THEY are among the most beautiful places on earth, and have inspired artists, travellers, poets, and photographers for generations.
Wetlands, or where the earth and water meet, are host to a spectacular array of wildlife and an abundance of rare plant-life and exotic marine creatures.
Scientists say wetlands are as old as the planet itself, and are home to some of the richest bio-diversity on Earth. They take on many forms. Marshes, estuaries, mudflats, mires, ponds, swamps, deltas, coral reefs, lagoons, shallow seas, bogs, lakes and floodplains are all examples. Almost every country in the world possesses a wetland of some description.
Wetlands may vary in size — from a small neighbourhood pond to millions of hectares. But, whether big or small, the functions of wetlands are much the same — they provide humans with fuel, food, recreation, and employment. Wetlands support an immense variety of wildlife that would otherwise become extinct and they protect millions of people from the disastrous consequences of flooding.
Each year, February 2 and 6 is celebrated as World Wetlands Day and Ramsar Day respectively.
Ramsar Day commemorates a convention that was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and came to force in 1975. The Ramsar Convention is the only global treaty dealing solely with wetlands. Its mission is “the conservation and wise use of the wetlands by national action and international co-operation as a means to achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.
Jamaica is a signatory to this convention and as such, the Black River Lower Morass was formally recognised as a “Wetland of International Importance” under the convention in 1998.
Other points of consideration are the Negril Morass and Portland Bight.
Negril Morass and Black River Morass are the two largest wetlands in the island, spreading across 5,657 acres and 15,000 acres respectively.
According to the National Environment Planning Agency (NEPA), the natural resource values of the Black River Morass include bio-diversity “of national and global significance”.
The area, NEPA said, provides habitat for 207 species of flora, of which 11 are endemic and 22 are rare. These rare flora include night-blooming water-lilies, royal swamp palms and Anchovy pears.
It is also a critical habitat for rare and endangered animals including the West Indian manatee, West Indian Whistling Duck, the hawksbill turtle and one of the most popular places to safely view crocodiles.
“It’s the largest alluvial and peat wetlands in Jamaica (formed by the upper and lower basins of the Black River, Parottee Pond and Luana-Font Hill); boasts the longest river system in the island (70 km), originating in the Cockpit Country; and existing protected areas include a forest reserve, four game sanctuaries, a number of protected National Heritage Sites and notable private conservation areas such as YS Falls and Font Hill,” said NEPA’s executive director, Franklin McDonald.
McDonald said much of the planning for the area is completed and work is now focused on securing funding to meet start-up and ongoing management costs as well as finding a local management entity.
Susan Otuokon, executive director of the Negril Environmental Protection Trust (NEPT), said it is unfortunate that some Jamaicans consider wetlands as “wasteland that should be drained or dumped up”.
“Wetlands like the Negril Morass are of great significance to human life and livelihoods. Jamaica’s longest beach, the seven-mile beach in Negril, owes its existence to the adjacent morass that filters water running over the land, before it gets to sea,” Otuokon told the Environment Journal.
She described the Royal Palm Reserve in Negril as one of the island’s hidden treasures. The site is currently managed by her organisation, having leased it from the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica since January 1.
The estate consists of elegant palms — endemic to Jamaica — and is home to the endangered West Indian Whistling Duck, and the pond turtle.
Otuokon said NEPT has begun the task of establishing an eco-tourism attraction at this idyllic site. The Royal Palm Reserve, she said, will be used to promote the importance of wetlands through nature walks, bird-watching, an interpretive museum and special activities for students.
“By highlighting the beauty of the Royal Palm Reserve by way of an eco-tourism attraction of international standards, NEPT aims to facilitate the conservation of the Negril Morass and associated natural systems of importance to the socio-economy of Jamaica,” she said.
NEPT, she said, will be working with neighbouring communities, particularly Sheffield, to facilitate sustainable community development through strengthening of community organisations, training and assistance with environmentally-friendly, income-generating activities.
“Further research will be encouraged to increase and share knowledge about wetlands. Later on, cultural activities such as craft, recycled and sustainably-harvested materials and indigenous entertainment will be showcased,” Otuokon added.