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On the tightrope to conservation.

Balancing Jamaica's ecology and tourism is a precarious dance to an insistent reggae beat. Tourism generates even more foreign exchange for the country than the bauxite industry, creating jobs and a chance for a brighter future. But with tourism comes development, bringing pressures to local people and their environment. The Arawaks, who once populated Jamaica's south coast, were the first to be affected by "civilization." They were decimated by the Spaniards in the name of vangelism and progress.

Yet, centuries after the Arawaks, there are still no officially protected areas on the south coast, where ecological diversity is the rule not the exception. A myriad of microclimates flourish between the rainforested hills, the acacia trees and cactus of Treasure Beach, the thatch palm-fringed black beaches of Alligator Pond, and the manatee's swampy gardens near Milk River.

Conservation at the official level is fairly new in Jamaica. The National Resources Conservation Authority, a regulatory body responsible for the management of the physical environment and for promoting environmental education, was established only two years ago. Recently a number of inter-governmental and nonprofit organizations have joined the conservation cause. Susan Anderson of the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT) states that this private nonprofit organization has been working closely with the Protected Areas Resource Conservation Project (PARC) on the development of national park systems. PARC is a multi-faceted project funded by USAID and the Jamaican Government which receives technical assistance from The Nature Conservancy, in Washington, D.C.

This September Jamaica will be the first Caribbean island to benefit from a debt for nature swap made possible through the joint efforts of the JCDT, The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, USAID and The Nature Conservancy. The initial purchase of the debt in the amount of 7 million Jamaican dollars will go to finance two pilot parks: Montego Bay Marine Park in the northwest and the Blue Mountain/ John Crow National Park in the central eastern region. Aside from supporting the National Parks Trust Fund, JCDT will administer monies for the management of these pilot parks.

Headlines several years ago in the Jamaica Daily Gleaner, which declared Canoe Valley, in Manchester, Jamaica's first national park, were premature. After careful study, PARC determined that the Cockpit country - characterized by steep forbidding Karst limestone hills and valleys riddled with sinkholes - and the lower Black River Morass have a greater biodiversity and are in more urgent need of protection. Other proposed parklands and protected regions - Portland Ridge and Bight in Clarendon, the Negril Morass and Negril Marine Park, and Dolphin Head in Westmoreland - are further down the list. The Royal Palm Preserve in Negril recently passed into private hands.

When Anderson was asked why the Black River upper morass had not been declared a protected area as well, since it is intricately linked to the lower morass, she replied, "The upper morass is no longer in a natural state." Together, the Upper and Lower Black River Morasses constitute the largest wetland area in Jamaica. The lower morass contains the best examples of Amazonian-type swamp forest to be found outside of Brazil. Its mangrove edges form the foundation of the food chain, shrimp and hatchling marine fish in its estuary foster the coral reefs and sea grasses, which in turn create beaches which support Jamaica's tourism product.

According to professional aquaculturists, David Jenoure and Roy Manning, farmers in the upper morass are using herbicides and pesticides, thus endangering the lower morass and the ecological balance of the entire south coast. They maintain that the upper morass should be reserved for cattle rearing and fish farming. These ecological constraints could be a creative opportunity if the terrain bordering the river were used to raise organically grown fruits and vegetables, or horticultural products. There is a ready market and demand for these products in Europe and the Americas. The Honorable Roger Clarke, Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, is exploring projects related to alternative farming in the area.

Meanwhile, mangroves, prized as durable construction material, are cut out of the swamps daily. Ecotourism is a luxury the fishermen feel they cannot afford. The immense butress-rooted silk cotton trees are still used for canoes along the coastal waters. A fisherman believes in wood for survival - what is to stop him, or builders, from defoliating Mangrove Alley and the swamps. Anderson points out that although the National Town and Country Planning Act has included some provisions to protect trees, legislation has not yet been enforced.

Ecologically aware public action groups such as the Black River Environmental Protection Association, the St. Elizabeth Heritage Foundation, and the Central and South Tourism Association would like to see existing legislation enforced. Some of these non-governmental organizations, including The Bluefields Trust, are being endorsed by Nature Conservancy whose goal is to make them stronger and self-sustaining. The Nature Conservancy is also assisting in the implementation of USAID programs in the area. Marilyn Zak, deputy director of the USAID programs, says, "We're targeting groups, trying to get projects working at the community level."

As change steals across the south coast like a mist, land prices skyrocket. There have been more than a few hackles at the prospect of a major hotel in Whitehouse. Entrepreneur Gordon Stewart assures the public that his Whitehouse Sandals Hotel will protect the environment: his consultants studied 260 acres, including 105 acres of swampland to ascertain whether the proposed $750 million in Jamaican dollars would be environmentally friendly.

Could tourism destroy tourism? Can crocodiles and nightclubs coexist? "The most important part of ecotourism, which I call nature tourism, is keeping the attraction attractive," says Arthur Heyman, director of the OAS office in Jamaica. "The tourist's responsibility is to have a good time; getting him to come back another day is the goal. The south coast is at an inflection," Heyman continued, "the point where we may yet be able to make decisions about development, in an authentic direction, taking the integrity of the people and the place into account in a way that fulfills the potential of both." Heyman, coauthor of a book on reefs and coastal resources in the Caribbean, recognizes that change in Jamaica is subject to inexorable forces, but that Jamaica's south coast may provide an opportunity for learning how to shape change. "You can't take a place that is developing and say stop. That's selfish. You have to aspire to a reasonable level of economic and social well being. No one has the right to tell us we can't have that. Ideally, nature tourism can generate enough income to protect the attraction for the future."

While development plans are being drafted, locals are taking action to preserve their heritage. A Jamaican preservation architect is advising the St. Elizabeth community how to retain the character of the wooden buildings which have stood proud for more than a century; old homes in the mountains are being restored with a sense of history and cut stone solidity; children are planting lumber trees on their school grounds.

Up the Black River, the red-legged coots appear to walk on water as they stroll the lilypads. Green and blue herons glide silently among the surreal tangle of mangrove roots descending from the ancient trees. Primeval crocodiles fix you with a cool grey eye and stand their ground. Broad waters, where four rivers meet, push you gently back toward Mangrove Alley as thousands of cattle egrets wing home, changing the dark green trees to a squawking, lively white. As the sun sets, the waters of the Black River, punctuated by rippling is lands of gold and scarlet, be come one with the Caribbean Sea. Forever?
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:environmental conservation of Jamaica's natural attractions
Author:Reidell, Heidi
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:1270
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