FOR MORE than three decades, Diana McCaulay has translated her passion for environmental conservation into public education and advocacy – a feat that has oftentimes won her more criticism than acclaim.
Recent victories include the 2021 Norman Washington Manley Award For Excellence in Recognition of her efforts to preserve and protect the environment.
As she does, she used her acceptance speech for an environmental case. It gave insight into how to lobby for natural resources protection while reaffirming the need.
“There were many who came before me who sounded warnings about the wanton damage we were doing and many who stood with me on filthy beaches and garbage dumps, in courtrooms and classrooms, even in corridors of power, many who dried my tears, soothed my anger, told me not to give up, and I thank them all,” said McCaulay.
She was describing her journey from being convicted to champion the environment after seeing its pollution, to feeling empowered by the words of a friend to help her see that she could be a part of the solution.
According to McCaulay, founder of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), public education is one of the cornerstones of environmental conservation work since “people would only seek to protect what they understood”. Still, she cautioned that while ‘foundational’, education is an insufficient condition for change.
“It is not the walls and roof of a structure that can deliver attitudinal or behaviour change. Every year, schools need to offer education again, as there is always a new wave of children. Environmental problems were not created overnight – they arise over the long term and can only be fixed in the long term,” she explained.
JET has used public education for many years in their work, including through the Schools Environment Programme which is currently not funded.
The use of the law is another essential element of conservation work – something McCaulay discovered only after her education in public administration and environmental policy at the University of Washington in Seattle on a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship.
“The law is a powerful tool, but only if you pick it up and use it. And rights may be written down on paper, but they only exist when we assert them,” explained the woman who has been given labels, including as a ‘tree-hugging’ and ‘ivory-tower dwelling member of Jamaica’s elite’.
Despite being labeled, she continues to advocate and believes there is a need to change the way that activists are seen.
“Activist too often connote troublemaker … I mean, what, do we want people who are not active? Who doesn’t speak up for the causes they believe in? Who are too afraid of the real danger of victimisation and therefore retreat into silence? Do we not want the engagement of our people?” she queried.
Notable is also the ongoing challenge of meeting core costs, such as the employment of personnel in NGO operations.
“I cannot tell you how many times I heard that funding was approved to deliver teacher workshops, plant trees, provide experiences in nature for inner-city children, develop public service announcements – but with no funding for staffing,” she lamented.
“So if we value the work done by civil society groups, we have to be prepared to fund the people who do the work or all the good people who are moved to join that sector burn out and leave in a few years,” added McCaulay who, having resigned as chief executive officer of JET, now sits on its board.
The Norman Manley Award for Excellence is given by the Norman Manley Foundation to an individual assessed as an outstanding contributor over their lifetime in a category of activity that contributes to the nation’s life.