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A revolution of ideas and action
Interview with Andrew Simmons
by Monte Leach

A profile of Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Andrew Simmons, who mobilizes young people in his native Granada and elsewhere, to become engaged in shaping the future of their countries.  

Andrew Simmons, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, has spearheaded a community-based environmental movement in St.Vincent and the Grenadines, an island nation in the eastern Caribbean. In 1978, as a teacher and the only employed teenager in his community, Simmons established JEMS Progressive Community Organization to help local communities stop the destruction of the nearby King's Hill Forest Reserve. Since this successful effort, Simmons has continued to encourage community participation in local decision-making, and has helped implement water projects and a number of other activities, including clean-up campaigns and leadership training for youth.

Simmons founded the Caribbean Youth Environment Network, and currently works as Director of Community Services for St.Vincent. Through the United Nations Environment Program, Simmons has advised on the development of similar youth programs in other countries.

Monte Leach: As I understand it, you started working in your community when you were only a teenager. What prompted you to start your community work?

Andrew Simmons: Before 1972, about 95 per cent of the people on the island were employed, on three or four agricultural estates. With the oil crisis in 1972, and the increased cost of fuel, these estates closed down. Unemployment went from 5 per cent to about 90 per cent.

One of the oldest forest reserves in the world is located on our island. It was established on about 52 acres of land in 1791, and is called King's Hill Forest Reserve. After the oil crisis, as a means of survival, people began cutting down trees for fuel wood, and destroying the wildlife.

In 1977 we started discussing what we could do as young people to stop the environmental destruction. One year later 52 of us came together to start an organization [JEMS Progressive Community Organization]. We started going into the community, telling people to stop cutting down the trees. But I think we learned a harsh lesson when we were confronted by one parent who told us: "How do you expect me to get food? I can't buy natural gas, how do you expect me to get food to feed my children, to send them to school?"

So we started to have discussions. We changed our entire strategy in terms of how people within the community could work with us to save the forest. One of the major problems in that community was illiteracy. Illiteracy was estimated at over 60 per cent among adults. So we started a literacy program. We ran classes four evenings per week. I recruited other teachers and other persons in the organization who were going to secondary school. They worked as volunteers. I trained them to work with others.

ML: You taught literacy, but how did you answer that woman who asked you "How do I feed my kids?"

AS: We discussed economic alternatives with the people in the community. We started training people, mainly women, in terms of employment-creation skills -- such as electrical wiring, and building-construction skills. A number of them are working now as carpenters, masons, that type of thing. And also we looked for other training opportunities within St.Vincent and outside of St.Vincent, and sometimes we were able to get the Organization of American States (OAS) to provide that type of training. Because we were able to provide this alternative, a number of people are presently employed, and work with us in protecting the forest reserve itself.

AS: Yes. Because some of them have land available, we also trained a number of them in animal husbandry techniques so that they could improve their flocks, and in agriculture techniques so that they could produce better quality crops, using less land and fewer resources. We also worked with developing renewable energy sources.

We set up within all the schools in the area what we call "Youth Environmental Service Corps" -- the abbreviation is YES. We provide training for youth within the school itself. They are involved in community clean-up campaigns, tree planting exercises, using popular theatre as a medium for getting the community involved.

ML: Why did you decide on popular theatre as a community organizing approach?

AS: In the early stages, it was difficult to get people to come to meetings. We used to go house to house, but if you wanted to meet all of them together, they wouldn't come. So we went into the community, talked to people, and did the basic research on local issues. Then we would devise a play with songs that would highlight a community problem, and possible solutions to the problem. We would go back into the village, invite everybody into the village square, and perform the play and songs. Then we would have a discussion. We found that has been extremely effective in terms of getting the entire village to participate -- men, women, and children.

ML: How do you apply what you have learned in St. Vincent to the other countries in the area?

AS: With funding from the United Nations Environment Programme, we established a regional network called Caribbean Youth Environment Network. Twenty countries are involved, from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, to Guyana and Belize, involving four languages -- English, French, Spanish, and Dutch. My work is mainly among young people.

