GOVERNMENT appears willing and ready to tackle the decades-old problems affecting the Pedro Cays — from the pile-up of garbage to the absence of proper toilet facilities and a lack of running water.
A meeting last Friday among stakeholders — including the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development, the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) — yielded a plan of action.
Permanent Secretary in the agriculture ministry Donovan Stanberry said the first order of business is the "immediate" clean-up of the garbage dump, which has caused a rat and fly infestation on Middle Cay — one of the three islands of the Pedro Cays where most people live for up to six months each year.
However, he cautioned, "Immediate doesn't necessarily mean today or tomorrow."
"There are some logistics in terms of getting to deal with the garbage and so on. The National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) will assess the situation and come up with some sort of solution. The Ministry of Agriculture will contribute financially to the removal of the pile that is there," he told the Jamaica Observer.
Next on the agenda, Stanberry said, is a census to determine the number of people who occupy the two inhabited islands — Middle Cay and Southeast Cay.
"[It will provide a] picture of the situation as it is... the relevant agencies, the structure and some socio-economic data on the people over there. One cannot engage any long-term management plan without getting that type of information," he said.
An estimated 450 people live on the cays at various points during the year, according to current estimates. Up to 2006, they numbered some 488 — 348 on Middle Cay and 140 on Northeast Cay — according to Peter Espeut's study titled The Wild Frontier: Living and Fishing on the Pedro Cays of Jamaica — A socio-economic assessment.
Once the census is done at year-end, Stanberry has not ruled out the imposition of a limit on the number of those allowed on the cays.
"The sustainable plan going forward will have to address the carrying capacity. If the census shows that there are more people there than the place can carry, then naturally we will would have to engage some exercise of removing," he said.
An inter-agency committee, he said, is also to be set up to monitor remedial work on the cays, to stave off a public health crisis while maintaining a thriving fisheries sector.
"Once we get the census data, it is proposed that some kind of inter-agency committee be set up so that we can come up with a sustainable plan to manage the place [and look at] how it might be funded," Stanberry said.
Just a committee has existed in the past. The 2006 Pedro Cays Health Assessment report noted the existence of the Pedro Cays Jamaica House Committee, with members including the NSWMA, the Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries Division, the Scientific Research Council, the TNC, the Ministry of Environment, Land Authority, and the Ministry of Health, Kingston and St Andrew Health Department.
Now, apparently defunct, Stanberry said they will have to "go back there".
"While the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries accepts its responsibility for Pedro Cays, we are conscious that this is beyond the ministry. We will spearhead the [current] work, but the long-term solutions will have to come from elsewhere," he said. "My minister (Roger Clarke) has written to the PM (Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller) with some recommendations and we will see what happens from there."
While hopeful for a positive outcome, JET boss Diana McCaulay — who organised a visit to the cays last Wednesday — is, nonetheless, sceptical.
"Some commitments were made... There was also discussion about the responsibility of the community as well and the need for a hard-hitting public education campaign. If you want to know how I feel about it, guarded optimism," McCaulay said.
"Anything can and will be said in a meeting and there have been dozens of promises made are the Pedro Cays over decades. It remains to be seen whether this new set of promises will be kept. JET will do its best to hold the various government agencies accountable for their mandates," the JET boss added.