Plastics and the Environment

The government of Jamaica plans to ban plastic bags smaller than 24″x24″ in January 2019.

This is widely regarded as a Good Move, however I cannot dilute my skepticism. I believe plastics are evil and harmful, I believe climate change is a dangerous and disturbing reality but I’m not convinced this is the smartest solution.

The biggest users of plastic bags (lada bags, scandal bags) are the lower class. Middle class and upper class Jamaica jumped on the environmentally conscious bandwagon years ago, carrying their artisanal tote bags to the supermarket and recycling their plastics when possible. But for the average Jamaican downtown who visits Mr. Chin shop to buy a few pounds of rice and flour lada bags are the most economical option. When plastics are banned, will the increased business costs be passed on to this consumer?

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Image from JIS website

The government refers to these plastics as single use, but the majority of Jamaicans who get these bags in the supermarket use them in all sorts of ways: to carry goods, food, medications, papers. Many people re-use them as garbage bags. And even though I switched to biodegradable garbage bags, I still use lada bags to collect my cats’ poop when I clean their litter boxes. It’s just the most practical option at this moment.

If the government wants to address our serious problem with plastic pollution, I think a better use of their time and energy would be to invest in more recycling plants. There’s only one on the western end of the island, near the border with Trelawny, and no recycling receptacles anywhere in Montego Bay at all.

It would also be worthwhile to invest more time in public education on the environmentally friendly substitutes in their day to day lives. Market baskets, boxes instead of bags at the supermarket, paper boxes for food instead of styrofoam. If these options are upfront, public and popular, if they are easy to choose then people will begin to adjust accordingly.

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Banning plastic bags is more stick than carrot, and punishment is not the best long term solution to behaviour change. Because what it really comes down to is a question of convenience. It is more convenient to get a plastic bag from the supermarket than to walk with one of your own. It is more convenient to throw garbage out the window of a moving car than it is to find a bin. That’s what we need to change.

This is basic system design, GOJ. Make the right thing easy to do.

Oh, Say it Ain’t ZOSO

The latest buzzword in the Jamaica crime scene is these Zones of Special Operations (ZOSO). ZOSO is an Act recently passed by Parliament which allows for the use of “special measures” to uphold public law within “certain geographically defined locations”.

At face value this Act sounds like an Act of Discrimination, like the Prime Minister is giving the security forces full permission to kick down people door and mash up dem tings, but only within specifically designated areas of course (aka ghettos). But according to the Jamaica Gleaner, the Bill is trying to balance the need for extreme measures in the battle against crime and violence with the fundamental need for the protection of citizens’ rights.

On September 1 the PM declared Mt. Salem, St. James the very first ZOSO. Acting on information that was later challenged by residents of the community (backed up by the Councillor for the area), Mr. Holness may well have moved somewhat rashly. But despite the less-than-sinister statistics, Mt. Salem is still perceived as a tension-driven melting pot of criminal activity. Driving through that community just last week I heard one woman cussing another spit menacingly, “You feel seh ah you one know gunman!”

So there is no question about the need for increased police attention, even with a police station already on the main road. What I do feel needs to be questioned is the approach to the citizens on the left and right sides of the Mt. Salem main road. And yes, I’m talking about a literal representation of the ubiquitous class divide.

After you pass the hospital, on the left hand side going into Salem the side streets display large, well-painted two and three storey houses. There are garages with cars, the houses are populated by a mainly middle-aged and retired set of citizens, and the streets themselves are paved (for the most part) and wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic.

Flip the script, and observe the right hand side of streets. They are narrow and winding, descending sharply into one way lanes and dead ends. There are two and three storey concrete structures at the intersection yes, but as you advance further along, there are more board houses, less space for cars to fit and a dramatic increase in shady characters lurking on street corners. Some taxis don’t even carry people here.

Obviously infrastructural problems have played a huge role in this divide, and real estate prices drive people left and right as their pocketbooks allow but my real contention is that there are two very different classes of citizens living in Mt. Salem and my concern is that one set will end up with the “special measures” while the other enjoys the “protection of citizens’ rights”. So far I haven’t heard anyone cry foul (quite the opposite) but in these cases the voices of the downtrodden rarely make it past the streets where they are stepped on.

