THINGS THAT MATTER – Every day must be celebrated as Earth Day

“Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.”
(John Ruskin)

The earth is under serious threat. There are at least five “mega-trends” that are major threats for the planet - problems we MUST solve urgently if the world is to be sustainable and continue to provide a home for us all – man and beast – for the foreseeable future. Yet some of the world’s most powerful people couldn’t care less what kind of earth our children inherit.
Earth Day has been celebrated by almost every country in the world and by many millions of people since April 22nd, 1970, but it’s passed us by in Barbados with hardly a murmur. Why do we need to take notice? Why celebrate Earth Day? Why think about it and act on it every day?

The first mega-threat, highly topical but controversial and labelled by the mega-sceptics as a Chinese hoax, is climate change or global warming. There’s a consensus among scientists that a major contribution to the earth’s warming is the over-loading of the atmosphere and the oceans with carbon. Burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and proliferating industrial activity have all combined to increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 280 parts per million (ppm) 200 years ago, to about 400 ppm today. It’s clear we must act swiftly and effectively to embrace clean energy and abandon as soon as practical, wherever possible, fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas). A sadly ignored element of global warming is the change in distribution of vectors, for example the wider proliferation of mosquitos and their several diseases – dengue, chikungunya and zika.

The second, closely related threat is air pollution. Although pollution comes in many forms, the most dramatic and least tolerable is air pollution. Smog from coal and oil burning industrial cities, from the vast numbers of cars and the combination of both in heavily populated cities can produce unbearable living conditions, where people have to wear masks. Los Angeles, Mexico City, cities in India (Kanpur, worst in the world, and New Delhi), in China (Beijing), and in Europe (Berlin, Milan and even some parts of London) all have major air pollution problems. Bridgetown at rush hour is also a problem.

The third major threat is solid waste, especially plastic. Plastic pollution of the oceans and of many aspects of human and animal life is a major threat to a sustainable future. It’s been calculated that our 1950 world population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; but by 2016 our world population of some 7 billion produced more than 320 million tons of plastic. Every day some 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans, with incredible effects such as the great Pacific garbage patch and an almost matching Atlantic giant garbage patch (between Bermuda and the Azores), each occupying thousands of square miles of ocean. These patches consist of tiny particles of plastic floating just beneath the ocean’s surface, caught with larger debris, mostly plastic bottles entangled in seaweed, trapping fish. Many fish ingest the plastic with deadly consequences.

A fourth major threat to the planet is continuing deforestation, a rapidly-growing problem in Africa, Central and South America. This means less cleansing oxygen, displacement of wildlife, and a decrease in an important natural counter to global warming. It also leads to reduced rainfall, drier climates and eventually desertification. It’s worth noting that much of the Sahara desert was once tropical forest.

Tropical rainforests are being destroyed for the sale of timber at one and a half acres every second. It’s estimated that half of the earth’s rainforests have been lost and at the current rate of assault we will destroy them all in the next 40 years.

Finally the loss of biodiversity can be catastrophic. The combination of climate change and industrial pollution, for example may be responsible for the decline of the bee population in many countries, with devastating effects on pollination and food production. Similarly, global warming can be catastrophic. It has major effects on the polar ice caps, with increasing rise of sea levels which will flood Polynesia and damage our Caribbean coasts and our tourism.

In spite of these many threats, the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency, which has done an amazing job to clean up the USA, is astonishingly under threat from the top!

Meanwhile, what can WE in Barbados do to play our part? Here’s a short list of valuable actions:

Make less garbage. Replace plastic and disposable items with reusable or biodegradable options. Use and re-use glass jars, take canvas bags to the grocery, and decline plastic cutlery. Use a good water bottle and reject multiple plastic bottles of water. Waste less food. Plan meals carefully. Eat less meat. Make soups with left overs. Be creative. Compost your waste. Reduce, reject, re-use, recycle. Turn out the lights whenever you can and turn off the water… when you’re soaping in the shower and between dishes. Walk when you can. And vote for policies that promote green.

Let’s work together in every way to make Barbados beautiful and productive again. Our earliest ancestors who settled this land – yeoman farmers and their servants – cleared the forests of the bearded fig trees and mastic in ten years and planted crops … with nothing more than axes and saws and hand pushed ploughs. They set the stage for the heartless industrial culture of plantation slavery that made Barbados “the richest jewel in the English crown”. Yet today, with modern equipment at our disposal, we’re re-forested with river tamarind, women’s tongue, bush and cow itch, and most of our agricultural lands have gone to waste. I was therefore hugely inspired on a recent visit to Mr. Mahmood Patel’s Coco Hill Forest in St. Joseph – a brilliant mix of sustainable food production and agritourism.

Coco Hill Forest started as a project to grow herbs and greens for the restaurant Mamu’s Café at Ocean Spray Hotel. Mahmood has both horticulture and agriculture experience and heritage, and so when guests would ask him “where are the local fruits” or “why does Barbados import so much food”, he says he would feel a sense of shame - and hence the idea of the project - essentially to grow his own local food for the café.

He started with coconuts, bananas, green vegetables and herbs and uses several methodologies of farming: permaculture, vertical, edge and terracing. The terracing is brilliant, with paths with handrails around the steep hillside. The idea has grown over the years to a full-fledged “farm-to-table” ethos, fully engaged in the “eat what you grow” principle. For example: bananas are used to make banana jam, breads, pancakes, shakes and smoothies and include other parts of the banana plant. Coconut produces cakes, pastries, candies, ice-cream and hopefully in the future such products as milk, sugar, et cetera. The café’s menu is generated chiefly from local produce.

The project has also evolved to become a tropical flora repository, collecting fruit trees, spices and plant medicinals. By researching the early historical records such as Ligon and Schomburgk on the flora of our early years, Mahmood is replanting where possible with pineapples, coffee, cocoa, and teak.

His goal – carried out with a passion – is to make the “handshake” between tourism and agriculture by linking these two sectors in a symbiotic way; and to further promote the concept he offers guided hikes daily at 10.00 am and 2.00 pm. The tour takes about 2 hours. Group and school rates are available. Coco Hill Forest is on the road down to the Flower Forest and a fabulous bonus of a visit is the range of spectacular views over the Scotland District.

Finally there’s our big problem of litter. The way we litter in Barbados is literally an insult to our beautiful island and our planet. But it needs another column.

(Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Website:

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