LOVE her or hate her, you’re almost sure to respect her – or at least her dedication to the environment.
She is Diana McCaulay, chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) and a woman whose name has become synonymous with environmental advocacy. But it is a fact that has seen her attracting a raft of pseudonyms, from ‘coo-coo’ to ‘environment nut’.
McCaulay is largely unphased by this, but admits that there are days when she finds her patience sorely tested.
“We (the JET) are very vocal about a lot of issues. and there is a kind of hostility that is directed at you personally, socially, and professionally that is not that easy to deal with. It is hard. But I try and talk to myself and say that I believe in what I am doing and that it is in the best interest of Jamaicans, both now and in the future,” she told Environment Watch.
“Sometimes I get angry, too, because I think the truth of the environmental message is very obvious. I feel that the people who lead us have a great responsibility that they are not discharging. So a lot of the times I am angry, and a lot of the times I am very pessimistic.”
Her periodic bouts of pessimism aside, McCaulay continues to fight the good fight in the interest of the environment. It is a task she has been at for close to 20 years, and one she took on purely by accident.
Having left St Andrew High School, the now 55-year-old McCaulay went to work in the travel agency, International Travel as a secretary. She later secured employment in the insurance industry with General Accident Insurance Company. But without the benefit of a degree, her progress was slow going. She soon remedied that by earning a degree in Business Management from the University of the West Indies (UWI).
“I realised that I needed some qualifications. With the encouragement of my then boss, I went back to school and, along with my management degree, got what was then called Associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute,” she said. “Once I had a degree, I got promoted and started to occupy management positions.”
It was while at General Accident that her eyes were open to the environment.
“I became concerned about environmental issues because I had a houseguest. He was a young man, and you have to try and find things to do with somebody staying with you,” recalled McCaulay.
She opted to take him to the Palisadoes, a place she had enjoyed going as a child.
“When I was a child, my parents used to take me to the Palisadoes. It was beautiful. I hadn’t been there in maybe 15 years and I took him there. When I drove up, it had become an illegal garbage dump. Truckloads of garbage had been dumped there,” McCaulay said.
“I saw his face, and he was like ‘Why is this woman taking me here?’ I was ashamed and then started to notice things I had not noticed before – Kingston Harbour looked dirty and the hills looked denuded. I started talking to people. I would just ask people, anybody interested, about the environment.”
And the environmental activist was born.
Thirteen years into the insurance business – years that saw her promoted to deputy general manager – McCaulay developed a ‘thing’ for the environment, which put her in touch with several people.
“I met Dr Omera Silva who was on secondment to the Ministry of Health from Pan American Health Organisation. He took me on a field trip to places in Kingston, places where I, as a life-long Kingstonian, had not seen, like the sewage plants and the dump. I was absolutely horrified that the sewage plants in Kingston did not work and had not worked in years,” she said dramatically. “I took pictures and then invited everybody I knew to come and look at the pictures. The people who came were business associates, friends and friends of friends. Everybody was horrified and thought we should start an environmental group.”
And so it was that the JET was born in 1991.
At the time, there were other environmental groups but they were mostly dealing with national parks,” recalled McCaulay. “So, initially, the JET would deal with mostly brown issues, so mostly solid waste, sewage, air pollution. The glamour stuff,” she added chuckling.
JET was housed initially inside one and later two offices at General Accident.
“We started out doing clean-up-type projects, such as cleaning beaches. We worked in Grants Pen, Hellshire. Old Harbour. But it was hard. Firstly, there was not a lot of funding to do these things, certainly not to sustain them. After a clean-up, within a few months, it would be dirty again,” McCaulay told Environment Watch. “We felt in about 1994 that the reason for this was low environmental awareness, so we started doing environmental education programmes and that has remained one of JET’s main focuses.”
Seven years into JET’s operation, she quit her insurance job and committed herself fulltime to the environmental lobbying entity.
“In 1998 when my son was almost through university, I decided to leave my job and work for JET fulltime. So I left my private sector job to work for this small environmental NGO (non-governmental organsation),” said McCaulay, now the holder of a master’s degree in public administration with a major in environmental policy from the University of Washington. “I worked for JET for seven years before it paid me. At the time, I was writing columns for the Gleaner and I had other sources of income.”
Since then, the battles in the interest of the environment have been many and the victories few. Still, despite the challenges, chief among them financing, JET and its CEO continue to march to the beat of their own drum.
Fortunately for JET, McCaulay’s contacts in the private sector have been such that they have been better than other NGOs at raising money.
“It is a wide range of funders – the McArthur Foundation is our largest. The EFJ is our largest local donor and then I have a very wide range of private sector donors,” she said. “I think this is sometimes not easy for NGOs but because I worked in the private sector for so many years, it makes it a little easier for me.”
That savvy in dealing with private sector interests may also be credited for her securing a lease for their current office space along Waterloo Road in Kingston.
There is, meanwhile, also the challenge of succession planning.
“Succession planning is hard. Many non-governmental organisations are very heavily dependent on one person so that if that one person leaves for whatever reason, the organisation suffers. So I have tried to build a team at JET. We are all women, not from any policy but it seems that women are more interested in doing this work,” she said.
Included in that team of eight permanent members of staff and three others who are part-time is a legal officer and several project co-ordinators, as well as an administrative officer.
Another of the challenges with which she comes face to face is straddling the line between regulator and environmental lobbyist. As a member of the board of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) and head of JET, McCaulay constantly has to assess her point of view.
“It is hard to straddle those roles. It is hard to be an environmental advocate in an NGO, as well as a regulator. I find I have to be careful about what hat I am wearing,” she said. “You might phone me and ask me about something happening in the country, like a project being approved. I may feel it should not have been approved, but I was a part of the decision to approve it. In some ways I feel silenced by my regulatory role. I wrestle with it and I don’t feel I should allow that. On the other hand, I feel that by being in the room when the decisions are being made, perhaps I have the ability to influence them. So I struggle with it. I go back and forth with it.”
McCaulay, who is in her third marriage, is now working on a third career – novelist. Already she has one book – Dog Heart – that is to be published next year.
“It is about a relationship between a middle class woman and a youth from the ghetto,” she told Environment Watch of the new book that is to be published by the Leeds, England-based Peepal Tree Press. “It took me two years to write – 2003 to 2005. And then it took me three years to find a publisher. It (finding a publisher) is very hard; I think there are a lot of people writing books and not so many people publishing them.”
McCaulay is proud of her achievement, given that writing has always been a love of hers.
“Writing is my earliest ambition. I have wanted to write since I was 13,” said the mother of a 30-year-old son and a sibling to two sisters. “I loved my years writing (as a columnist between 1994 and 2001).”
There is a second book in the works for publication.
“I have just finished it. I haven’t found a publisher for that yet,” she said.
If there are no other lessons she has learned, it is that until people begin to care about the environment, then politicians will not do what is necessary to preserve it. It is a lesson, she said, that she learned from researcher Dr Barry Wade.
“One of the first people I talked to (about the environment) was Dr Barry Wade; he did the early studies on the pollution of the Kingston Harbour. He told me that the environment would never be addressed until it was an issue on which votes were won or lost. I believe he was right. Now 20 years later, I really think that,” she said. “We are not going to get the political leaders to really pay attention to it unless it matters to the majority of Jamaican people.”
Looking back over the years, McCaulay still has not decided whether she regrets the choices, notably to work in the interest of the environment.
“I ask myself on pretty much a weekly basis, ‘If I had known what this journey would have been like, would I have taken it?’ And I don’t know the answer for that,” she said.