What ZOSO excels at is highlighting the blurred geographical lines of Jamaica’s class divide. It is a truth universally acknowledged that beside every uptown is a ghetto: Ironshore has Flankers, Westgate Hills has Mt. Salem, Mango Walk has Paradise and Norwood. . . The list goes on, and this is just in St. James. But as time has progressed, social climbers (including scammers) have managed to straddle these communities and erase the demarcations. ZOSO is a potent and pointed reminder that “ghetto people” are considered criminals before they even open their mouths. Reminds me of that Etana song.

Ultimately, I don’t think ZOSO will be an effective crime-fighting strategy. It is too much of an acute solution to a long term problem, too much of treating the symptom and not the disease.

Man goes to the doctor and says Doc, I have these headaches. Doctor says, Take these painkillers. Man dies of a brain tumour*.

What have we learnt?

Crime and violence in our society is directly related to our social infrastructure: education, employment and parenting, underlined by systemic political and judicial corruption. Opportunities for legitimate engagement are scarce while guns are plenty and every little boy is raised to be ‘tough’. Legal jobs grant you enviable social standing but it’s the under the table stuff that sends your kids to offshore schools. This culture is entrenched and serves far too many powerful people for it to be overturned overnight.

But that doesn’t say we can’t try.

In his Letter to the Editor, Dr. Canute Thompson expounds on the theory that attacking these root causes will ensure a sustainable decrease in crime statistics. He lays out an innovative approach to community development involving skills training and infrastructural reform. Granted it raises a whole new set of questions, but it’s a solution that just might make Jamaica the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.

–*–

*I am compelled to disclaim that headaches are not usually the presenting symptom of a brain tumour. Not every headache needs a CT scan. The point is that you need to rule out a more serious problem. /medic

Hospitals, Presidential Campaigns and Other Things Badly in Need of Repair

Once again CRH is splashed across the media – and right on schedule, it was about this time last year that the neonatal scandal surfaced. This time the papers are focused on the gradual loss of hospital services – clinics, the lab and pharmacy are operating at less than 50% capacity with no proposed timeline for the return of function.

The primary issue is one of air quality, with administrators pointing fingers at the Radiology department for “Xray fumes” that have leaked all over the first three floors of the hospital due to “faulty ventilation”. The problem is being rectified slowly, and “experts from PAHO” have been called in, six months after the fact. Remember in April when the lab was down? Turns out it was an early manifestation of the same problem.

However the root of the problem is simple – the entire system of public health has been left to struggle along for too many years without the necessary financial attention.

The problems at Cornwall are the result of an aging infrastructure that has not been given the repairs and maintenance it needs to be functional. When you have a CT machine that works 40-50% of the time because it is old and routine maintenance is not up to scratch, that’s just a symptom of the disease.

This isn’t new though. Last year the Gleaner ran an article about how under-resourced the health facilities are in the Western Region. Minister of Health Christopher Tufton was quoted in the newspaper as saying:

“Frankly, it is an indication again that the infrastructure of the public health system in Jamaica is plodding because of limited capital investment in the sector over time, expanding population, much greater demand and usage, and all of that combined has made the system ripe for reform,”

Health reform is desperately needed, and its going to take a lot more than just three experts from PAHO.

Meanwhile in Foreign…

I’m going to admit something that’s a little unusual for a middle class Jamaican – I’ve never actually been to the United States of America. Not Disneyland, or New York or California. Not even a visit to Canada. North American soil has never had the pleasure of meeting my feet.

And with the way the US election is going, I may never ever get there. On the background of worsening racial friction and ingrained unrelenting sexism, the presidential campaign is breaking the glass ceiling and rock bottom at the same time (quote stolen from Twitter).

What I find crazy is how many people do not actively hate Donald Trump. People I work with, people I consider intellectuals, (these are also people with no ballot to cast of course) are not as convinced as I am to vote for anyone except Trump. Usually I can consider alternate points of view with aplomb – I have no issues working with or talking to people who’s ideas are different from my own. But this political debate has absolutely polarized me. I don’t care about his policies or his economics – he is too horrible a creature to become the next POTUS.

Of course Hilary isn’t a saint – no politician is. But she has experience and the common sense not to piss off and alienate large groups of people (in public). And as a nation which is often cast in America’s shadow, that’s really about as much as we can ask for.

