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.
Burning 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!
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.
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.
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.