happy, positive things to tuck under one’s belt and take away from the event. Minister Daryl Vaz’ impromptu pledge that, instead of the planned withdrawal of funds, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority/NEPA would continue its support for the SEP program earned him a kiss from JET Chairperson Diana McCaulay. The students frequently made us laugh and enlivened us with their dub poetry and dramatic skits. I won’t forget the masked Eco-Hero or the trash-bride in a hurry. The teachers that guided them every step of the way smiled and were generally fantastic.
This leads me, once again, to conclude that young people – including Jamaican children, who are so often told to shut up and sit down – make wonderful advocates. They get down to the basics, quickly and simply. Take it or leave it, they tell it like it is.
Hear their voices. Respect their knowledge. Encourage their inquiry.
And thank you, JET, for this extraordinary program. May it last for many more decades!
P.S. I heartily agree with Minister Vaz’s injunction to the private sector to offer more support to environmental programs such as the SEP. Kudos to those sponsors who supported it – in particular, Total, who have supported the SEP for eleven years now. Their representative, Mr. Holdsworth, was delighted and fascinated by the schools’ projects. The other sponsors were: CIBC/First Caribbean Bank, Jamaica Energy Partners, Jamaica Producers, the American Friends of Jamaica, National Bakery Company Foundation, and the Spanish-Jamaican Foundation. Thanks a million to them all!