Post 223.

For the next two weeks, I’m enrolled in my first farming course. It’s more like a course in creating forests rather than farming, but the point is to harvest from rich biodiversity rather than destroy it in the name of food production. The goal “is to be a forager in one’s own ecosystem”.

This approach is known as permaculture, and its basically agriculture founded on observation of forests, and their ability to be self-sustaining. How do forests provide so many plant options without chemicals, what makes them able to conserve rivers and create rain? How can our backyards become micro forests, producing profusely, more than we ever suspected possible?

I first heard about permaculture in 2013 when I watched Erle Rahaman-Noronha’s inspiring TEDx Port of Spain talk, titled ‘Bringing Nature Home’. In one of the last slides, he showed the land he began to work on eighteen years ago, which had been handed over almost bare, down to grass. The next slide showed layers of trees, from the ground up and densely filling different areas of his land.

I knew then that this was something we should all know more about given the increasing rate of tree cover loss in our communities, the unsustainability of conventional agriculture, and the need to feed ourselves as well as the other life forms with whom we share the planet.

I’m taking the lessons from the course back to the garden where I live in the hope of making it less dependent on anything from outside, whether in relation to excess water-use, especially in dry season, or artificial fertilizer, because now I better understand how to make well-balanced compost. It’s such a simple idea, forests recycle everything in a loop, with tree roots and even migratory birds involved. What can they teach us about how to use what we have to both reduce waste and reap more?

I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to till your land, particularly in the tropics where topsoil is thin. Forests don’t till; we don’t have to either. What we can do, like forests, is layer green and brown plant material, recognizing that both nitrogen and carbon are necessary to soil rejuvenation. Just add water to your mulch, aerate and watch soil emerge.

Stripping soil bare is unnecessary and harmful. All you will do is dry out your topsoil from too much sun or allow it to be washed away by plenty rain, kill thousands of organisms which exist in that top layer and off the grasses and plants, and lead to an obvious need for chemicals to jump start crops. Everything that looks like ‘bush’ has some value that can be reused for mulching. Don’t burn the bush you do cut or watch your future topsoil go up in smoke.

See your garden in three dimensions from the ground up. Something like tumeric or yam is growing in the ground, something like peas can be trailed higher. Banana trees then fill the space under larger trees, like tamarind or flamboyant, which are known as nitrogen fixers. The idea is to create continuous yields, at different times and with different returns, including for the insects, animals, plants, water, air and land around you. At one point yam, at another point bananas, then, perhaps timber.

Save water and slow the flow of water across the land so that it can be absorbed into the ground along the way, rather than washing everything away with it. Whole hillsides are currently planted without any ‘swales’ or little indents and dams, and channels to direct water across rather than straight down slopes. All land naturally has points for water storage, ringed by some trees to hold up the soil. The natural course of water is to meander along uneven topography and to be in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots which promote absorption. We should observe if our agricultural methods reflect just this.

These lessons seem so obvious because, I guess, they were the old people’s way or the old forests’ way, before plantation-economy monocropping and modern, chemical-based agribusiness.

Watch Erle’s TEDx Talk. Grow food that doesn’t require cutting down forests. Instead choose farming invested in creating whole forests with sources of food.

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Post 230.

Weekends are for rivers and forests. I want Ziya to value the place within which she is growing, and all that it bequeaths, as part of learning to value herself and her identity. Getting out of walled buildings and urban spaces is important for emotional and mental health, and though Zi may wonder why I’m dragging her around the country, when she’d rather stay home and snack her way through the day and the cupboards, I know that familiarity with our landscape will define her self-understanding in ways that school cannot.

We were at Turure Falls, walking reverently through the river collecting natural crystals. There were no others tramping through the bush, just breeze and light. Then, we came to the rockface where water cascades into pools. There, scrawled across the entire rock were the names of men who thought it was right to scar a natural setting, an hour’s hike away from civilization. Their names were everywhere, chiseled deep, like the defacing of a cathedral.

This happens because the state has no regulatory mechanisms for monitoring who goes into our forests and what they do while there, no records of names, no permits, no penalties, and no real conception of protection of our natural resources. That is a fact,  discernable whichever coast one is on in the country. We collected a bag of garbage on our way out, and there was more we left behind.

What did Zi learn from this? She could look around her and see for herself why the environment needs protection. She could read the details of how governments fail. She could be confronted with how quickly pristine spaces can be destroyed, and therefore the urgency with which her generation must act to change everything from education to policies.