Unless (hopefully) Obama decides to stay permanently in office.

Starting Fires

While I was at home in Montego Bay the Riverton dump in Kingston started burning and continued to burn for more than a week. Social media grabbed the disaster and ran through the streets with it, even as print media dragged their feet on the reporting. Fingers were pointed, no one was punished and the annual nine-day-wonder fire was swept under the carpet along with issues like political corruption and the human rights debate. People don’t stay angry for very long, it seems.

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular YA series, about the start of a revolution and the fire that was starting to rage in hearts across Panem. It was a book about social and political change, and the kind of rebellion that one girl in a really fabulous dress can inspire. The oppressed in fiction get angry and stay angry. (And then they kill people).

Jamaica needs radical change, some kind of blazing revolution that razes everything in its path and leaves the land empty. Not barren, but fertile. Waiting for some clean, new, un-corrupted, pure of heart phoenix to spring from the ashes. But this is an ideal.

Our reality is slogging away at back-breaking jobs for bank-breaking pay all the while cussing this government and that government and hiding our faces in embarrassment at our leaders, and hoping someone else will be the change we want to see.

I’m guilty. There’s no excuse for not standing up and pushing back against the undesirable reality. There are start-up ideas and innovations everywhere, little inspiring stories about changing things one life at a time. People bounce back from tragedy with overwhelming determination; people triumph in big and little ways.

But what to do with the pervasive feeling that if you don’t go big, go home? That my small change won’t make any real difference? How to coalesce all the small changes into some grand overarching movement toward a better Jamaica? How to reach the whole country instead of just one small part?

We would need to have small changes everywhere, instead of concentrating them in our urban centres. The disparity between urban centres and rural communities is discouraging, the lack of resources is debilitating and (personally) my capacity for hope and faith is insufficient to sustain the grassroots efforts that we would need to experience change in a major way.

And there needs to be a deep affinity for the cause you’re getting behind in Jamaica, because it takes everything you have. Fighting battles on the fronts of gender equality, human rights, even education is an exhausting process. Carla Moore after discussing gender issues with two male friends commented that “Doing gender-based interventions as a woman is a form of abuse”.

I want to do something but I’m terrified – of failing, of being targeted, of not having the resources, of not caring enough, of caring too much, of burning out, of becoming bitter. I shy away from advocacy and cheer them on from the sidelines when I know I should do more, do something. But what can I do, what can I do?

Sometimes this question plagues me, chases me down the street and demands money. I falter, dig around in my mind for a response, dig through my chest for a semblance of emotion to spur me forward, to start a fire. But I’m not a fire-starting kind of girl.

When I was at community college, I started a Book Club which I ran for one year as President before graduating. We would meet once a week and talk about whatever short story or poem I had printed out and I like to think I was encouraging an appreciation of literature but truthfully I have no idea why people continued to show up week after week (but I was  grateful that they did).

When I left, the club continued. Only now, they had branched into outreach and were delivering books to basic schools and orphanages. Is this an example of my humble literary efforts catching fire?

From reading flash fiction to sharing the gift of literature – if one little effort can evolve like that, what more can my love of books accomplish? If I can’t start a fire, can I at least fan some flames? I believe the right book can change a life, can rewrite generations of hardwiring, can catalyse personal and national revolution. And that sounds like a cause I can get behind.

**

My friend Tricia (Tricia T Allen) and I are planning to start a writer’s club in Montego Bay as soon as I move back home, and we’re looking for dedicated writers to come and join in. If you’re from the Western end of the island and you have a fondness for words, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! More details will be posted as soon as we hash them out. 

Not-Ranting

I’m not going to talk about Olympics or Usain Bolt or him coming second to Blake or his alleged ankle injury or his propensity for crashing cars and strip clubs.

I’m not going to talk about the ongoing Jamaica 50 controversy or Lisa Hannah or official songs or how politics really have no place in the music industry.

And I’m not going to rant about the recent uproar in Parliament or what kind of examples the politicians are setting or the homophobia that is so deeply ingrained in this country we don’t even notice it any more. Or the colour orange. Or trumpets.

