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Jamaica urged to take steps to protect Port Royal

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Features editor thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, May 12, 2011    

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THE United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has urged the Government of Jamaica to sign the international Convention of the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage as a means of preserving the sunken section of Port Royal.

The city, which was a haven for pirates in the 17th century, was rocked by a massive earthquake in 1692 and an entire section subsequently sank into the Kingston Harbour. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust estimates the area to be 13 acres, now submerged between seven ft and 35 ft.

But experts in the field are concerned that the site is increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and are calling for greater protection.

At the Caribbean Meeting on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage at Morgan's Harbour Hotel in Port Royal on Tuesday, delegates from across Latin America and the Caribbean gathered to consider the legal implications of the Convention, and culture programme specialist in the UNESCO Kingston cluster office for the Caribbean, Himalchuli Gurung urged countries that are not yet signatories to ratify the Convention.

To date, 37 countries are signatories to the agreement which was adopted in 2001. Seven of these belong to the Caribbean sub-region: Barbados, Cuba, Grenada, Haiti, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Gurung — who spoke on behalf of Director and UNESCO representative, Dr Kwame Boafo — said the Convention would ensure that the rich cultural and natural heritage of the Caribbean would be protected and preserved for the benefit of present and future generations.

"The ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession of Caribbean countries to these vital instruments for protecting, safeguarding and promoting cultural heritage and diverse cultural expressions will go a long way to strengthen our efforts to support the growth and development of culture and its varied manifestations in this region and to ensure that the world's cultural diversity is enhanced by the history, traditions, cultural values, and lifestyles of the Caribbean," she said.

The importance of ratification, said Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, is not lost on the Government. In fact, she said, a submission had already been made to Cabinet to have the Convention accepted, and she expressed the hope that it would at least be on next Monday's agenda.

"Today, Jamaica is on the path towards ratification and before long, we should join our Caribbean colleagues in ratifying the Convention," she told the meeting.

"We have made a submission to Cabinet. I have recommended to Cabinet that we approve the Convention and that the Government should issue instructions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade to make the necessary arrangements for Jamaica's ratification, and that the Cabinet should issue drafting instructions to the Chief Parliamentary Counsel with respect to the exclusive Economic Zone Act and other applicable legislation. So, ladies and gentlemen, we are well on our way to ratification," said Grange.

The Convention speaks to the principles for the protection of underwater cultural heritage and includes practical rules for the treatment and research of such artefacts. It recommends in situ preservation of underwater finds unless there is valid scientific or public reason to recover. It also disallows commercial exploitation of underwater finds.

Laleta Davis-Mattis — executive director of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust in whose trust the historical city lies — told the Observer it was in the country's interest to ratify the agreement.

"I think it is in our best interest to ratify and I think under the Convention there is really nothing to prevent us from doing what we want to do within our waters... One of the benefits of ratification is that we can actually obtain international help," she said.

"Despite the fact that we haven't ratified the Convention the JNHT, through the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, ...(has) been putting (systems) in place to secure our heritage and to regulate activities in the water," she added.

The meeting, which ends today, was organised jointly by the UNESCO offices in Kingston and Havana.

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