Across the globe, World Environment Day 2022 was celebrated on June 5.
We commemorated this day at a time when there is renewed focus on the state of the Earth and the existing and potential challenges to the environment caused by human actions. Whether it is rising sea levels, increased temperatures, food insecurity, or a reduction in marine biodiversity, more people are accepting that urgent action is needed.
Here in Jamaica, we, too, have been forced to consider how the actions we take, whether personally, collectively, or as government, will impact the natural environment. As a small island developing State, Jamaica is already experiencing the negative effects of the deterioration of the environment and climate change.
World Environment Day compels us to look at some of the issues impacting Jamaica. Though these issues are not unique to us, if allowed to continue unabated, they will have disastrous effects.
Jamaica has to consider, in a real way, how environmental degradation will impact food security; rising sea levels and its effects on coastal communities; regular and accessible potable water; and the lives and livelihood of citizens who have to deal with the ever-changing weather patterns, including more intense and frequent hurricanes.
These problems are compounded by continued developments in ecologically sensitive and other areas as well as the quest for economic development, often at the peril of the environment.
There is no doubt, that to a considerable extent, Jamaica’s food security is impacted by climate change. In recent times, we have seen the country’s agriculture sector devastated by adverse weather conditions, such as extended periods of drought, heavy winds, and floods. This is compounded by the inability of farmers to access water for irrigation during extended droughts, all of which impact the quality and quantity of agricultural produce. The situation in the breadbasket parish of St Elizabeth is an example of the effect of climate change on our agriculture and food security.
The Government must take the lead to help farmers introduce more sustainable agricultural practices. Actions such as slash and burn, widescale fishing and over fishing in some areas, the cutting down of trees for firewood or coal all impact our delicate ecosystem and should be more closely regulated and monitored.
We have to embrace technology which will improve production and increase crop yield while reducing the negative impact on the environment.
Sustainable development mandates a review of the construction industry. There is no doubt that the construction industry continues to contribute significantly to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This was best illustrated in the first two years of the novel coronavirus pandemic when it was one of the few sectors which grew. However, construction has not been kind to the environment. While we ought not to stop the industry from growing, the truth is: We have not done enough to enforce and develop modern laws to ensure that construction and development are in harmony with the natural environment.
There is an urgent need for synergy between the built and natural environments. The Building Act, which was passed in 2018 and enacted in 2019, if properly implemented, can assist in our quest for harmony with nature. However, its greatest deficiencies are implementation and enforcement as well as the lack of a modern building code to give it teeth. Additionally, critical requirements, such as green spaces for all multifamily homes; the proper separation and disposal of household waste; and rainwater harvesting, use of renewable energy technologies, and energy efficient designs and out fittings for developments, especially multifamily homes, need urgent legislative support.
Modern laws which reflect the urgency of protecting the environment must become a priority. The Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act, which has been in existence for over three decades, is in need of urgent review. Almost one year ago I tabled a motion in the Senate calling for its review by a joint select committee, that motion is yet to be debated.
However, laws alone will not fix the problems. The people must be engaged through a national public education campaign on the importance and urgency of protecting the environment. In this regard, Jamaica should ratify the Escazú Agreement to improve how the country deals with environmental issues including:
• “increasing the public’s access to more environmental information so that they have a better understanding of decisions and impacts to their environment and health, and
•requiring the Government to proactively disseminate important environmental information, such as the sources of pollution and where they are released into the air, water, or land.”
On the matter of the mining industry, no meaningful effort to protect the environment can be successful without looking at the effects of the mining industry on our land and people. There is no doubt that this industry has provided much-needed foreign exchange for our country and thousands of jobs for our people. However, we have yet to quantify the effects of this industry on the health of our people and the environment. The mining industry has been around for almost 60 years and we still do not know if the benefits outweigh the cost to our people and environment.
As we reflect on the pros and cons of mining, we must ask: What is the financial cost of air pollution, deforestation, or the loss of agricultural land to mining? What are the accumulated health-care costs for the residents who have long-term respiratory problems believed to be the result of dust and other pollutants from mining? The answers to these important questions should help determine how we move forward as a nation.
I am recommending that the Government moves quickly to establish a multisectoral committee to examine, among other things, the cost of mining to the environment as well as the future of the mining industry. Sustainable development calls for immediate action.
Each of us has a role to play, but the Government must take the lead on measures that will protect the environment.
The Government must:
•ensure that all ecologically sensitive areas are protected;
•enforce and modernise the environmental laws and regulations; and
•in practical ways, demonstrate its commitment that economic development does not come at the expense of the environment.
If we continue to degrade and destroy the natural environment, it is only a matter of time before Jamaica’s reputation as the land of wood and water will be lost. To preserve this legacy, we must move with haste to stem the tide of environmental damage. If we destroy the watersheds, we affect our water supply; if we cut down our trees, we affect our food security, we pollute our oceans, and we also jeopardise our food security.
This year we celebrate our 60th year of Independence, and it is time for us to assess and address the problems we face as a nation. We must determine the type and nature of the legacy we want to leave for generations to come. We can remain the land of wood and water or become a dry and denuded land. The choice is ours.
Senator Sophia Frazer Binns is the Opposition spokeswoman on land, environment and climate change. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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