Jamaica going up in smoke

One day last month, there was a pestilence of smoke in my neighbourhood. It wasn’t an act of God. Just one of my selfish neighbours burning rubbish in his yard. And it certainly wasn’t enlightened self-interest. This is an intelligent man who must know that smoke can’t be good for his health.

Soon after I started to smell the nasty fumes, I got a call from his next-door neighbour asking if I’d gone for my walk. I told her I was just about to when I smelled the smoke. She asked me to come and see. That made no sense. When I looked out, I couldn’t believe the density of the smoke. And I was several houses away from the source!

I immediately locked up all my windows, hoping to keep out the ash that was sure to come. I eventually went on my walk after the smoke had cleared. Of course, the ill effects were lingering. There was still the acrid smell and God only knows what was in the air.

dont-let-lung-health-go-up-in-smoke-thumb.jpgBurning rubbish doesn’t make it go away. It just turns into deadly particles of disease that attack your lungs. Why is that so hard to understand? Why do we persist in believing that smoke is harmless? Respiratory problems are a very high price to pay for not getting rid of rubbish.

BURNING OUT OBEAH

I was quite prepared to tackle my neighbour. But he wasn’t at home. Perhaps, he’d left before the fire was lit and I was falsely accusing him of negligence. If yu can’t ketch Kwaku, yu ketch im shut. In this case, it was the gardener. So I asked him why he had lit such a huge fire. He was burning out termites.

According to him, no other treatment was as effective as fire. Not true! Bleach and boric acid are a deadly combination. Believe it or not, a few days later, he was at it again. This time, it was a dead dog. Why couldn’t the dog have been buried instead of cremated?

Another morning, I confronted a gardener up the road who had set a big fire that was sending up clouds of smoke. When I asked him what he was burning, he said it was old clothes. I couldn’t believe it. So I asked why the clothes couldn’t have been put out in regular garbage. His response: “The lady don’t want nobody use her clothes do her nothing.” Words to that effect.

Mi couldn’t even get vex. Mi just had to laugh. As far as I know, that lady is a big Christian. But she was covering all her bases. Christian or not, she knew the power of obeah and was not taking any chances. She was just going to burn it out. Or at least the clothes!

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I keep wondering if my inconsiderate neighbours don’t know that it is illegal to light fires in residential communities. It’s not just a courtesy to one’s neighbours not to smoke them out. It’s actually against the law.

The problem, of course, is that the law is not enforced. I’ve actually called the police station to report illegal fires. You can just imagine the response. With all the crimes the police have to deal with, you know illegal fires are very low on their list of priorities.

Sometimes it takes a near-disaster to cure some people of their very bad habit of setting fires. A gardener who works in my neigbourhood had the fright of his life when a fire he lit got out of control. He was sure the fire was going to burn down his employer’s house. He ran away, fearful that he would be arrested for destruction of property.

He was very lucky. The fire was put out in time. By then, he was very far from the scene of the crime. You can just imagine his relief when he found out that the house was still standing. And he’s never ever set another fire. He learnt his lesson the hard way.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

We can’t continue with business as usual. We have to start a national campaign to educate Jamaicans about the dangers of setting fires here, there and everywhere. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) is heroically doing what it can to bring the matter to public attention. But there’s only so much that one underfunded NGO can do.

It is the responsibility of the Government to come up with solutions to this persistent problem. In a press release issued last Monday, Diana McCaulay, CEO of JET, called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to use all of the regulatory agencies to deal with the problem of extremely poor air quality across the island. Chief of these agencies is the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

According to its website, one of NEPA’s seven core functions is “environmental management”. This is defined as “Pollution prevention and control; pollution monitoring and assessment; Pollution incident investigation and reporting”. I wonder how much of this is actually done daily.

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The Government absolutely must enforce the law against setting fires. Both domestic and industrial offenders must be systematically targeted. Until we start prosecuting lawbreakers for setting fires, nothing will change. Jamaica will just continue to go up in smoke. And not even obeah can save us.

Chanting down greedy hoteliers

Last week’s post, ‘No Beach For Local Tourists’, touched a very sensitive nerve. I got so many emails from both Jamaicans and other Caribbean citizens who are very concerned about the way in which hoteliers dominate the conversation about public access to our beaches.

