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A man bounds to the front of the crowd and takes the microphone. He’s a performer; flamboyant in manner and dress. In the dark his teeth shine white and his eyes have an unsettling glint. We are at a community meeting in Old Harbour Bay about a controversial port project by Chinese investors in one of Jamaica’s protected areas, near to the two Goat Islands. I am at the head table, attempting to moderate the question and answer period. I wait for the man’s question. Our eyes meet. “You a Chiney, right?” he says, meaning a Chinese person.
A new intern joins us at the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET). She is surprised to find a staff of nine of various ethnicities. “My friends say all environmentalists are white people,” she says.
A few months earlier, the staff attorney at JET was on a television programme regarding the Goat Islands project. In one of the commercial breaks, a minister of government turned to her and said, “You’re the first black environmentalist I ever met. I thought they were all uptown people.”
And it has to be admitted – any environmental meeting in Jamaica does contain a high proportion of light skinned, upper middle class people. As a result, commentary on the environment frequently mentions “those people” who prefer animals to people, who would sacrifice children (read black children), for the most obscure of insects, those elites who really only want to deny others their favourite places, to keep us back as a people, to return us to caves and submission. Perhaps in other parts of the world to be labeled an environmentalist brings admiration from some; here in Jamaica, it’s a curse.
From the beginning, I’ve known it – I’m the wrong environmental messenger for Jamaica – wrong race, wrong class, wrong age (a moving target, that), wrong education, wrong manner of speaking, wrong culture, wrong heritage.
But does this mean I should not have spoken out, nor formed the small environmental group I now lead, should certainly not still be railing against our anti-nature culture, 25 years later? Does being the wrong messenger disqualify me from taking a public stand on anything? Does being the wrong messenger mean I actually harm the cause I champion?
I know the environmental movement worldwide tends to be a middle class movement, that concern for the environment comes only after basic needs are met. And I’ve never felt my advocacy was directed at people who are living on the margins – I’m very clear that were my family hungry and a sea turtle to present itself, into the pot it would go. No, I’m speaking to people who have jobs, incomes and education, people who own land, bulldozers and private jets, people with position and status. Increasingly, I’m speaking to the Jamaican government as well.
And there’s the problem – to the extent that the government responds to issues at all, it responds to those on the margins of society because they are the diehard party supporters, the ones who will vote along party lines no matter what. If they don’t care about the environment, the politicians don’t care either. That’s why being the wrong messenger matters.
Last night I went to another community meeting in Old Harbour Bay about the same project. I looked around, trying to assess the audience – would any question from me be met with hostility? Would I be shouted down by the crowd or by the chairman of the meeting? What words could I find to bridge a chasm of race and class and privilege? While we waited for the meeting to start, a few people nodded at me; a few pointedly avoided my gaze, one or two sent me what we call “cut-eye”. I decided I would just listen. Surely there was no need to be at the microphone on every occasion?
And I did sit quietly through boring, rambling presentations which were no more than public relations. A good question from a woman about the disadvantages of the port project went unanswered in a torrent of on the one hand this and on the other hand that from a government minister. Terms such as mitigation measures and trade-offs rained on the small crowd. Then I saw the flamboyant man at the mic, the one who thought I might be Chinese, and he started, “What about the people of Old Harbour Bay? What about the fishers when all the dredging starts?”
The Chairman shut him up immediately. “Who mentioned dredging?” he snapped. “Next question.” To my surprise, the man retreated.
I left before the end, feeling I’d had enough. And the flamboyant man followed me outside, and he took my hand. I braced myself for further inquiry about who I was, really. “Why you no say anyting?” he demanded. “Why you no talk up for us?”
Despite that chasm between us, despite his suspicion of where I really stood, he’d heard and understood my message at our last encounter and my silence this time had let him down.