Jamaica’s environment at 50
...Not much to celebrate
THANKS to achievements in the arts, culture, health, and education, Jamaica has much to celebrate as it nears its 50th anniversary of Independence; no such claim can be made in relation to the natural environment.
Stakeholders in the sector have painted a dreary picture of Jamaica as an island with fast-declining natural resources and legislation that is either inadequate, or which is not being effectively enforced to stem the loss.
A lack of co-ordination between entities that have environmental preservation as their mandate, or which should respond to environmental concerns and/or disasters, has compounded what they say is a looming crisis for the island’s natural assets on which critical sectors such as tourism, agriculture and fisheries depend.
“We have seen significant degradation of our natural resources which are there to provide protection to our natural way of living and traditional livelihoods in the country. We have seen development, formal and informal, encroach on environmentally sensitive areas,” Ronald Jackson, director general of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management, told the Jamaica Observer.
“I think the results of that, certainly, is some damage to natural habitats [for various wildlife] and frequent impact of natural hazards, oftentimes resulting in disasters [that affect the human population],” he added.
Such recent disasters were hurricanes Ivan, Dean and Gustav, which struck in 2004, 2007 and 2008 respectively, leaving in their wake several billions of dollars in damage and regret from some quarters regarding, for example, the destruction of mangroves, which help protect the island’s shoreline while serving as a barrier for inland structures against wave and water movement.
According to environmentalist Peter Espeut, nothing in Jamaica’s natural environment has been spared the ravages wreaked by developments along the coast — aided by inadequate legislation, monitoring and enforcement.
“Coral reefs were some 60 per cent in 1980; we are down to about seven per cent. Jamaica had nice, healthy forests in 1962; somewhere along the line we had the highest rate of deforestation in the world. Then today we have quite a few acres of natural forest left, but we have a difficulty because the Government’s Forestry Department wants us to call planted forest, forest,” he said.
“If the Government goes out and chops down natural forests and plants Caribbean pine, as was done in the 1980s, you can’t turn around and say you have the same forest; it is not the same thing... When you cut down a natural forest and plant coffee, that is deforestation,” Espeut added.
But the former executive director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation said the problems of the past five decades go beyond corals and forests to wetlands — not only mangroves.
Espeut said the the Black River Morass, for example, is under “tremendous stress”, while the Font Hill wetland is currently being contemplated for development.
There are, too, challenges to wildlife as well as with pollution, he told Environment Watch.
“In terms of the protection of our wildlife, we haven’t done very well. The iguana [for example], is the most endangered lizard in the world and is on the verge of extinction because its last known habitat, the Hellshire hills, is gazetted for development by the UDC (Urban Development Corporation),” he said.
“There is no doubt that, since Independence, pollution in Jamaica has dramatically increased. This is largely because since Independence, plastic has been discovered and was introduced to Jamaica. Many countries have laws on how plastic is disposed of; Jamaica does not,” Espeut added.
“Glass bottles, which were used for beer and soft drink, have now been largely replaced by plastic bottles which do not degrade if it is in the environment for 200 years. This requires special legislation which we have not enacted. In addition, Jamaica has industrialised tremendously since Independence. These companies generate industrial waste, much of which is quite toxic. I am talking about caustic sodas, heavy metals, POPs (persistent organic pollutants),” he said further.
Wendy Lee, executive director of the Northern Jamaica Conservation Association (NJCA) and owner/operator of the Seven Oaks Wildlife Sanctuary in St Ann, was in full agreement.
“After 50 years, we still don’t know how to manage garbage, [and], we have such gaps in the way that we approach utilising our natural resources. We don’t really have a common understanding about how our resources should be sustainably managed,” she said.
Lee noted that on top of the garbage problems facing the country are challenges with how farmers operate.
“Piled up beside every pile of yam is a mountain of yam sticks... There is absolutely no progress made in terms of sustainability or the harvesting of yams sticks, or lumber, or anything. Sustainable agriculture requires a lot of attention to [be paid to] small farmers to make them more environmentally friendly,” she said.
“The other issue is that everything takes place in Kingston. The decisions are taken in Kingston and the people who make the decisions are detached from the reality of rural Jamaican life, so the services and the policies generally reject the rural areas which are really the lifeblood of Jamaica,” Lee added.
She added that “after all these years, one of the greatest challenges we have is not raising the awareness of people who make the decisions about how our natural resources are managed”.
This is in evidence as one looks, Lee said, at climate change, which threatens rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, more intense hurricanes and droughts, among other things.
