Social development expert: Caribbean must redefine climate justice

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A picture of Laventille Hills which is one of the marginalised communities in East Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. In communities like Laventille, social development specialist Amilcar Sanatan is overseeing skills training programmes to contribute to further human development. (Photos courtesy Amilcar Sanatan)
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By Tyrell Gittens

Historically, human rights campaigns like the US civil rights movement and the Black power movement have been viewed by some as “radical” movements.

But given their effectiveness in reducing socioeconomic inequalities and barriers to upward social mobility for marganalised groups, social development specialist Amílcar Sanatan wants people to consider radical politics as a transformational tool to reducing social inequalities.

With alleviating climate loss and damage at the forefront of most discussions at the upcoming 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, Sanatan is calling on decision makers to consider radical politics to deliver justice to marginalised communities which are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Defining radical politics as any political action advocating for structural changes in the foundation upon which modern day society is built, Sanatan told the Daily Observer a radical response to the climate crisis can ensure marginalised groups are not left behind.

He added, “When Caribbean islands moved towards political independence it was a radical idea and the idea of ending child labour was radical.

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“So we need to be very clear that climate injustice is about man’s violence to the environment and that violence must be stopped.”

A gender and development lecturer at the University of the West Indies St Augustine Campus, Sanatan is also an activist, spoken word artist and socioeconomic projects coordinator at the East Port of Spain Development Company in Trinidad and Tobago.

The special purpose state company aims to improve the livelihoods of residents in marginalised communities throughout East Port of Spain by engaging them in different capacity building initiatives to build up human development.

Sanatan says, “The Global South has long been understood as socially, economically and politically located on the periphery of the global economy. We must strive to understand the peripheries in the periphery.”

He added, “Climate loss is not just an idea of rising sea levels, sargassum (seaweed) coming up on our shores or our vulnerabilities to floods.

“We now have to think about our economic hemorrhaging that happens because of our lack of resilience and people living in unplanned settlements on the periphery of capital cities in the Caribbean.”

To help reduce the socioeconomic disparities between the Global North and South, it’s important to create a robust international climate financial institution which can provide easier access to redevelopment loans to vulnerable countries like small island developing states.

But Caribbean countries must also take some level of accountability and build climate resilient economies.

Referencing a book written by Jamaican social critic Rex Nettleford, Amilcar said the region should have “an inward stretch, outward reach” which means looking at “getting its house in order” before looking elsewhere.

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“We must begin imagining an economy rooted in achieving ecological gains while also maintaining the needs of people. The only oil we should plan our futures for in the Caribbean is oildown.”

For example, Trinidad and Tobago’s decision makers must possess political will to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and gas as a climate mitigation strategy and out of the realisation the country’s main economic activity affects its ecological wellbeing.

Sanatan also called out the practice of poorly designed settlements being built on hillsides in the Caribbean which only leads to complaints about disaster events when heavy rainfall occurs.

In these and other cases, Sanatan accused governments of designing unsustainable economies and manmade environments with sparse interventions to improve the material well-being of people.

“Climate crisis or no climate crisis, we have a geographic context which we must be sensitive to.

“Another radical change needed is a transformation in the way we do climate education because we need empowerment. People need to understand they have a role in sustaining the planet for ourselves and future generations.”

With highly populated communities on the periphery of urban areas – commonly known as squatter yards throughout the Caribbean – Sanatan said these communities should have a say in their development.

In these areas, governments are advised to transform urban governance by adopting a participatory planning approach – ensuring communities are directly included in policy development – as opposed to general consultations.

Apart from often being used for legitimacy or getting people to “buy-in” to what is being proposed, Sanatan said consultations often have a power imbalance between officials and community members while participatory planning brings everyone to an equal level.

“Urban governance is important because we need to politically empower civil society groups so that they have an equal say in planning of the cities and those who live around them.

“One of the core issues of climate injustice is that the people most affected by it, have the least amount of political decision-making power as it relates to protecting their livelihoods.”

Lamenting the Caribbean is “a bit behind on that approach to development,” Sanatan added governments will need a certain type of technical and political leadership to see the importance of non-state actors like civil groups participating in the design of urban areas.

With the East Port of Spain Development Company, Sanatan has seen firsthand the positive effects community empowerment can have on development.

The company’s investment in social development projects improves the socioeconomic status of residents which in turn improves their resilience to economic and environmental shocks like climate change.

One of the company’s ongoing initiatives is an urban agricultural project training communities to grow their own food with the limited space available.

“What we have seen is the establishment of networks and sustainable actions by community groups around food sovereignty. So the people of East Port of Spain have started networks of urban agriculture and animal husbandry using their small plots of lands.”

The company is also in the process of eradicating pit latrines in these communities which pose a health risk especially given an increase in flooding due to more frequent extreme weather events.

Sanatan points out the probability of diseases spreading because of these pits.

“Sanitation is also a part of building community resilience and we can do that by constructing toilets.

“To me, climate justice is a part of development justice. In order to have justice in development, you need to empower people. Bob Marley said none but ourselves can free our minds.”

While building community resilience to reduce climate loss and damage is at the forefront, Sanatan reminds people it is no longer possible to place human interests over the environment.

With this in mind, societal changes should include climate mitigation to address the root cause of climate change.

“It’s the very opposite of what Rastafari has thought about an ‘ital’ approach to the harmony we must have with our environment.

“So the radicalism we are striving for in regards to the environment, is to have a structural change in order to redress the problem. Climate to me is part of a wider ecological injustice.”

Sanatan is encouraging those with a passion for change to run for political office. Regardless of the level of governance, he said it is important that people with a vested interest in climate mitigation, adaptation and sustainable development hold seats of power and make their voices heard.

“We need to advance an agenda in defense of the environment at all levels. This is a question of political will, so we can put the investments where they matter.

“It’s no longer a debate and we don’t have sides on this. We need to shape our economy and our society with our values when we get into power.”

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This article was submitted by Tyrell Gittens who is a journalist, conservationist, environmentalist and geographer from Trinidad and Tobago. Tyrell published this article with the support of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Fellowship

Thoughts and views expressed in observations do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer Newsco, its management or staff.

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