Fighting illegal dumping in the Bahamas

“The Bahamas.” The words summon up visions of a beautiful tropical island, clear blue waters, paradise. But the beauty of the more than 700 islands attracts not just tourists – six million a year – but also mountains of trash piling up on the most picturesque areas. The accumulation is threatening not just its reputation […]

“The Bahamas.” The words summon up visions of a beautiful tropical island, clear blue waters, paradise. But the beauty of the more than 700 islands attracts not just tourists – six million a year – but also mountains of trash piling up on the most picturesque areas. The accumulation is threatening not just its reputation as an enviable tourist location, but also the jobs of more than half the country’s workforce. So it is vitally important that the islands remain clean and welcoming for a perfect holiday. 

Conchalay Conchalar, a member of Let’s Do It! Bahamas, started to make videos to document the seriousness of the situation. “If the islands are full of trash and waste, tourists might not want to come to the Bahamas anymore,” he says. Conchalay has tried to draw the attention of the local Department of Environmental Health Services to the problem many times, but without results. His response: to continue video-mapping the trash. “Somebody has to do it. You cannot close your eyes to the problem. It is my mission.”

When did you start to worry about the waste situation in your country?

I started worrying about it 5 years ago, when I moved to Nassau Island. I built myself a new house from scratch. Soon, I realised that there was a dump site only 50 yards from my home. People were dumping car parts, garbage and everything that wasn’t useful anymore. That was the beginning. I didn’t know who was doing it. So first I went to the Department of Environmental Health Services to file a complaint about the situation next to my yard. They never came.

A month later I went back and a guy working there said: ”We’re going to deal with it.” So I waited but still nothing happened. The third time I went there, they told me that the budget had run out. The situation itself was only getting worse. Soon there were rats gathering all around the garbage and my home. It was a real problem for me – I was starting a new phase of my life, getting married, building a home. It was really disgusting and I couldn’t take it any longer.

What are the challenges of cleaning up the waste in Bahamas?

Large countries have big waste management programs. In Bahamas we have Environmental Health Services which is supposed to deal with landfills and the disposing of any kind of waste. But the reality is that, to get rid of your waste, you have to pay for it – for the truck that takes your garbage to the landfill. Unfortunately the majority of the Bahaman people are relatively poor and they don’t have money to pay for a truck. Instead they drive themselves, find some vacant place and just throw their garbage in such places all over the island.

When did you start to take videos to map the situation?

After my last visit to the Department of Environmental Health Services I took it into my own hands and decided to document the situation. The administrators actually knew where people throw their garbage but they didn’t take any action against it. So I took my camera, started taking pictures and videos. I posted the videos and pictures online for my friends and acquaintances all over the world. I said to myself that I was going to document everything trash-related that was happening in Nassau. I just wanted to have the footage so I could say: “They lie, they don’t do anything. There is corruption.” I still feel like the Department of Environmental Health Services is robbing the taxpayers and not caring about the situation in Bahamas. I decided that if no one else was doing anything, then I would start acting myself, raising the issue. That is the main reason I am a part of Let’s Do It! World. I have lots of friends now who support me.

Are there more people engaged in mapping now or is it just you?

People here are truly afraid of going to map in public and even more, of being caught on video. They don’t want their employer or friends to know they are involved in the mapping actions. To them, pointing out trash problems means stepping up to fight with government institutions.

But you are not afraid. How do you defend yourself?

As Pål Mårtensson (LDI network mentor) and other supporters from Let’s Do It! World have said, as long as I do the right thing, everything is okay. I can’t stop anymore. I am protected because I am watched all around the world. My videos depict the true situation here in the Bahamas. My followers keep an eye on me and watch my back. The most important thing is that it is not only my thing but all of ours. We do it globally. So I keep on raising awareness and making videos almost every day.

Have you been involved in any movements or activist organisations before Let’s Do It?

This is my first one. At first I started alone. Everyone thought I was crazy. I was looking for somebody to watch my back as I documented the trash buildup. I wanted to make sure that the world knew the reality. 

Are there any other local environmental movements?

Yes, the Bahama Plastic Movement and Save The Bays. The Bahama Plastic Movement is focused on building a community of education and activism around plastic pollution. Save The Bays is focused on preserving and protecting the Bahamian environment through policy changes and legal actions.

Besides mapping, do you clean the beach by yourself, too? How about others?

Yes, we have several actions here. Plogging is very popular. You walk or run, see the trash and pick it up as you go. I clean alone, too.

Will you be cleaning on the 15th of September?

Of course! And hundreds of my friends will, too! It just takes time for Bahamians. They will get activated two or three weeks before the big event and join World Cleanup Day. I hope that there will be more actions leading up to it in August.

The islands attract so many tourists! What do you think about having them join your cleaning effort?
It is a good idea to combine work and vacation. “Come to Bahamas, clean the island and enjoy your vacation at a beautiful beach!”

What keeps you going?

What motivates me is that the Bahamas is the most beautiful place in the whole hemisphere to me! People dream of coming here! Everyone wants to vacation in the magnificently beautiful Bahaman water and islands. But we have a serious problem. A problem that I don’t want. People come to Bahamas from all over the world, they witness the hard reality about waste pollution. It shines a negative light, leaves a negative impression of our country. And if I don’t speak about it, perhaps no one else will. People who live here have to speak about it honestly and start acting. We have a problem to fix – that motivates me.

As to your documentary and mapping, do you have any support?

When I started, there was nobody helping me. I tried to engage some people, but they thought I was crazy. But now I’m getting help. We have a team for mapping, logistics and marketing. And the core team of Let’s Do It! is always there to help me. Before that, it was only me and the garbage – and nobody else. Now have now started seeing the problem thanks to the Let’s Do It! movement.