Presumably, I assume: some issues about information deficit

The value of information is not in what is transmitted, but in what is received. My wife said she sent me an email with a phone number in it. I said I never saw it. Why not give it to me now that you’re standing next to me? I asked. Eureka moment. Transmitted and received well.

I don’t know how I can prove the point I want to make, but let me start the argument. Jamaica may not be very different from many places, but we can’t see enough of all of life’s parts to know how alike we are in some basic ways. I think that Jamaica suffers from an information deficit. We have agencies that send out information, but what we see suggests that, at best this is only partially received.

The country is suffering a drought. How do I know that? I have an idea from the fact that I had not seen rain for weeks, during a time of the year when rainfall is supposed to be more likely. I see the ground around where I live and in areas to which I travel, and it looks dry and hard. Plants look brown, instead of green; many are dying instead of thriving. During afternoons, when the heat rises, the clouds form but no rain comes as one would expect at this time of year. I read press reports and hear news broadcasts, which tell me of the dire national situation of water shortage. I heard that the responsible minister made statements to the nation, telling us that this drought is real. “Fellow Jamaicans, this is a challenge, and it is one that is made worse by higher temperatures and windy conditions, that provide the perfect combination for bush fires, which, given the present water shortage, will be difficult to control and extinguish,” Ministers Pickersgill is reported as saying.

I highlighted the section on fires for a simple reason. I feel that I have been well-informed about this dangerous national situation, and try in my own limited way to heed it. But, for all the efforts to inform, have others absorbed this information, that we think is flying out there freely? My presumption is that most of the country tries to stay well-informed. But, I do not know if this is true.

Many so-called ‘educated’ people are quick to disparage part of society as ‘ignorant’ and ‘ill-informed’. Yet, some of that criticising group is only too glad to say things like “This is why I don’t watch local news.” Now, let me slow down. If the intelligentsia think they can survive in the country by disconnecting from local news reporting, why can we be confident that the ‘ignorant’ will bother? Is it that the ‘ignorant’ cannot think clearly through the weaknesses of local reporting to see the truths that are not reported? Is it that the facts are so obvious that local sources need not be consulted? Simply put, there’s a presumption that local news is not worth wasting time. The intelligentsia, of course, want their heads filled with ‘international’ news–it puts them in a seemingly superior position to be able to pontificate about the perils facing the world in places far and wide, and by groups with names that are tongue-twisting: “Hezbollah…Nagorno-Karabakh…Herzegovina…Boko Haram…Nethanyahu…”.

So, when ministers and the Jamaica Information Service issue statements and bulletins, to whom are they speaking? I assume that the farmers tilling yam hills and tending cows and hoeing weeds from between scallion try to have an ear to what is going on outside their small holdings. But, that’s a view I hold because I want to be informed. I grew up listening to the BBC shipping forecasts, thinking that everyone knew about ‘Dogger…Cromarty…Viking…’, etc. I tend to believe it less when I listen to what goes on as normal business in the agricultural sector. I recall stories earlier this year of peanuts being grown but no one knowing who wanted to buy: supply and demand could not meet. Peanuts rotted. Farmers face destitution. Do we have a peanut marketing board to bring the two sides together? Not exactly, but we have the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, which has a marketing division. Whatever they are supposed to be doing, the peanut farmers are at a loss.

But, if rural people are so ill-informed about their basic bread and butter such as where markets are, why should they know about anything else? Which brings me back to the fires.

Slash and burn has been a part of our rural life for centuries now. It has its rationale, but economic and environmental. It’s not unique to the tropics or to less-developed counties; it’s part of ordinary agriculture. Rural people are accustomed to it, and think they can control it. They don’t necessarily see it as problematic, including during droughts. That alone could explain why, when driving across Jamaica in recent weeks, despite the drought, we’ve seen plumes of smoke, as slash and burn continues. If we want that to change, a JIS infomercial won’t do. It needs a re shaping of economic and social life.

Now, not all bush fires are man-made. We know spontaneous combustion takes place. Maybe, that explains the fires last week in Jacks Hill, which some argue were started as flint ignition. Maybe, that explains some of the burnt banana and bamboo stands seen around southern St. Mary, including the small blaze I saw last night at about 8pm, just after rain had passed the area near the banana chips factory. But, we can’t inform nature.

We’re trying to persuade people to do things or stop doing things, but we’ve no idea how receptive are the ears to the official voices.

That issue goes far beyond our current problem with dry weather and tinderbox bush land.20140804-092536-33936456.jpg

Those of us who live in the a Internet age may find it hard to fathom that information can still move at snail’s pace. But, let’s not presume or assume too much. It may seem extreme, but I’ve met people who do not know who is Usain Bolt, or that Bob Marley is dead. To borrow from The Harder They Come: “How him cyan dead an’ nuh tell mi?”