I’d rather leave those things to the serious bloggers like Mr. Veritas or the clever ones like Carla Moore. And because everyone is already talking those topics into the ground so that they’re already almost-clichéd.

I may however, in the future, rant about the hilarity that is Lime vs. Digicel and how I’m being ripped off with this ridiculous new plan.

Pax.

Of course they did. Morons.

The Government has graciously decided to repeal the tax levied on printed materials. How kind of them.

The price of books will increase, however, due to

a two per cent non-refundable GCT charge on all imported books (except for religious materials) [that] will be levied at the ports”

I’m not even going to get my feathers ruffled over the fact that religious materials get away Scot-free because clearly the Church is the State’s second mistress (after the IMF, obviously). I’m just going to point out that maybe the Gov’t had never planned to tax books all along, and them threatening to do it and then mercifully rescinding said threat was probably just a power play to get on our good side. Looks like subservience wasn’t the only thing our English masters taught us.

Pax.

Mental Slavery: GSAT is kind of like segregation

Disclaimer:
I have nothing against prep schools – some of my best friends went to prep schools. I also have nothing against the so-called traditional or non-traditional high schools. I do have something against people feeling like they’re better than other people, and that comes out a lot here.

So Grade Six Achievement Test results came out last week, and as usual children and parents went through a Miss World-scale gamut of emotions, from bitter disappointment to the heights of ecstasy. This year, however, the Ministry of Education conspired to throw a few unexpected twists into the usually simple equation.

Pictured: GSAT reactions.

Along the lines of 2 + 2 = 4, GSAT placements have always been something like Rich Parent + Private Prep School = Child in Traditional High School. But in a effort to equalize the system (and reduce the burden on these so-called traditional high schools), Minister Ronald Thwaites has announced that students with high averages will be dispersed equally among all schools. What this means for Rich Parents is that their darling, prep school-coddled prodigy will not automatically gain a place in the handful of traditional high schools. The horror.

traditional high school n. colloq.

In Jamaica, most of our high schools are older than we are as a nation. Some of them have been around for hundreds of years and during that time have garnered reputations for turning out high-achieving students. Never mind that they did this through careful filtering of incoming students (the upper class), the majority of Jamaicans nowadays are almost superstitious in their conviction that their child will only succeed if he are she attends one of these schools.

This means that every year these schools are flooded with students who have GSAT averages in the nineties, not to mention the transfers from other schools whose parents want to buy them a better shot at excelling academically. The Minister’s heart is in the right place, but plenty of parents are feeling shafted because their child is being used to ‘elevate the system’ (actual quote from the Gleaner article). Frankly, I find it utterly condescending that these parents feel their children are too above the system to play a part in changing it.

They’re doing it right.

Because you just can’t continue to allow the majority of high achievers to go to the same schools over and over. What happens to the other schools, the hundreds of other schools we have scattered all over the island? The principal of Sts. Peter and Paul Prep School is crying ‘Geography’ as a limiting factor – but proximity to the school has never been a strong factor in GSAT placements, not even in my day. Parents will send their children two parishes away if they think they’ll be getting a better education there. And, in my opinion, her argument is sorely weakened by this quote:

She said another concern was that students were being placed in technical and vocational schools, which required a specific line of study that they were not prepared for.

Which is a fancy way of saying, ‘We trained your children to be academicians, not much good for anything else.’

. . . and this quote:

“The children are crying. They feel as if they have failed,” she said.

Whose fault is it that these children perceive non-traditional high schools as failing schools? It is a failure of the education system if children feel they cannot succeed in any environment they are planted.

This whole thing is just another manifestation of the blatant classism that is the fabric of our society. By virtue of our own ill-founded biases, we’re perpetuating a hierarchy that elevates the elite and devalues the real life situation of the common man. We’re still telling ourselves that we need to send our children to Eurocentric schools in order for them to get anywhere in life because the schools without a history of segregation and subtle racism simply aren’t good enough.

At the end of the day it boils down to (as all social and cultural problems in Jamaica boil down to) changing our mentality, the way we perceive things. And people are going to put everything they have into resisting said change – especially those who benefit most from the current state of affairs – but there is no way we can move forward by clinging to old ideas. The Hon. Robert Nesta M. really knew what he was talking about when he said,

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.

Pax.