Environment

Environmentalists slam Gov't Goat Islands study

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor — features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, November 17, 2013    

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A group of conservationists, including an American botanist and two scientists from the University of the West Indies (UWI), have labelled the Government's environmental management scoping study (ESS) of the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) as factually erroneous, biased and deficient.

But the author of the study, Dr Conrad Douglas, has emphasised that it is preliminary and was never meant to be exhaustive.

Director of the herbarium at Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, Amanda Neill, and Professor Byron Wilson and Dr Kurt McLaren of UWI's Department of Life Sciences, said the study, commissioned by the Port Authority of Jamaica and undertaken by Conrad Douglas and Associates (CDA), made misleading conclusions.

"I'd really love to talk to those people who did the environmental scoping study," Neill said. "I think it needs more work and I think they need to take a more detailed look at the flora."

She was speaking last week at a workshop at Hope Zoo hosted jointly by the zoo, UWI, and the National Environment and Planning Agency, in collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature Iguana Specialist Group, where she presented the findings of a floristic survey of Hellshire Hills and Goat Islands she did with the assistance of UWI's herbarium curator Patrick Lewis and others in 2012 and 2013.

"It was really, really bad and wrong," Neill told the Jamaica Observer later, explaining that some photos of plants in the document were "misidentified". She pointed, too, to the map included in the CDA study which showed that the team did not venture into the interior of either island but stuck to the coasts, as well as to the claim that "15 species of plants endemic to Jamaica are found in the PBPA".

"There's three times that just in Hellshire," she said. "And more are to be found on Portland Ridge, so we actually don't have the total number right now."

According to Neill's floristic study, which she described as the most thorough survey of the plants of Hellshire ever undertaken, a total of 418 plant species exist in Hellshire and Goat Islands combined -- 271 which were previously recorded in the 1970s and 147 not previously recorded. Forty-seven species are found only in Jamaica, she said.

"In other words, this project resulted in a 54 per cent increase in the known flora of the Hellshire Hills (including the Goat Islands), and added eight endemic plant species records," she said.

Neill's criticism of the government-commissioned scoping study added to scathing remarks by Drs Wilson, McLaren and a number of others since the findings were made public just over two weeks ago.

"My review of the CDA scoping study focuses on the conclusions regarding the terrestrial fauna. Given the numerous errors of fact in the CDA report, and its cursory and misleading conclusions, it is the opinion of this assessor that the entire CDA document should be viewed with extreme caution," said Dr Wilson.

"Many endemics were missed in the CDA study, including the endemic Jamaican skink, Parker's poly lizard and the Bahamas mockingbird. The CDA study refers to 'signs that the Jamaican hutia or coney which was thought to be extinct may exist on the mainland'. In fact, Hellshire is well known as harbouring one of, if not the largest, Jamaican hutia population," he continued.

Dr McLaren argued that the Portland Bight Protected Area supports approximately 21 per cent of mainland Jamaica's coral reefs and approximately 20 per cent of the island's remaining mangrove forest patches. Further, he pointed to the declaration of the area as a Ramsar site as proof of its importance as a wetland on the international scene.

"It will be impossible or very difficult to replant an area equivalent to 20 per cent of the remaining mangal forest patches in Jamaica. Several studies have shown that mitigation measures of establishment in other areas do not work over the long term. The ecosystem functions as protection from storm surges, and the provision of a critical habitat for fish, shellfish, birds and crocodiles will be lost for many decades.

"The proposed development will destroy the Galleon Harbour fish sanctuary and could impact other fish sanctuaries. There is already evidence that the fish sanctuaries are working in other parts of Jamaica and are helping to replenish depleted stocks," McLaren added.

Drs Wilson and McLaren have been doing research in the PBPA area for several years. They were part of a group that issued a statement registering their disapproval of the ESS. The others were the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (CCAM), which manages sections of the PBPA; the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET); the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT); and the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition (JCSC).

In his defence, Dr Douglas told the Sunday Observer that the ESS was never meant to be an end in itself, and that in that context, making an issue of it is unfounded.

"It was not meant to be definitive or exhaustive. What you need to emphasise is that this is preliminary. It is a scoping study, so what it does is provide very preliminary information, basic information as to what exists. Nothing about the project is known at this point, so to make an issue of it now is fraught with potential for serious errors and is totally unfounded at this point," he said.

He suggested that those who are criticising the ESS need to pay diligent attention to what is meant by the term scoping.

"At this time it is worse than nit-picking to speak about the environmental management scoping study as if it was meant to be absolute and totally incontrovertible. It was never the intention to use it for any other puprose than to set the broad parameters, to guide and point the direction forward," he continued, adding that if Government decides to go ahead with the project a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment would be necessary.

Environmentalists have been taking the Government to task on the issue ever since the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration announced that it was giving thought to locating a transshipment hub on Goat Islands, which is part of the PBPA. The PBPA is the country's largest protected area and was created by the Jamaican Government in 1999.

The land area includes 81 square miles of dry limestone forest and 32 square miles of wetlands, including the largest mangrove system in the island. Among the endemic species which call it home is the Jamaican iguana, which was thought to be extinct up to 20 years ago.

"The groups and individuals signing this statement support economic development for Jamaica in general and are in broad support of the logistics hub being marketed by the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce subject to proper environmental assessments being done at each proposed site. We are, however, opposed to the proposal to locate a large transshipment facility in the vicinity of the Goat Islands within the Portland Bight Protected Area," the statement said, before making the point that the industry ministry's plans do not mention the proposal for a transshipment port in the vicinity of Goat Islands.

"We assert that the environmental scoping study is an inadequate basis on which to make such an important and far-reaching decision," it said.

Among the reasons it gave were bias, limited geographic scope, deficient literature review and field work, and failure of the consultants to communicate with agencies and scientists who have been working in the protected area such as the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation.

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