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Hillside residents still worry when it rains

Hillside residents plant trees to stave off further landslippage

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, March 04, 2014    

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THE demolished houses still partially buried under mounds of sand are a constant reminder to residents of Hillside, St Thomas, of the dangers of deforestation.

But if they aren't careful, the disaster could recur as signs of recent land slippage on the looming mountains overlooking the farming community indicate that more trees need to be replanted.

This has prompted community members to take steps to safeguard their lives and property by becoming involved in Local Forest Management Committees (LFMCs), which engage community members in tree planting activities. LFMCs were recently launched in Hillside and neighbouring Spring Dunrobin.

"The hillside start to slip again; because some days when you look up there you can see the dirt just running down. So we are concerned that this (further slippage) could happen again," resident Deborah Whyte said as she pointed the Jamaica Observer North East in the direction of a recent land slippage.

Residents of Hillside explained that the 1991 landslide and flood which destroyed more than 50 houses and claimed one life in the community was caused by the cutting down of the trees in the mountain by the now defunct Forestry Industry Development Company (FIDCo). The company was cutting a road through the mountains.

One resident, who lost a relative in the disaster, said community members have since been very vigilant in ensuring that no one cuts trees on the hillside.

"We lived here for years and such a thing never happened until FIDCo came and cut a lot of the trees. Now we ensure that nobody nuh go back up dere and cut none because we can't afford fi the same thing fi come happen to we again," the resident said.

In addition to their own vigilance, protection of the trees are enforced by forest rangers who are now based there.

It might have been 23 years ago, but those residents whose houses were destroyed in the disaster still remember the dreaded experience. Whyte, for example, said she was forced to live in a classroom at the nearby school for several weeks as she had nowhere else to go.

"It was very inconvenient living there, because I had to leave out early before school starts and go in late," she explained.

Even now, Whyte cannot help but be worried at the sight of a rain cloud as her house still sits in the path of danger.

"As rain start fall mi start fret, because mi get flooded out about eight times now," she said.

"The first time was about 2:00 in the morning and is smell mi smell the water and mi wake up the children, and before you know it mi hear the stone dem start lick against the house," she recounted.

According to Whyte, she hardly had time to get out the house before it was flooded with silt and sand which had washed down from the hillside, through a gully and into her home.

After weeks of living at the school, Whyte said she took the chance to return home.

"Is tractor mi had to use to dig out the house which was almost covered with sand," she said, pointing to the building which is still twisted from the impact.

Now that the nearby 'gully', which channels the water from the mountain down to the community, is being further eroded, Whyte said she is not affected as much by sand, but still gets flooded when it rains. But, despite living in constant fear, the mother of two said she cannot follow the example of several of her neighbours who have since relocated from the area.

"If mi had some block and cement mi would move from here and go build further down like the other people, but I just can't afford to, so mi just have to stay here and hope for the best," she said.

Fellow resident Joan Harris said she had to relocate from the area to another section of the community as her house was destroyed. She recalled that she was asleep on the fateful night, when the water gushed down from the hills. It had been raining all day, but residents never expected the outcome.

"Is hear mi hear the sound and mi wake up and when mi step off the bed is water mi step down into and water just run through the house," she said, adding: "We didn't even have time to put the bed on blocks."

Harris said she and her family sought refuge at a neighbour's house before returning home days later to clean up and move back in. However, a few months later there was another flood which flattened the house.

"We had to stay by the school for about six months; so school was being kept upstairs and we were living downstairs," she recalled.

That arrangement continued for months until then member of Parliament recommended that they relocate to another section of the community.

But despite the care that is being taken to protect the environment Harris said they are not yet in the clear.

"People still worry when it is hurricane time. But people no have nowhere else to go so dem have to just stay," she said.

Marlon Beale, director of the Forestry Department's eastern zone, said the aim of the LFMC, is to act as partner at the community level to assist with reforestation.

"There are areas that need replanting of trees and we would liaise with the LFMC to find persons who will assist with this," he told the Observer North East.

He further explained that there are also educational and sustainable livelihood components to the committees.

"They are educated that we need trees, not only timber trees (for lumber) but also fruit trees...We encourage other activities that are environmentally friendly and so they get involved in things like bee-keeping or some other alternative," he said.

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