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'All countries need to support each other'

October 29, 2020

Gillian Guthrie speaking at the 57th GEF Council meeting
Gillian Guthrie speaking at the 57th GEF Council meeting. Photo: IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

GEF Council Member and Operational Focal Point Gillian Guthrie is a chemist by training who has worked for decades to support the protection and conservation of Jamaica’s natural resources. In an interview, she reflected on the lessons of COVID-19 for international environmental action.

What do you do for a living?

I head the environmental branch of Jamaica’s Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. We are responsible for setting environmental policies and legislation, for raising public awareness and education, and for interfacing with the international community on environmental matters. As the GEF’s Operational Focal Point in Jamaica, I help decide what projects are funded and make sure they are advancing the country’s sustainability agenda. I am big on country ownership and ensuring that the outcomes of a project are sustained going forward. I also represent Jamaica and 16 other countries as a member of the GEF Council.

What are the main environmental issues impacting Jamaica?

Jamaica ranks fifth among the world’s islands in terms of the variety of its endemic plants. Our biological resources are extremely rich for a small country. Jamaica is also rich in terms of mineral resources. There’s always a kind of tension between the protection of natural resources and the need to develop. It’s not an easy balance. There’s a need to grow the economy and generate jobs. Also, our tourism sector is rooted in our natural resources, so there’s an appreciation for the need to preserve those natural resources.

We have a big issue with air pollution, which is a result of the growing number of cars. We also have issues related to deforestation. Some communities still do “slash and burn” for the cultivation or clearing of forests for housing. We have bauxite mines and also limestone quarries. All of that has impacts on biological resources and habitats.

We have a vibrant civil society, which helps the government identify issues that need priority attention. We have a lot of environmental legislation governing a range of issues, including beach resources, endangered species, wildlife protection, and watershed management. We are in the process of updating the island’s principal environmental legislation to make it more modern and responsive to today’s situation.

What’s needed to tackle these issues?

To address the planet’s challenges, there are three things I find very important. The first is vision. Our national anthem says: “Give us vision lest we perish.” We need to know where we are going and plan for the future. The second is leadership – finding those people who are going to galvanize others to move in a positive direction that is beneficial for all. The third prong is innovation. The COVID-19 experience is asking us to look at things in a different way. Instead of being stuck in the same gear, how can we move forward by taking a different approach?  As data and information become more available, we have to use the science to make more informed decisions. It’s not about a one-size-fits-all approach.

How has the GEF helped Jamaica advance its environmental agenda?

The GEF has really assisted Jamaica in many areas: protecting and preserving biological diversity, climate change adaptation and mitigation, energy efficiency, and conservation. For me, the GEF has done some of its best work with our local communities through the GEF Small Grants Programme. We have been able to engage communities to protect natural resources and promote greater ownership over them. There’s been a groundswell from the bottom, instead of just from the top, about the need to conserve our natural resources. Also, a lot of information and data is generated at the community level. That complements our government efforts and helps us craft policies and promote legislation.

Is there a particular project that’s especially close to your heart?

The GEF helped reinvigorate the Jamaican iguana, which we thought had disappeared. Through a concerted effort we were able to re-establish the population.

Working with the Hope Zoo, our principal zoo, and the National Environment and Planning Agency, the GEF provided financial and technical support for the iguana program. Hatchlings are taken to the zoo, where they are grown to a particular size so they can survive predators like feral cats and dogs. They are then released into the wild with tracking devices so they can be monitored.

If it wasn’t for this project, future generations might not have appreciated the crucial role the Jamaican iguana plays in the biodiversity of the dry limestone forest where it lives. It helps to disperse seeds and regenerate the soil. It has a big impact on the ecosystem.

How did you get started on an environmental career path?

At the University of the West Indies, I did my master’s degree in environmental chemistry. My thesis looked at pollution and heavy metals in the Kingston harbor, which is the seventh largest natural harbor in the world. We were analyzing deposits of heavy metals in the sediments - lead, cadmium, chromium. The industrial belt had a very strong impact on the pollution; industries related to food production, the petroleum refinery, companies dealing with textiles and metal roofing. Through this research I got a feel for how it is that humanity interacts with nature and creates a need to protect and preserve our natural resources. When I was doing my thesis, it became almost like a passion. It focused my career path and motivated me to work in the environmental field.

Gillian Guthrie at Kingston harbor
Gillian Guthrie at Kingston Harbour. Photo courtesy of Gillian Guthrie

What are some of your earliest memories of being in nature?

I was born and raised in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. We have a tradition whereby children spend the summers with their relatives in rural parts of the country. For two months you are free to run about and do all the things that are part of childhood.

My father’s relatives lived in Negril, which at the time was a very sleepy tourist village. I would interact with the ecosystems of the beach – the water, the seagrass beds, the coral. My mother’s side of the family lived in a small community up in the hills and that was a very different experience with rivers and trees and lizards and birds. For many years, I split my summers between the hills and the beach. I think that must have piqued my interest and left something in my subconscious that underpinned my love for nature.

What environmental changes do you hope to see by the time you retire?

COVID-19 has given us a chance to pause and be mindful about what is happening around us, how we are interconnected. It would be very unfortunate if we were to relapse into what we know and are comfortable with. This issue of sustainable development is not just a phase, it’s something we have to live by.

I’m really hoping that we have a global transformation that integrates the environment as one of the key pillars on which economic growth and social wellbeing are based. Not a secondary pillar, but an important piece of the puzzle. And it can’t be just one group of countries that moves in that direction. All countries need to support each other by sharing information and best practices in order to move forward and make real progress.