Safiya Sawney exemplifies what it means to live with passion. She proves the strategy of doing what you love can work. All of this matters, not only because her success is inspiring but, more importantly, her commitment to keeping climate change and environmental issues at the top of political agendas is what’s needed to save our planet.
You don’t need to be a scientist to note the worrying trends in weather. For small island states like Grenada dealing with the issue of climate change is a matter of survival. As the current head of the Association of Small Island States warned recently, “The science, the storms, and the suffering are all screaming at us to take urgent action…”
This movement for change is one that Safiya is committed to driving forward both at a policy level, by working alongside government officials in the Caribbean and beyond, as well as through her work with community groups such as the St Patrick’s Environmental and Community Tourism Organisation (SPECTO).
Born in St Georges but raised in Bathway, St Patricks, from the age of nine Safiya, it seems, has always had a curiosity for the natural world. When she left Grenada to attend university, she chose to study marine science followed by a MPA in Environmental Science at Columbia University.
She’s currently the assistant coordinator of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI) secretariat but has also worked for Dessima Williams, Grenada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, while the ambassador was chairperson of the Alliance of Small Island States.
We love the fact that it’s not just the serious stuff she’s into – she also writes poetry on Shala Monroque’s blog (!) and has dabbled as a music journalist too (check out her interview with legendary DJ Steve Aoki). Safiya Sawney is definitely a young woman to watch.
Where’s your favourite place to relax in Grenada?
Levera Beach at night during leatherback nesting season.There is something quite magical about being just a few inches from a species as old as the dinosaurs doing something so critical to the natural world. Female leatherback turtles travel hundreds of miles to return to the beach they were born on to lay up to, sometimes, 1,000 eggs per season.
If one species could sustain for so long, despite all that it has experienced, despite evolution’s gravity, even with the current climatic and anthropogenic threats, then so can we. Environmental protection and conservation isn’t rocket science . It takes a group of dedicated and passionate individuals willing to sustain, just as the leatherback turtles, to continue to give birth to new ideas and new approaches to ensure our survival.
Why are you so passionate about environmental issues?
My passion started as a result of spontaneous day trips with my parents and siblings to different parts of Grenada we had not yet discovered, FROM swimming at the popular Annandale Falls, picnics at Grand Etang Lake, tours of the River Antoine and Clarke’s Court Rum factories and their accompanying sugar cane fields, deep exploration of the forests and agricultural land behind my grandmother’s modest house in La Digue, swimming amongst the sand barriers and shallow coral reefs of Grand Anse and BBC Beaches, TO driving up both coasts – east and west and knowing that each had their own offerings of waterfalls, beaches, clifftops and vegetation, kite flying in Ft. Jeudy, Quarantine Point and the golf course, diving the various reefs and wrecks around the island and experiencing the thriving vitality of life in a new ecosystem at 15, moon light Easter weekends on Sugar Loaf and Sandy islands just off the north east coast of Grenada which involved fishing boats, scuba and free-diving, spearfishing and painstakingly searching for whelks. All which finally lead my parents to purchasing a house in Bathway, St. Patricks and all of us developing a deep bond to the natural magic of the area which we work hard still to this day to conserve.
You served at the UN as a technical officer within the Secretariat of the Alliance of Small Island States while Grenada chaired the alliance, how would you describe the experience and what are some of the learning lessons you took from that experience?
The experience was deeply humbling as well. Unlike my work with the CCI, which is primarily working on conservation and sustainable development issues from a regional and national perspective, AOSIS allowed me the opportunity to see first hand the international approach to solving key global environment issues. AOSIS is a negotiating body within the United Nations that represents small island developing states in United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. UNFCCC works with nations of the globe to create an international convention on climate change that is fair and effective.
Climate change negotiations are quite contentious as a result of nations not being able to come to consensus on mitigation targets (the most simplest of explanations). Aside from spearheading UNFCCC negotiations, AOSIS worked to build essential relationships with key government agencies and organizations with an environmental focus, within and outside the UN, to assist global SIDS to close gaps on several environmental activities, namely sustainable development initiatives and climate change adaptation objectives.
Key learning lessons I took from this experience are:
1) Persistence is key – as an underrepresented group SIDS needed to have the largest voice in a room filled with many voices and opinions.
2) Think on your feet – literally this is key as decisions are often made in the spur of the moment , outside meeting halls, in transit to meetings, e.t.c. Your ability to think on your feet and come up with solid decisions and strategy could make a large impact.
3) Listen always – at times our enthusiasm makes it difficult for us to really listen and often great ideas can come from simply tuning in to what someone has to say.
Tell us about the Caribbean Challenge Initiative. What does your day to day role involve?
The Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI) is a brand new approach to conservation. It is a coalition of Caribbean governments, private companies and partner organizations working together to achieve long term marine and coastal conservation in the Caribbean region. It is guided by two goals: 1) Achieving 20% marine an coastal protection by 2020 and; 2) Putting in place sustainable financing mechanisms to support long term marine and coastal conservation and protection.
Currently nine Caribbean governments and territories, including Grenada, and 15 global companies along with several multilateral agencies, regional institutions, NGO’s (including The Nature Conservancy), private foundations and government agencies are a part of the CCI.
I currently manage the interim CCI Secretariat alongside the Government of Grenada (who will now manage the permanent CCI Secretariat for the next two years). The Secretariat is the main operation and management body of the CCI. We work with Caribbean governments to create policy, implement marine and coastal conservation projects, attract funding, as well as, come up with new approaches to meeting important conservation and sustainable development objectives.
The CCI is not reinventing the wheel it is, instead, providing support to existing commitments. Thus, a typical day for me involves a number of activities. I am involved in coordinating meetings, developing strategic plans, technical/policy reports, technical briefs, negotiation documents and meeting documents, managing work plans and budgets, pursuing funding opportunities, developing marketing and PR material and working on outreach efforts for the CCI.
I primarily work closely with each CCI government to ensure that they are effectively meeting the goals of the Leaders Declaration – an aspirational document developed by the interim CCI and endorsed at the highest political level committing governments to critical action on marine and coastal conservation. As a regional initiative, the CCI allows me the opportunity to build relationships with key government officials, organizations and individuals all working towards a common goal.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
The worst piece of advice I was ever given was that I should not pursue something because I didn’t look like the sort of person who would have that career. I strongly believe that we all have the ability to do as much as we can and fully embrace all of who we are. A person’s look shouldn’t dictate that person’s ability to do what they are strongly passionate about. Environmentalists and conservationists do not have a prescribed look. We do what we do because we strongly believe in the need for action given the fragility and vulnerability of the natural resources we all depend on to survive.
If you could commit to changing one issue in Grenada, what would it be?
That we would put more effort in connecting the importance of environmental conservation to economic development. This is an effort that is only successful with a joint top down and bottom up approach. I’d like to see more funding and technical assistance be directed to community groups as they are instrumental in implementation and maintenance of action on the ground.
I’d also like to see the government take a stronger leadership position on pushing the importance of sustainable development, using Grenada as a prime example of a country that can develop economically without harming its natural resources significantly.