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Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), highlights this troubling issue of special interests in her excellent article, ‘The Problem of Beach Exclusion’, published in The Gleaner on Wednesday, January 11: “In 1997, the NRCA [National Resources Conservation Authority] began work on a beach policy to address issues surrounding public access and a Green Paper was drafted which proposed open access. There was immediate pushback from the tourism industry”.

Of course, there was pushback! Hoteliers don’t want open access to beaches because this will reduce their control of valuable resources. Their all-exclusive hotels would become much too inclusive for their liking. They want to erect barbed wire fences, stretching into the sea, to keep out the locals.

We cannot sit back passively and allow our beaches to be captured by greedy hoteliers, irresponsible politicians and all those who benefit from the current state of affairs. We have to take action. We, Jamaicans, like to think of ourselves as militant. We boast about our Ashanti warrior heritage. But we don’t always put up a fight for important causes. We need to follow the example of our uncompromising Caribbean neighbours who refuse to be shut out of their beaches.

VIRAL PROTEST

I got an inspiring email from Antigua. Here’s an excerpt. I’ve deleted the name of the hotelier: “A few years ago, [a Jamaican hotelier] tried to get the Government of Antigua and Barbuda to ‘allow’ him to turn one of our most visited and, by far, favourite beaches – among locals and visitors – into a private enclave for his guests. The protests from the locals and nearby residents were not only unrelenting, but in your face. Some of the protests even went viral. He eventually backed away and the Government did not have to intervene … the people with the power had spoken.”

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One of the most outspoken warriors in the fight to keep Caribbean beaches out of the grasp of hoteliers is the Barbadian calypsonian The Mighty Gabby. His 1982 calypso, “Jack”, was a classic piece of throw word confronting Jack Dear, chairman of the Barbados Tourist Board. Dear, who was certainly not dearly beloved, had declared that hotel owners had the right to develop their property up to the waterfront of the island’s beaches.

This is how Gabby launched his counterattack:

“I grow up bathing in seawater

But nowadays dat is bare horror

If I only venture down by the shore

Police telling me Ah can’t bathe no more

Cause Jack don’t want me to bathe on my beach

Jack tell dem to keep me out of reach

Jack tell dem I will never make the grade

Strength and security build barricade

Da can’t happen here in this country

I want Jack to know dat di beach belong to we

Da can’t happen here over my dead body

Tell Jack dat I say dat di beach belong to we”.

Gabby knows that the barricades are all about the tourist dollar. And he’s not prepared to sell his birthright:

“Tourism vital, I can’t deny

But can’t mean more than I and I

My navel string bury right here

But a tourist one could be anywhere

Yet Jack don’t want me to bathe on my beach”.

Gabby’s use of “I and I” is an assertion of Rastafari consciousness. It empowers him to chant down the forces of oppression.

BIG UP WI BEACH

Tourism is now vital to our economies across the Caribbean. But we have to find a way to balance the requirements of the tourist industry and the needs of citizens. We can’t just fence in tourists and fence out locals. Many hoteliers assume that their property is like a cruise ship. And the ship is the destination. But some tourists actually want to escape the all-exclusive prison. They want to meet the people outside the barricades.

Diana McCaulay shows us the way forward: “It is true that harassment is a problem for the tourist industry – or indeed for any visitor to a Jamaican beach. But the response cannot be exclusion. The response has to be commitment to a set of articulated principles – frequent access points; provision of well-managed public beaches, including the requirement for behaviour by beach users that does not present a nuisance or threat to others or to the beach itself”.

thThis week, the Jamaica Environment Trust launches ‘Big Up Wi Beach’ on Facebook. It’s an open forum for debate on beach access and related issues such as beach erosion. Readers are invited to post images of their favourite beaches and to write about their memories of great beach outings.

JET is also developing a petition to the Government advocating a definitive policy on beach access for all Jamaicans. I trust that the Urban Development Corporation will support the petition. I won’t hold my breath. I still haven’t gotten an answer to my email to the director of corporate communications about access to Pearly Beach. And I hope Jamaican musicians will create a song in support of the campaign. Like Gabby, they simply must chant down greedy hoteliers.

