VIDEO: Assault on forests
Trees being cut down to make way for houses
Jamaica is estimated to be losing as much as 350 hectares of forest cover each year, despite the best efforts of the Forestry Department which have led to prosecutions and imprisonment of offenders.
According to Marilyn Headley, conservator of forests and head of the Forestry Department, while they have seen a higher level of compliance since the enforcement department was established four years ago, people are still cutting down trees, mostly to make space for housing.
"You see lots of land going into housing, and you are seeing the usual agriculture, but we noticed when we looked at the St James figure, that a lot of agricultural lands are going into housing," Headley told this week's Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.
Her department is currently responsible for the management and conservation of the approximately 110,000 hectares of forest owned by the Government and gives advice to private landowners.
"Our main aim right now is to ensure that we keep the forest that we have intact, and we work along with other agencies," Headley said.
"A lot of the removal is illegal, so when it's illegal you don't get it put back," she said.
Headley admitted the last land use cover assessment was done about 10 years ago, and only about a third of the country was assessed. That same survey had indicated that the bauxite industry was the sector most responsible for deforestation. However, new trends are indicating that agriculture and housing are sharing a lot of that responsibility today.
Persons found guilty of deforestation can be fined anywhere between $50,000 and $500,000. Since 2011, the department has taken about 41 persons to court, two of whom were imprisoned. Some of those found guilty of deforestation were made to help replant the forest as part of their community service sentence.
"A lot of the issues are squatting," Headley said, before adding, "we are getting a lot of compliance now. We had issues in the early stages, so we have a lot of compliance now with some of the farmers coming off."
The country will be observing International Day of Forests this Friday and the annual National Tree Planting Day will be observed in the first week of October. Headley noted that the country stands to lose a lot from deforestation, especially the agricultural and the tourism sectors, since Jamaica has often been promoted as the land of wood and water.
"If we didn't have that nice big backdrop to look up at when you are down on the beach, then what would we be promoting?" she asked.
"When we go through a loss of tree cover, one of the main things is that you affect your downstream activities which then affect our beaches," she explained.