We were in Caroni Swamp yesterday, impressed with the incoming flocks of scarlet ibis, which are truly wondrous to see, along with all the other wildlife, from boas to silky anteaters to a range of birds, from cardinals to herons, egrets, owls and more. But, from the dilapidated entrance sign to the badly kept Visitors’ Centre, what was clearly a site for preservation for seven generations, was suffering from sheer neglect of adequate ecological consciousness and government oversight.

For one, the boats of the tour operators should not produce so much noise or gas fumes. On a boat with about forty persons, at $60 per person, and at least three boats out simultaneously, the main tour operator is making enough to invest in ecologically friendly engines, and those managing the site should insist on them. No wonder the guide said that all the human activity has driven most wildlife to inaccessible sections of the swamp, boatloads of people go in every single evening. There isn’t a day when the Swamp is closed to visitors to allow the animals some respite from the noise, and wardens for the swamp should engage in regular cleaning up of the garbage that hangs from mangrove roots like shed snakeskin. Sitting quietly watching the flocks come in for the evening, I wondered how many of those 18 000 birds will still be there in twenty years, and whose responsibility will it be if they are not. Ours, right? So, I told Zi. Mine, hers and our responsibility.

All along the North Coast, there is garbage, mostly plastic bottles, but also wrappers of all kinds. Along Icacos, there’s a photographic exhibit worth of garbage. Maracas’ ‘upgrade’, seems to have forgotten that a river exists behind the beach, and that this too, not just the range of fish you can fry, is a sign of ecological diversity. Can you imagine if there was a children’s education centre at Maracas? Children could run through, in their sandy feet, while learning about rivers, forests, watersheds, and all the wildlife, from caiman to sharks, that deserve protection from endangerment. Until then, in horror at the ‘development’ of Maracas beach, Zi and I only drive through.

Lloyd Best once said to me, to understand Trinidad and Tobago and what it needs, just walk around with your eyes open. So true. Weekends are therefore for teaching Zi that observing her precious world is what she must first learn to do.

Post 219.

We are stewards of our nation.

Each morning, waking to a fresh opportunity to refuse a dark time for now or the future.  The alternative to boom and bust cycles may not feed our glittering fantasy of El Dorado, but it can fire hope amidst an oncoming bruising and battering for self-preservation.

The question of where to cut and to invest are ours, not the government or the Prime Minister, but we citizen’s own. We must look around our communities, at ourselves and with our representatives, and insist on our own budgetary priorities. For this reason, I appreciated the Prime Minister’s address, particularly the presentation of numbers and his direct challenge to the business community to share profits. All of us have to find more ways to go local and spend wisely. In the last decade when even workers were only drinking Johnny Walker, we were clearly living beyond our means.

My first choice for investment is the environment and renewable energy. Our natural resources will sustain wealth for generations, even centuries. And, when it comes to our air, seas and rivers, we will not get a second chance. Trinidad is full of permaculture and environmental management specialists who can tell us how our environment produces food, community and profit. Planning should anticipate how cost saving, health and wealth generation could look in seven generations. For such sustainability, now is the time to invest.

Culture is also on my priority list. Not the millions won in a night by soca stars, but investment in the yards of pan and mas making. Over years of doctoral ethnographic research with mas camps, I came to understand the incredible way that they sustain traditions to land, language, life lessons, and making a living. Going for wide dispersion of available funds to create community around the families and schools of jab jab, or blue devil, moko jumbies or Indian mas can also help with tackling issues of boys and masculinities.

On the supply side, the governments’ plan to stimulate jobs through the construction sector, e.g. plumbers, masons and joiners, will disproportionately benefit men. This has social costs, and reproduces women’s economic dependence, and their clustering in low waged sectors. Such explicitly gendered effects have to be empirically understood if this is pursued, along with strategies to equalize access of qualified individuals of both sexes to a construction boom. The location of a Gender Division under the Office of the PM should provide exactly such cross-sectoral policy analysis and direction. Also keep in mind that while taxes, particularly on land, are necessary, sales tax always affects women more because of their greater responsibility for food provision and making groceries.

