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If You Spent 2017 in the Caribbean, This Was The Kind of Year You Had

An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22 (HSC-22), attached to the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), performs humanitarian aid operations on the embattled island of Dominica following the landfall of Hurricane Maria. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Molina/Released)170924-N-VK310-0009. Via the Official U.S. Navy Flickr Page, CC BY 2.0

Every year has its ups and downs; however, 2017 was a bit like a rollercoaster for the Caribbean archipelago, complete with incredible highs and stomach-churning lows. Here's a look back at some of the issues the region wrestled with this year, and how it both failed and triumphed in the midst of change:

The highs

The environment

The critically endangered Jamaica Iguana. Photo by conservation photographer Robin Moore, used with permission.

While the environment took a huge hit because of the harsh 2017 Atlantic hurricane season which wreaked havoc in many island territories, nature also won big thanks to the efforts of dedicated environmentalists.

First off, the rest of the region rallied to the aid of the territories that were the worst affected — a trend that was evident even when smaller scale disasters like flooding happened on a local level before the hurricane season began.

Just as heartening was the way that good news and stories of resilience began to surface after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the region, countering the “disaster porn” narrative that was beginning to take shape on international mainstream media. There were also glimpses of hope as badly battered Dominica began to rebuild, and the region's birds, whose habitats had been destroyed, were making a post-hurricane comeback.

The icing on the cake came in the form of a landmark victory for environmentalists in Jamaica who managed, after a long and hard-fought campaign, to convince the government to create a wildlife sanctuary on the Goat Islands. The area, once threatened by a transshipment port development, is now a sanctuary for the critically endangered Jamaican Iguana (Cyclura Collei), which had initially been thought extinct but was rediscovered in the Portland Bight Protected Area's Hellshire Hills in 1990.

Women finding their voices

A cross section of the crowd at the Tambourine Army Survivor Empowerment March Against Sexual Violence. Photo by Storm Saulter, used with permission.

It was a tough year for Caribbean women, with often fatal incidents of gender-based violence dominating the headlines. Adding insult to injury was the tendency to victim-blame, putting the onus on women to protect themselves from potential predators.

But there were victories, too. In Jamaica, the Tambourine Army movement began to “advocate differently for the rights of women and girls”, unapologetically putting the issue of sexual violence on the front burner. While one of the group's founders faced a severe backlash for it (she was arrested and charged on three counts of “the use of computer for malicious communication” under the country's Cybercrimes Act, ostensibly for “naming and shaming” alleged perpetrators), the group was eventually vindicated, with the country's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) saying it was “not a viable prosecution”.

Protection of the most vulnerable

Wedding ring in sand. Photo by Derek Gavey, CC BY 2.0.

Perhaps the brightest spot of all when it came to women's rights was Trinidad and Tobago's abolition of child marriage which, up until this year, had been legal.

Jamaica also stepped up to the plate by taking steps to improve its missing child prevention and recovery efforts via a Facebook alert system. The country also created a database to track the human rights violations of the region's most vulnerable communities.

In that vein, the Jamaican prime minister, Andrew Holness, made a historic apology for the “grave injustice” of an attack made on Rastafarians in 1963. Eight Jamaicans were killed on what has come to be called “Bad Friday”, and as many as 150 Rastafarians were rounded up, arrested, abused, and had their dreadlocks cut as part of an atmosphere of systematic oppression, discrimination and open hostility towards them that had begun prior to independence.

However, indigenous communities still face an uphill battle when it comes to gaining rights and recognition in the region.

The lows

Lack of trust in state bodies

Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) uniform detail taken during Jamaica's 2010 state of emergency. Photo by the BBC World Service, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Corruption — or at least the perception of it — still remained high on netizens’ radar this year, with ministers in various territories racking up big bills at the expense of the public purse.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the head of state was embroiled in a corruption scandal that involved his receipt of a housing allowance while occupying state housing, and though police have announced their investigation into the matter, nothing further has come of it to date.

Trinidad and Tobago's judiciary was also facing a decline in public trust after the country's law association passed a symbolic no-confidence vote against the chief justice. The controversy that followed was quite involved and is still ongoing. To add to the judiciary's woes, a former attorney general was arrested on charges of perverting the course of justice and misbehaviour in public office.

In a disappointing turn of events in Jamaica, a review by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) absolved the officers involved in what has come to be known as the Tivoli Gardens Incursion, where, under a state of emergency in 2010, security forces entered the troubled West Kingston community in search of alleged drug don Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who was wanted for extradition to the United States. During the security operations — which raised major concerns among human rights groups — at least 72 Jamaicans lost their lives and about 35 more were wounded.

The loss of a few good men

Derek Walcott at the VIII Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua, February 2012. Photo by Stanislav Lvovsky, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Finally, the region was in mourning over the death of several key figures this year: Trinidad and Tobago's ‘virtual’ historian Angelo Bissessarsingh, promising young soca singer Devon Matthews, Jamaican media icon Ian Boyne, and St. Lucian-born but regionally claimed Nobel Laureate, Sir Derek Walcott.

Still in free fall

Issues of migration

Screenshot from the YouTube video of the 2017/2018 Human Rights Law Clinic Schools Tour.

When it comes to certain pressing issues, the ride definitely isn't over. The region continues to grapple with matters such as migration, for instance, against the backdrop of the deepening political and economic crisis in nearby Venezuela and the recent plight of a group of Cuban migrants living on the street in a protest outside the Trinidad and Tobago office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Legalisation of marijuana

Sativa. Photo by Dank Depot, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Because of its geographical location — smack dab between North and South America — the Caribbean has been affected by the policies of the United States’ ‘War on Drugs’. So while the rest of the world begins to legalise marijuana and profit handsomely from its legal sale, particularly in the medical marijuana market, the region that is perhaps most associated with ganja growing now trails behind both legislatively and economically. While there has been some astounding progress in this regard, particularly in Jamaica (which has decriminalised possession in small amounts), other territories are still sluggish.

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