“The people of this country are fully aware of the fact that the climate is changing. I am not sure that they understand why it is changing. I am not sure our politicians understand what it is and know what to do to stem the tide of climate change. If they did understand, then we should be doing everything possible to reduce our carbon footprint,” she said.
“The matter of coal as a ‘cheap’ source of energy should never come up. We shouldn’t be driving SUVs. We should, in every way possible, be trying to return to a smaller ecological footprint,” Lee argued.
At the same time, she said the state of the environment is such that it has become necessary to change tactics in tourism.
“We should not be allowing mass, mega hotels to be built along our coast. Look at the people who are supposed to be coming to utilise these hotels; there is no future in it because the economy is crashing,” the NJCA boss said.
“We should be trying to get the most dollars from fewer tourists instead of selling our resorts cheaply to a lot of tourists. We should be aiming for high-income, low-impact tourism based on our unique resources, rather than building whale houses for masses of cheap tourists [which] is what we are getting,” Lee added.
Chief executive officer of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) Peter Knight, for his part, said one of problems over the years has been the failure to bring to book public sector entities that commit environmental breaches.
“One of the negatives — the foremost negative — is that despite the binding of the Crown by the legislation [the Natural Resources Authority Act], there is a clear misunderstanding of what it means,” he told Environment Watch.
“Binding the Crown means that whatever you do to the private sector or to any individual person, the same thing applies to the Government. In other words, you cannot tell ‘John Brown’ that he must do this along the beach, [or put in a] sewage treatment plant, and you ignore the same thing [when it comes] to the Government,” Knight charged.
Only a few days ago, in an effort to change that, NEPA brought action against the National Solid Waste Management Authority, a government entity like itself, for operating the Riverton City dump site without a permit.
The environment has also suffered, Knight noted, because of industry polluters who refuse to comply with environmental regulations on grounds that they do not have sufficient capital to make the necessary changes.
“In the last three and half to four years, industry has come to recognise that NEPA is taking a different approach; not only do you have to pay, but you have to comply with the environmental regulations,” he said.
Knight, like Lee, said the failure to effectively educate people about the environment has also worked against the preservation of the island’s plant and animal life as well as the systems that support them.
On top of that, he said policymakers need to understand that the environment is a sector where jobs can be created in as much time as professionals are required to enforce the laws.
“This environment matter is something that the policymakers need to understand; they need to understand that it can create jobs. The fact is if ‘Mr X’ is polluting and they have to put in systems to improve... they have to get quality-control persons. So it creates jobs and it is also tied to ISO standards. Most companies now are coming to the realisation that standards are important,” Knight said.
“Another negative, I would say, is the lack of a coordinated approach to the issues. For example, [the] health [sector] has some environmental regulations, NEPA has... you name it. The Government, we have to find a way to bring these skill sets together for the benefit of the environment, because sometimes it appears that the Government itself is not co-ordinated in its approach to the environment. We need to decide on areas [of specialisation] and do the necessary subletting, ” Knight posited.
Marilyn Headley, chief executive officer and conservator of forests, said she was “not totally satisfied” with the state of the natural environment after 50 years of Independence.
“I do think that development and industry has probably got the better of us. There are some things that we have lost forever and [which have been] replaced by some form of development,” she told Environment Watch.
“I think the difference [as seen] in the latter part [of the past half a century] is that people are becoming more aware of what happened. But I suspect in our early years, as we sought to grow and progress, we lost a lot,” Headley added.
Chief executive officer for the Jamaica Environment Trust Diana McCaulay, like Espeut, said she is still waiting on “critical legislation”, notably a beach policy and a new Fisheries Act.
“Important areas are still without protection; [areas] like the Cockpit Country, like many islands and cays [while other] natural places are being damaged by bad planning, poor development and a lack of enforcement,” she said.
McCaulay added that areas affected include:
• the Blue Lagoon in Portland for which a six-month Preservation Order — protecting it from any development — was issued last December;
• Falmouth in Trelawny where a cruise ship pier was recently built, forcing the relocation of corals;
• Somerset Falls, also in Portland; and
• Fern Gully in St Ann, where work on the through road is ongoing.
“[National] Parks [such as the Blue and John Crown Mountain National Park and the Montego Bay Marine Park] are badly underfunded. The NGO (nongovernmental organisation) sector [is also] much weakened,” she added.
Meanwhile, McCaulay said there have been “three fish kills in Rio Cobre, dumps still burning, everyone burning, [and a] huge solid waste problem [persists]”.