Beyond economic policy, the government’s primary focus should be on containing corruption through measured change in effective public service monitoring and evaluation, passage of whistleblower legislation, and successful prosecution of cases. Sheer waste and mismanagement of money account for billions bled from schools, hospitals and NGOs. Governments like to say that people don’t show up to town hall and regional corporation meetings, but people know the consultation process can also be both insult and joke. Still, even if it is only through a media that powerfully tackles fiscal scandals, we must insist on government for the people, which means suturing waste and corruption in 2016.

Wherever you are when the year begins, may you experience it with safety and joy, and carry a sense of togetherness in your heart in the days ahead. May we remain pensive, grateful and blessed, drawing on our best sources for long term sustainability. Let us be guided by ground up lessons on opportunities for our islands to navigate predicted rough seas.

“Who are the magnificent here? Not I with this torn shirt”, you may say. Even with scars upon our soul, wounds on our bodies, fury in our hands and scorn for ourselves, to quote Martin Carter, it is possible to turn to the world of tomorrow with strength. The sources of such strength are all around us to recognise.

My new-year tune is Nina Simone’s song, ‘Feeling Good’. There is a new dawn. There is always a new day. Tomorrow when you awake, look it up and press play.

 

Post 216.

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Photo credit: Nadia Huggins

For last Sunday’s #POStoParis march, I suggested Ziya’s sign should say ‘Stop Climate Change’. After all, the march from Nelson Mandela Park and around the Savannah was in solidarity with hundreds of thousands gathered across almost 180 countries to convince world governments, particularly China, the US and India, to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. These are considered to be at the heart of global warming’s effects: bleaching and death of coral reefs, melting of Arctic icebergs, intensifying of both storms and droughts, and increases in asthma and other illnesses.

Zi went for something with effective keywords, but incomplete sentence structure: ‘Consequences of pollution for Trinidad and Tobago’. The propagandist in me blinked at her ambiguous messaging. The grammarian in me decided to let it go, she’s five. The mother in me noted that her teachers’ efforts to give lessons about consequences, usually in relation to keeping quiet or one’s desk clean, had traveled across her brain to map onto pollution, and indeed its consequences.

Negotiations are currently happening in Paris at what is officially called the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Simply put, widespread hope is that whatever role carbon, methane and man-made pollutants are playing in harming our earth will be reduced, with an eye to the delicate balance sustaining health and life on our planet.

Wherever you fall in the climate change debate – that it is man-made and happening, that it isn’t man-made and nothing definitive is happening – these are important moments for creating a public open to rethinking our approach to plastics and recycling, industrial emissions and waste, and protection of key areas for conservation.

Sunday’s march followed one organized last year by IAMovement, a new group led by visionary young people. Their nascent efforts follow a long tradition of environmentally conscious organizing in Trinidad and Tobago, usually by small groups of committed individuals making a larger difference than expected, whether in relation to reforestation of the Northern Range or protection of the Nariva Swamp. Larger than last year, this time only about four hundred people came together to show such ecological consciousness remains alive.

There were many children, but visibly missing were those from Trinidad and Tobago’s vulnerable classes, from Sea Lots and Beetham Gardens. Also missing were fishing communities from Caroni and Mayaro, as well as unions like the OWTU who haven’t yet asserted power, as workers, to reduce the ecological costs of their industries. So, one of the challenges for this still-small public is to continue to grow nationally.

Those that are poorest remain the worst affected by climate change, such as when food prices rise because of drought. Governments most take on these issues when masses march, for decisions are rarely made because they are right but because they matter to voters. The quality of our air, rivers, seas and ecosystems is perhaps our most truly unifying issue, for generations of children could suffer, despite schooling, neighbourhood, jobs or colour, because we were too busy feting or fighting to focus on our duty to future citizens.

Toward a Paris agreement, Trinidad and Tobago has developed a Carbon Reduction Strategy for power generation, transportation and industrial sectors. The strategy is meant to be consistent with a National Climate Change Policy. Its goal is to reduce emissions from these sectors by 15%, and transportation emissions by 30%, by 2030.

This is an underwhelming step in the right direction, based more on our ranking number 62 in the world if classified by national greenhouse gas emissions than the other, inconvenient truth that we are the second highest producer of emissions per person. Transport contributes less than ten percent of such pollution. So, how will we actually decouple emissions from economic growth in a petro-state?

Turns out, Zi’s keyword was dead on. What will be the consequences of the COP21 not reaching consensus on reduction of carbon emissions, alternatives to fossil fuels and protecting forests? Are there consequences for a government which fails to fulfill our own carbon reduction strategy? And, in the end, who will face the consequences of man-made climate shifts? See what is missing from Zi’s sentence. Then, see what answer fits.