African Explorers Came Before Columbus

Several years ago, on a visit to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I had a little catch-up with our tour guide.  We were in the Gulf of Mexico Hall, looking at Olmec artefacts.  The most famous works of the Olmecs are gigantic stone heads, some of which weigh 40 tons and are over two and half metres tall.

In 1862, the first Olmec head was unearthed in the state of Tabasco.  Almost a century later, the American archaeologist Matthew Stirling began excavations in 1942 in the ancient city of La Venta.  He discovered even more Olmec heads and found evidence of a civilization much older than the Mayan, Incan or Aztec, dating from about 1200 BC to 400 BC.

I knew a bit about the Olmec heads but I wanted to hear the official story. I asked the tour guide how he accounted for the African appearance of the heads.  It’s a long time ago so I can’t recall his exact words.  But it was something to this effect:  “Oh no!  It’s not African; it’s a jaguar”.  “A jaguar?” I asked in amazement.  “It looks much more like me than any jaguar.  Don’t you know that Africans were in the Americas long before Columbus?”

‘Jaguar’

The tour guide caved in:  “Yes, yes the lady is right”.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  If you look at head number 6 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, there is no way you could mistake this decidedly human face for a jaguar.  But since it’s so obviously African, it had to mutate supernaturally into a non-human form.  The Mexican fairy tale of origins apparently could not accommodate an African genesis.

GAPS IN THE STORY

Sculptures from the Parthenon sold in 1816 to the British Museum

Museums are peculiar places, full of art and politics.  Their curators lock up pieces of the past in pretty cages and tell stories about them that are true or false to varying degrees. Many of these objects are stolen goods.  But that’s a whole other story.  Let’s just say that if the Greeks, for example, were to be properly paid for their cultural artefacts now imprisoned in the museums of their far more affluent neighbours, the proceeds would go a long way to help balance the national budget.

Acropolis museum

Better yet, if the artefacts were liberated and repatriated, the Greeks could make even bigger bucks in heritage tourism.  Museums are an essential component of the creative/cultural industries across the globe.  In non-Olympic years, one of London’s biggest attractions is the city’s network of museums and art galleries, some of which were funded, ultimately, from the bloody proceeds of plantation slavery.

Tate Gallery

Henry Tate, who made his millions in sugar refining, founded the Tate Gallery in 1897.  Tate started off rather modestly as a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool in 1832 when he was only 13 years old.  True, slavery was abolished two years later in the British colonies in the Caribbean.  But Liverpool had been a major slaving port and, according to the website of the International Slavery Museum, “its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century.  The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade”.

On a related note, I ran into Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica, at the elegant launch of Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, two Fridays ago.

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Ainsley and I  had a nice chat and he told me that several people had asked if he wasn’t going to respond to my column, published two weeks ago, on “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”.  He’d decided not to.  Like my Mexican tour guide, Ainsley seems to have conceded the accuracy of my account of the gaps in the story told by the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History.

AFRICA IN ANCIENT AMERICA

I discovered the Olmec civilisation in a book by the Guyanese linguist and anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima, published in 1976.  The title makes a startling claim:  They Came Before Columbus:  The African Presence in Ancient America.  In addition to the spectacular Olmec heads, there was more evidence.

Peruvian portrait vessel

Von Wuthenau, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, had unearthed many terracotta sculptures of ‘Negroid’ heads in clay, gold, copper and copal.  Van Sertima notes that the layers of soil in which these African sculptures were found “ranged from the earliest American civilizations right through to the Columbian contact period”.

Then Leo Wiener, a linguist at Harvard University, had earlier “stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period”.

Traditional pirogue

There was also the evidence of the boat-building skills and seafaring knowledge of Africans.  Small open boats could, in fact, cross the Atlantic, particularly with the assistance of the fast-flowing Guinea and Canaries currents. And the evidence kept piling up.  You just have to read Van Sertima’s book to get the whole story.  Closer to home, it makes you wonder who really discovered Discovery Bay and who had to run away from Runaway Bay.