DEVELOPING The Goat Islands into an eco-tourism attraction could generate greater economic spin-offs than the proposed port development by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC).
The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) argue that the proposal to construct an estimated US$1.5-billion trans-shipment port in the Portland Bight/Goat Islands area could result in a net leakages rather an injection.
"Of that amount spent, how much will actually stay in Jamaica?" asked Diana McCaulay, JET chief executive and founder. "Until you can tell me how much will stay in Jamaica from that big business development then don't tell me eco-tourism will not work".
In 2010, Government announced a proposal to develop an eco-tourism project on Goat Islands.
The proposal — which was eventually rejected — aimed to set up a sanctuary for Jamaican endemic species, such as the iguana. It would also remove the goats and mongoose from the island.
Last month, the Government revealed that it would consider a proposal by CHEC to transform the area into a trans-shipment hub.
JET stressed, in a September 16 release posted to its blog, that it doesn't necessarily oppose development of the logistics hub, but rather calls for extreme caution in the development of protected areas, which includes
"The nature of the coastal resources of the Portland Bight Protected Area are such that they are very likely to be severely impacted by large-scale port development, but full details are needed. These impacts are likely to include increased vulnerability to storm surge," stated McCaulay in the statement. "The Portland Bight Protected Area fisheries and associated occupations currently provide livelihoods for a reported 4,000 families in the area. This figure has been questioned, but we want to make sure that we do not lose sight."
At dawn on Saturday, over 50 persons, including supporters and opponents of the development, toured the perimeter of Goat Islands in small boats.
The boats avoided docking for lack of a permit from the government agency Urban Development Corporation. The 45-minute tour included insight on its rolling hills, stoic mangroves, neon blue waters, its US Naval history, and the introduction of goats by fishermen.
Few fish were visible, but one skipped upright into the distance on belly and tail.
Goat Islands are Jamaica's largest cays. They are approximately 900 acres, according to a Peter Espeut-led study, however, the larger cay alone can hold the National Heroes Circle in Kingston more than six times.
It can also hold the island's longest functional runway at Sangster International Airport at nearly three kilometres, according to comparisons utilising national maps.
The island actually has a defunct runway and the ruins of a hospital, according to the boat captain Mr Elliott regarding its US Navy history. These sites, however, are not easily seen from the sea or air, based on Observer checks.
On Saturday, during the tour, JET conservation coordinator Jaedon Lawe told the Observer that similar structured tours to the island would appeal to tourists and locals. He stated that it would generate sustainable earnings and "employment" for businessmen, fisherfolk and others, which would [augment] their "income when not fishing".
The lack of employment in the community worries Peter Davis, Old Harbour councillor from the St Catherine Parish Council. He favours the CHEC development, but viewed the eco-tourism proposal with interest.
"It was my first time out there to the island. I saw no fish or nothing really. Just trees and mangroves. I am for the development, but we need more research before lamentations," stated Davis after the tour. "Eco-tourism would be the right thing for the bay because it is a fishing village. But employment is very bad and this CHEC development would create jobs in the community."
Its a position also held by at least one fisherman with whom the Observer spoke.
"I am not talking for any political party. I am talking for the benefit of my community," stated fisherman Owen Squire who recalls going on his first fishing voyage on August 10, 1980 to the Pedro Cays. "There are seven fish sanctuaries around. If you destroy two that leaves five... You have to destroy certain things to gain others."
The Portland Bight area is protected area under
the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act (NRCA)and also houses two fish sanctuaries under the Fisheries Industry Act.
The islands are so rarely visited, even by those in Old Harbour, that JET will seek to organise a follow-up tour with members of the community.
"I have never been before this trip," stated respected resident Sandra Nembhard who objects to the CHEC development based on fears that it would result in storm surges into the town.
"It's been a long time since I have come around this area," captain Elliott told this reporter whilst steering the boat.