Post 208.

As Ziya rolled in sandy ebb and flow at Maracas’ shoreline, a handful of friendly girls suddenly encircled us with a swirl of brown arms and legs. They drew Zi in, reaching for her hand, and asking her to go jump deeper into the waves.  A few brought Styrofoam cups to scoop up water and sand, throw in the air, and catch as they swept by amidst incoming foam. ‘Make sure not to leave the cups in the ocean’, I gently cautioned, ‘they will pollute the sea. ‘Auntie, what does pollute mean?’ one of them asked. She was eight years old, and the biggest of their brood.

How could children going to primary school not have encountered the idea of pollution? What are they being taught is the meaning of taking our very national identity as a twin-island republic from the blue, Caribbean sea? In an era when recycling, environmental conservation and climate change are words appearing weekly in newspapers, as politicians, parents, teachers, religious leaders, community activists, lawyers, doctors, engineers and artists, we are failing to give to children that crucial consciousness they already need.

While those girls were diving and floating, there wasn’t time to explain anything more than that to pollute is to poison. As I watched them then run onto the beach, they tossed away torn up pieces of those Styrofoam cups into the wind. A friend of mine picked up all the pieces and we threw them away in a garbage bin rather than see them get caught up and carried further from the shore.

Yet, stepping over chicken bones, bottle caps, crushed cigarettes, miscellaneous pieces of plastic, bits of paper food containers that once contained shark and bake, and more, on what is a disgusting mix of detritus and Maracas sand, Ziya’s enjoyment of our blessed ocean was shot through with real life lesson about how pervasive garbage is and what kind of failures exist in our national waste management policies. How can we teach children to love a country that we poison simultaneously?

Ziya is four, but because we discuss the environment often, she constantly brings up the fact that everything from her toothpaste to shampoo ends up in the ocean. It makes me ashamed, but I haven’t yet taken action to reduce these aspects of my own footprint. Nonetheless, her transparent observation calls me to account for myself, to acknowledge what harm I too am leaving her generation to inherit, to identify our unsustainable habits as the enemy of our children’s future.

We are the first generation of adults in all of human history to deny oncoming others what was handed down over millennia: clean air, earth and water.

We are poisoning the oceans, and already seeing the effects on marine life. Our seas are being filled with our garbage of all kinds, industrial and domestic, untreated and toxic. Reflecting our selfishness and shortsightedness, such garbage shows up at our feet on every coastline and river that was, less than two decades ago, garbage-free.

These are island children surrounded by ocean. Children who deserve to learn about how irresponsibility created ecological crisis as much as they are told about politeness. Children who must become consciousness of their standpoint in relation to the planet, for protecting it cannot be anything other than their first priority.

Who in the Ministry of Planning understands that the environment is an infinite economy? Who in the Ministry of Education sees schooling as beholden to teaching children the definitive global politics of their generation? Children will pay for our delay. None should still be wondering what pollution means.

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

Stories told by women who spent decades pressing for social change, and stories of solidarity by men sometimes almost twice my age. Stories that challenge myths that women of two generations ago were less radical than now and myths that feminist men didn’t exist throughout our history.

I love the stories of activists who came before because they bring our history to life, to their own lives, with laughter and commiseration, with passion and pain, with irony and unexpected twists, making us learn more about successful strategies or forgotten beginnings or our responsibilities to our future.

I love their stories because these efforts, connections and memories are our legacy, as much as the lasting reforms they created, or gains which we must still protect, are our legacy. They are a legacy because too often we think that it takes people who others consider political leaders, or people with university degrees, or those who seem to have more privilege or power to challenge everyday injustices.

Yet, stories by indomitable citizens of all classes and creeds remind us that is not true. These are stories by people who get up and do, working together to provide help or change unequal rules. Such collective love and labour by citizens is also ‘politics’ because it aims to defend their dreams for an emancipated nation and region, and their commitment to equality, independence and rights for women. These stories remind that the struggle for government by the people and for the people is not new.

Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown is just the conference for those of you who also love everyday stories of those around us who got up and did, just like we do or wish to. The public is invited to attend and participate in this gathering to honour a woman who has spent four decades tirelessly fighting for social change, along with hundreds of others whose names should not be forgotten. But, helping us to remember is precisely what stories do.

