Imagine a coastal area on a Caribbean island - a patchwork of fresh and brackish ponds that wax and wane with wet and dry seasons. Despite the ponds, the landscape is more dry than wet – scratchy, scrubby and scorched. Big trees are lignum vitae and thatch palm. The land around the ponds is filled with multitudes of birds - waterbirds, resident birds and migrants. The beach sand is dark grey, the coast heaped with old sand dunes, the sea dark blue, rough and dangerous. There are no large hotels, no red and white security barriers, no highways. Getting here takes commitment. This is Treasure Beach, on Jamaica’s south coast.
The place has its aficionados – returning residents, farmers, villa owners, boutique hotel operators, rich folks from Mandeville, several fishing beaches, and many small Jamaican establishments, where anyone can walk in and buy a meal cooked to order. Goats are the main traffic holdup. New buildings are overlarge, garish and ugly; old ones are earth coloured, unobtrusive in the landscape.
Some 25 years ago, an area called Great Bay, close to the Great Pedro Pond, was subdivided for housing. It must have been during a dry period and no one considered the extent of the pond in periods of heavy rain. Nor did the planners suggest elevated buildings in the manner of old time Jamaica. No, we must have new things, modern things, regardless of the predictable antics of natural features like coastal ponds on a tropical island smack in the hurricane belt.
In 2005, two hurricanes drenched Treasure Beach. The Great Pedro Pond overflowed its banks and flooded the people in the Great Bay houses, old and new. Meetings of angry residents were held and the cry went up – Do Something Now! In early 2006, a politician sprang into unaccustomed action, probably damaging several muscles atrophied from lack of use. Without benefit of plan, thought, permit or environmental study, the National Works Agency carved a channel from pondside almost to the sea.
Apart from those flooded out who were happy, the residents sadly contemplated the ugly scar across the landscape – a giant gully. The pesky environmentalists (I was one) raised an alarm – pointed out the risks of marine contamination from the pond, not to mention the risks to the pond itself and therefore to the wildlife that depended on it. The construction was illegal, the environmentalists said, as drainage projects to the sea required both an environmental permit and a beach license and neither had been issued. More public meetings were held and extravagant promises of box culverts and weirs were made by the National Works Agency. Then the flurry of government action spent itself – the hurricane season was, after all, over.
The Treasure Beach gully slept in the sun through the rest of 2006, 2007 and part of 2008. Its banks began to collapse. Scrub colonized the silty floor. Every now and then someone from Treasure Beach would object to its unfinished state. A few men would show up, a bit of form work would be done, there would be some digging. The environmental regulatory agency, the National Environment and Planning Agency, started a file - and filed it.
Early in 2009, the bulldozers returned. Culverts with two bridges were completed, along with a concreted channel into the sea. Only a small piece of land remained unbulldozed; only a small piece of land kept the pond from being joined to the sea.
As I write, that piece of land will probably fall within a week and a semi permanent connection from pond to sea and sea to pond will be established. There has been no inventory of the birds, the turtles, the crocodiles, the rare pancake lotus of the Great Pedro Pond. There has been no detailed study of the hydrology, the geology, the historical extent of the pond. Tests to establish the water quality in the pond were done once in the dry season only. No alternative solution to alleviate infrequent flooding has been considered – including the restoration of old drainage channels, reportedly blocked by the filling of sink holes. The risk to property and human life from storm surge – a la Hurricane Katrina – has been ignored. And the matter of aesthetics is certainly not the National Works Agency’s purview, nor apparently, the concern of the National Environment and Planning Agency.
I left Treasure Beach last week and drove to Jamaica’s north coast, where rivers are “trained,” drainage gullies are ubiquitous, rainwater sheets off highways and parking lots and the roofs of massive hotels into the Caribbean Sea. And there was the result – the land bleeding into the sea, brown plumes of silt and poorly treated sewage and plastic bottles blooming in what used to be clear, turquoise water. From the Santa Cruz Mountains looking down at the Pedro Plains and Treasure Beach as I left, the south coast sea still held its clean indigo colour.
Not for long, though, I thought. Not for long.
(See recent photos of the Treasure Beach Canal on the home page (at the right) of http://www.treasurebeach.net/