Sunday, August 23, 2009

Saying good-bye on a Jamaican road trip

I have just returned to Kingston after ten days driving around Jamaica with my son and two of his friends. I call my road trips D-Tours; I try to take visitors to Jamaican places a tourist rarely sees, places still authentic and unspoilt. We bounced around in a rattling Suzuki on roads long reverted to dry, stony riverbeds, we scorched our skins in open canoes and on shade-less beaches, we hiked in the rain in a wet limestone forest to see the exodus of bats from a cave at sundown, we snorkeled in a deserted bay to find a shallow reef reported to be in unusually good condition for the north coast - we had to abandon that search as a lightning storm forced us to leave the water in a hurry - we ate bun and bullas in the car, we stayed in basic accomodation and sometimes in luxury, we went to a farewell party for a woman leaving Jamaica after decades, and there we heard two self-taught sixteen-year-old twins drum a rousing, complex duet in an empty house on a hot August night. We came back sunburned and bitten by mosquitoes, with images of unforgettably beautiful places to sustain us in other, greyer days. For my son and his friends, it was a holiday. For me, it was a pilgrimmage, a journey of farewells, a time to grapple with a profound sense of having failed my country and myself.

(You know, I'm not sure about the "my country" business, because it seems the idea of the nation state has got the human race into a lot of trouble. What is it that makes a Jamaican anyway - an accident of birth? Of race? Of history and culture? Jamaicans who live abroad still identify themselves as Jamaicans; as we watch our magnificent success at the track and field world championships in Berlin, we point out the atheletes running for other countries who have Jamaican parentage. "She a Jamaican," we say of US runner Sanya Richards. "Don't him have a Jamaican father?" we wonder about the Panamanian sprinter Edwards. Despite my pale skin that suggests some other nationality, I have always fiercely loved this island of my birth, loved the physical place itself, the mountains, the sea, the beaches, the rivers - all of it. Yet I don't idealize Jamaica, I don't belong to the posse that rejects unpalatable truths as negativism; we can be a difficult, noisy, aggressive people, in many ways we have failed ourselves and squandered our opportunities. Living here is not easy. And I have often thought of leaving, and I know well what benefits that would bring, but I also know that if I am not here in Jamaica, I am in exile.)

So I came back from the road trip to find in my In Box one of those e-mails sent to multiple and growing lists of addressees, sparked by a news story about the closure of a beach in Cancun in Mexico as a result of the theft of sand. Here in Jamaica, we had a large and well reported theft of sand from a north coast beach last year - see my blog of November 28th, 2008 at - and the thread of e-mails emphasized the need for inland tourism, asked questions about the Jamaican sand case and suggested an environmental summit as a solution. The list of addressees included government ministers of both political parties, civil servants, business people, academics and a few folks like myself, working in the environmental non profit sector. Here we go again, I thought, discussing the placement of deckchairs on the Titanic. Not even moving them, you understand, just talking about them. So I sent this e-mail to that list - I've slightly edited it:

I received this thread (about sand being stolen in Mexico and sold to a hotel in Cancun - authorities closed the beach) with the mixture of anger, cynicism and sadness that is a daily feature of working for an environmental non profit agency in Jamaica, perhaps in the world, I don't know. The sand case (in Jamaica) is in court, where it will wind its way through the justice system, witnesses will be hard to find, lawyers will have other cases, the police will not turn up to give evidence, and after many years, perhaps - PERHAPS - the people who drove the truck that stole the sand will receive a small fine. The real crime - that of politicians, government agencies, boards and officials giving environmental permits to hotels on coastlines where there is no beach without the first idea as to where their sand was to come from - will remain unpunished.

I have just come back from ten days driving around Jamaica with my son and visitors, in effect saying good bye to some of our gorgeous natural assets - Pellew Island, ironically immortalized on a Jamaica Tourist Board poster in the early days of our tourist industry, about to be villa-ized; the luminous lagoon near Falmouth, to be risked by a mega cruise ship pier of the most dubious economic benefit; Treasure Beach, on the edge of "development," trying to cope with a disastrous drainage canal constructed with public money, never finished, and without a shred of environmental due diligence undertaken; Cockpit Country - who knows - we still await the GOJ's decision on the boundaries years after the commissioned study was completed and now that bauxite is uncertain, limestone mining is about to be considered our savior with no doubt dire consequences for our forests, air quality and aesthetics. I went in a fishing boat right up the Black River, such a lovely trip, but a place which used to be a small bar and swimming hole had been venue-ized, all the vegetation cleared and is now a place for fetes. I went to the Coral Spring beach from which the sand had been stolen, most of that coast privately owned, with only a small protected area left, a stunning white sand bay with forested headlands to the east, and due to some trick of the wind, the kind of silence that is no longer available on the north coast. There, the swimming is shallow, and I am sure the owners will legally dredge it, and groyne it, and marina it, and the forest will be replaced by landscaping, and perhaps in a decade, there will have to be a study of what happened to the beach at Coral Spring and environs. On the culture side, I went to the ruin of Stewart Castle, also on privately owned land, no evidence of any protection by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, and the land around it had been cleared by fire and bulldozers.

While I was on my trip, I learned that Dornoch Head (River Head, some people call it), the source of the Rio Bueno, has had the trees cut down, and I was sent photographs of the large cuts in the Blue Mountains, allegedly to build a mountain biking track without, apparently, the knowledge or intervention of the National Environment and Planning Agency.

An environmental summit is not going to help us, even if we could stir ourselves to organize it. Were we to get it off the ground, the people who need to be in the room will either not come or simply give greetings and go about their business. We have had many such meetings in the past. Basically, the problem we have is that except for the few small, exhausted voices that have been raised over the years, hardly anyone thinks this issue is of sufficient importance, let alone understands it. Hardly anyone in the PNP, hardly anyone in the JLP, hardly anyone in business, hardly anyone in the civil service, and hardly any ordinary Jamaican thinks the sacrifice of our natural assets for a few short term, low paying jobs is a decision we will BITTERLY come to regret.

I know many people on this e-mail list do have concerns – but I regret to say that these concerns have too infrequently become action and our collective failures – and I include myself in that collective– are all too apparent.

I'm sorry to write at such length - but truthfully, this email is actually short, in comparison to the many words and great sadness in my heart.

Diana McCaulay

August 22nd, 2009

The e-mail made its rounds and some people wrote to me with words of encouragement and support, words I tried to hear, over the drumming of a different internal narrative of personal failure. I have been an advocate for the natural environment for more than twenty years, left my private sector job to work first as a volunteer and then as full time CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, an agency I helped start, and now I must face the fact that still, after all the effort, our natural resources are put on the auction block, day after day, and the price we accept for our irreplacable assets is a rock bottom, last chance sale price, a going out of business giveaway.

Pellew Island. Cockpit Country. Falmouth. The Luminous Lagoon. Dornoch Head. The Black River Morass. