Spare a thought for the Jamaican iguana

Spare a thought for the Jamaican iguana


Friday, June 06, 2014

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Here in Britain it is difficult to get positive media coverage of Jamaica outside of the Olympics. But suddenly a particular Jamaican resident has had an outpouring of media interest. This favoured citizen is the Jamaican iguana, one of the rarest lizards in the world.

According to Sir Hans Sloane, the famous physician and botanist who visited Jamaica in 1688, iguanas were once common throughout Jamaica. But the Jamaican iguana had declined dramatically during the second half of the 19th century, until it was believed to exist only on the Goat Islands.

This followed the introduction of the Indian mongoose into Jamaica as a form of rat and snake control. By 1948 everybody believed that the lizard was extinct. But then, in 1970, a dead adult specimen was found. And in 1990 the lizard was rediscovered when a live iguana was captured by a hog hunter in the Hellshire hills.

After that rediscovery, a study showed that there were only 50 iguana lizards in existence. However, since 1991, through the dedicated work of conservationists, the number of nesting females and annual hatchlings recorded has increased six-fold, with at least 200 individual lizards in the wild today.

The Jamaican iguana is listed as a critically endangered species, but it has been saved from extinction. However, this triumph of the conservation movement is now threatened by the plan to turn the Goat Islands into a $1.5-billion economic zone, transshipment port and logistics hub.

The official name for the project is the Portland Bight Economic Zone and Transshipment Port, and foreign journalists seem to be converts to the campaign against it. The Guardian newspaper in London recently published a portfolio of beautiful photographs of the lizard by the prize-winning photographer Robin Moore.

But it is not just the lizard that is threatened. The livelihood and way of life of fishing communities in and around the Goat Islands would disappear. And the flattening of the Goat Islands, as well as the dredging involved, would threaten 50 species of plant life found only in Jamaica, including 17 that are endangered.

Overall, the total Portland Bight protected area covers: over 200 miles of land; 524 miles of sea, which contain the Goat Islands; 30,000 acres of mangroves; and four dry limestone forests. Conservationists and the international community argue that these coastal belts of mangroves provide an essential habitat for a large number of animal species, including some commercially important fish and schools of dolphins. Perhaps, even more important, the coastal mangroves help to reduce the impact of severe storms and hurricanes.

Some Jamaican politicians believe that the survival of a lizard, no matter how beautiful it looks in photographs, is outweighed by the thousands of jobs that the logistics hub will produce. Jamaicans are struggling, not only with the collapse of markets for their traditional commodities like banana and sugar, but also with the aftershock of the international financial crisis.

It is difficult to argue in these circumstances that saving a few plant species should take precedence over job creation and growth. The negative long-term effect caused by flattening and dredging the Goat Islands and eradicating the coastal mangroves may be even more climate change, storms and hurricanes. But, as the distinguished economists John Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead.

In the meantime, the Jamaican Government has a pressing need to offer its people jobs and hope. If the international community wants Jamaica to pursue ecologically progressive policies, at the expense of Jamaica's short-term economic advantage, then it will have to provide much more financial compensation for economic opportunities forgone.

So we must all hope that the logistics hub proceeds in a timely fashion and produces all the economic benefits predicted. But as the Chinese-led mega-development rises from the mangroves, we can perhaps spare a thought for the humble Jamaican iguana.

— Diane Abbott is the British Labour Party MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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