ML: And why do you focus on the young people?

AS: Because the future of the earth itself is on the side of the children. As adults, we are fixed in our ways, and it is extremely difficult to change. But we have learned from our work in St. Vincent that if you work on the kids, it is very easy to get the parents to be a part of it.

In St. Vincent, in 1992, I was able to raise funds from the Canadian Government and the Government of St. Vincent to set up an environmental day-care and pre-school facility, teaching children between 18 months old to four years, about the environment.

ML: How do you teach an 18-month-old infant about the environment?

AS: My first training was in education, although I went back and did a master's degree in economic development. I use Piaget and Montessori and other psychologists who concentrate on working with children. We use clay. We take them on nature walks, and start to teach them about the importance of the environment. Although some of these children just started speaking, we found that they would go back and encourage their parents to take them on walks out in the fields and woods, to look at butterflies and other creatures.

We're doing this only in St. Vincent now, because we don't have the funds to expand. But because of the success of the YES groups in St. Vincent, in the primary and secondary schools, we were able to get other groups that we were working with to set up similar types of programs within their country, in Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Guyana, and elsewhere -- 20 countries in all. I set up national coordinators, whose role is to organize networks within their country. We meet twice a year, bringing everybody together. We train them in new skills, and look at the structure of the organization and what new strategies we should put in place for the future.

ML: It sounds as if the participation of the people, at the village level, is the basis of your work?

AS: Yes, that is the major ingredient. Development is a process of change, a process where people should be at the center, where they can shape their own existence. That is something we have been practising. We talk about empowerment of local people, building their self-esteem, giving them confidence so that they themselves can shape the type of development that they want to take place within their community.

ML: How do you help build their self-esteem?

AS: By training, and also through demonstration projects. We usually start with small projects, small problems, and we work with them in finding solutions. Then gradually we go into the bigger problems, bigger issues, and they have developed the confidence in themselves to deal with them. We have developed our own library, where we provide them with information. We bring them together once a month to discuss the issues that confront the community, and also bring people who are trained in specific areas to work as resources for them in the field.

Our duty from the organizational level, although we are also from the community, is to facilitate the process. We take them through a process. They identify the issues, and decide what they want to do about them. We use a number of different strategies, for example, popular theater, in terms of getting them to recognize their weaknesses, devise strategies, and also implement the program themselves. We come back from time to time to help them evaluate their efforts.

ML: What's the missing ingredient today in dealing with development issues?

AS: The missing ingredient is that we don't involve the people. We don't see them as an important element within the development process. The masses, in a sense, have been stifled. You don't listen to them, you don't consult with them. You sit in your office because you think you are trained in an area, and you jot down the whole plan, and then you try and dump this plan on the people, and expect the people to be involved with it. If instead we look at it from the bottom up, in terms of getting people to participate, listening to their views, and then after that shaping the policy, rather than us setting the policy first, I think things would be much better. To me, that's the most important lesson that I have learned from this experience.

ML: Any other points you wish to make?

AS: We usually put issues like economics, environment, development, and population into compartments. A typical example is the UN. We have seen important conferences like the UN population conference, and the women's conference in Beijing and others, divert the main attention away from the major issues that face the world, the major conflict between developing countries and the West in terms of trade and the transfer of technology. In the years ahead, we may find that we did not achieve anything of great importance during these conferences because of the small compartments into which we divide the issues.

ML: What gives you hope?

AS: I have hope that once we concentrate on working with the young people, there will be changes when they become adults. Nowadays young people are taking action, applying pressure on their parents, taking strong leadership positions. I have seen that in the Caribbean. I have seen that within Africa, and also in a number of parts of Europe. There have been quite a lot of positive changes and actions that have taken place. I believe there will be a revolution in terms of ideas and action that we will see in the next 10 years, or even sooner, that will completely transform the world. That is what I believe.

From the July/August 1996 issue of Share International 

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005