Hazel’s own stories include sitting in Port of Spain City Council meetings when she was a child as she waited for the Mayor to sign her report book, because in those days the Council sponsored children’s education. It is here she began to understand government, reminding us maybe we should take our children to watch these meetings as part of their civic empowerment and critical education. Her story of running for election in the 1970s along with women of the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago is a lesson in strategy for those thinking about politics today.There’s hope in working with women to buy, iron, exchange and affordably sell used schoolbooks. Then, heartbreak in her plan for a solar powered radio station that was undermined and never came to be. And there will be more than her stories.

Speaking on Saturday are long time activists in areas from women’s health to community and consumer rights, from sustainable food provision, including solar cooking and grow box agriculture, to women’s political participation and leadership, and from Baby Doll mas to the National Gender Policy.

This conference is for anyone who wishes to know more about struggles for social justice, artists and cultural workers interested in social transformation, activists of all eras and issues, and citizens whose dream for our world remains greater equality, justice, sustainability, cooperation and peace.

Come for stories about roads walked and paths still to be cut, in the spirit of our fearless legacy. This column was published prior to the conference, Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown. Videos, photos and other conference information are available on the IGDS website and Youtube page. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/fearlesspolitics/index.asp. https://www.youtube.com/user/igdsuwistaugustine

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Post 184.

Daily I grow more fed up with the People’s Partnership’s door-in-your-face approach to public accountability.  Whether in relation to the complete lack of consultation or transparency regarding the Miami Vice-inspired concretization of Chagaramas, or Jairam Seemungal’s bizarrely negligent statements in relation to SIS land grabbing in Couva. Or Minister Ramnarine’s apparent willingness to oversee disquieting disbursements through NGC’s Corporate Communications Department, finally explaining those vacuous full-page ads about ‘happiness’ conjured up by the government’s most expensive spin doctor. Or public servant revelations of ‘Prisongate’ plagiarism and lawyer-garbed tiefing, which were connected directly to ex-AG Ramlogan’s office, and which the PM dealt with herself, Lady Macbeth-like.

Amidst such untrustworthiness is the shutting down of one of the Green Fund’s most successful projects, Plastikeep, which has made citizens of all classes, business owners, and forty-two schools of children as passionate and committed about recycling as one could ever dream.

Without justification, Plastikeep has been given until the end of the month to pack up its collection bins and to tell all, who now wake up with new feel good routines of environmental care, that their plastic will no longer be collected from next month, despite Plastikeep having a system in place to collect and export it. Now, where will it go? Again, to our landfills, poisonously and purposelessly.

The EMA says it is going to introduce a national recycling plan, but no citizen has ever seen this plan detailed on paper, knows when it will start, has been assured that it will be done through door to door collection as it must, or can be shown an accountable and ready infrastructure in place. Such a plan would also require tax incentives and legislation, currently non-existent.

Maybe the EMA will build on the well thought out plan being championed by local government officials, but there’s highly suspect jostling for Green Fund money, between SWMCOL, and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, headed by Ganga Singh.

It’s Minister Singh, of desalination plant notoriety, who needs to immediately account for why he hasn’t yet approved a third phase, and even expansion, of a project that the Green Fund’s own Executing Unit and Advisory Committee support, and why his Ministry is hungry to make Green Fund cash available at this moment to administer well, nothing, when refuse collection isn’t even under his Ministry’s portfolio.

The fact that Plastikeep has created community happiness, togetherness and hope without giving Ernie Ross a dollar, and has inspired communities across the East-West corridor’s ‘marginal’ constituencies, may mean little on the road to victory that follows Persad-Bissessar’s index finger.

Every one of our votes counts, however, and a genuine groundswell is more personally and emotionally connected to this programme’s closure, without proper accounting for why, why now and why with nothing else in place, than politicians realise.

Plastikeep gets 1% of the Green Fund’s yearly income of about $300 million, and makes more difference to our lives than the unaccounted millions wrapped up in NGC, and Chagaramas’ questionable development.  This can be an election issue if we decide.

Additionally, every political rally until September should end with properly collected plastic being dropped into available collection bins the next day. Minister Singh, how about non-partisan advocacy to make that both parties’ reality, from next week? Rowley, surely you agree?

Which party does it, if any, would show who really loves the little children inheriting our garbage ridden coastlines and country, and it would show more care for future generations than any platform robber speech. School children are learning a lesson in civics, and are ready to protest to protect Plastikeep.