The dollar$ and ¢ents of saving Goat Islands

The dollar$ and ¢ents of saving Goat Islands

Sunday, March 02, 2014

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RECENTLY, Jamaicans were again bombarded with salvos in the media presenting arguments for port development on the Goat Islands. Sadly, the information presented has, at times, been substantially incorrect. We would like to set the record straight.

Firstly, the editorial published in the Observer on Sunday, February 23, 2014, stated that the Government has found that "there is nothing unique about the flora and fauna in that location".

Foreign researchers actually working in the area have reached an entirely different conclusion. The Goat Islands and its surrounding environment are ecologically sensitive and are critically important for preserving both endemic species and crucial ecosystem services such as the provision of fish nurseries, sequestering carbon and mitigating the impacts of global climate change.

Researchers have found that mangroves store up to four times as much carbon as other types of forests — one hectare of mangroves stores the equivalent of annual emissions from 330 cars. Scientists have also reported that global mangrove carbon storage is equivalent to carbon emissions from the US over four years.

Using this figure, we estimate that the mangroves of the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) potentially store the equivalent annual emissions of 2.17 million cars, or close to the total number of cars sold in the US by Toyota in 2013 (2.2 million). This does not include the carbon sequestered by the dry forests found in the PBPA, the seagrass beds, or the associated inland wetlands — all of which would essentially be destroyed by the proposed development on and around the Goat Islands.

This is why the PBPA is globally important. Because of the importance of trees in carbon sequestration and storage, they are fast becoming a prized commodity. We can now earn hard currency from trading the carbon stored by trees to developed countries or corporations to offset their carbon emissions in other parts of the world.

This is known as carbon trading and is where that estimated value of US$45 million for the mangroves of the PBPA comes from. There are programmes such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation) and REDD+, implemented by the United Nations, that facilitate accreditation and trading of carbon.

Guyana was offered US$200 million in 2009, and has so far received US$115 million, to use their forests to offset carbon produced by Norway, and there are a myriad tropical developing countries that have benefited from or are now applying for money through REDD.

A representative from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently said: "It is predicted that financial flows for (implementing) greenhouse gas emission reduction (activities) from REDD could reach up to US$30 billion if we (Jamaica) decide to implement the REDD programme." But of course, no one in Jamaica has batted an eye.

While most other countries are trying to find ways to combat deforestation so that they can earn currency from REDD and prepare for climate change, we are trying to find new ways to increase deforestation and exacerbate our vulnerability to global climate change.

Our current research includes efforts to quantify carbon sequestered and/or stored (as peat) by four terrestrial ecosystems, including the Hellshire Hills. Ideally, this will help ensure that Jamaica can gain hard currency from carbon trading via REDD. An important distinction about REDD is that not all of the financial rewards would go directly to the Government. Rather, some funds would be directed to NGOs and local communities to help identify and support alternative livelihoods, or to support projects or activities that would help to increase forest cover and reduce deforestation.

This would be part of the deal. So if the Government is really concerned about the poor, this is an initiative they should be championing. But there are several caveats to Jamaica securing funding through REDD, one of which is that there can be no (or very little) leakage of carbon; ie there can be no loss of carbon from the system under consideration through deforestation or degradation.

Unfortunately, Jamaica was one of two countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to record net deforestation over the last decade (2001-2010). All other countries have recorded an increase in forest cover, including Haiti.

Contrary to what our Government has been spouting, poverty is not the chief danger to the environment. Our research and that of others have shown that, while poverty is one factor, there are many other factors such as agricultural expansion; residential, urban and industrial development; policy changes; and a lack of enforcement of environmental laws — the impact of which far supersedes the effect of poverty alone. In some cases, including some sites in Jamaica, poverty is even ranked below personal wealth as a correlate of deforestation.

The PBPA houses 70 per cent of the mangroves found in Jamaica, and the port development would possibly result in the loss of approximately 30 per cent or more of PBPA mangroves — we still don't know much about the plans, but this is an estimate based on what we do know. This would possibly result in net deforestation totalling approximately 70 per cent of the annual rate of deforestation of the entire country (measured between 2001-2010).

Furthermore, because the PBPA is the most protected site in Jamaica, building the port there would undermine the country's protected areas system. This would send a strong message that our Government is not committed to mitigating climate change or to protecting biodiversity; nor can they be trusted to participate in carbon trading initiatives, because they could make a decision to destroy the target site before the end of the offset period.

We are in grave danger of seeing monies earmarked to help countries like Jamaica mitigate and adapt to global climate change being spent in other countries leaving us vulnerable to impacts which are already being felt here. In short, we are painting ourselves in a corner. Now we are being told that our potential investors plan to build a coal-fired power plant to provide energy, which "has the highest greenhouse gas emissions of any fossil fuel per unit of energy gained".

So we are swapping a sink for greenhouse gasses with a source? Additionally, coal-fired power plants are known to decrease air quality, especially for residents living close to the plant and produce dangerous runoffs. With our limited capacity to enforce environmental regulations, this entire project will and has the potential to be an unmitigated environmental disaster for our country.

Cleaner forms of energy must be pursued. Finally, the original idea for the Goat Islands was to use it as an iguana sanctuary with a visitor site so we could potentially earn money from ecotourism.

So again, if another site is chosen, this will increase the county's options for earning hard currency, while protecting our country and our natural resources in the process. We must give serious thought to these variables as we take steps aimed at taking the country forward.

The above is co-authored by Dr Kurt McLaren, lecturer in forest ecology, and Dr Byron Wilson, professor of conservation biology, at the Department of Life Sciences, University of the West Indies, Mona.

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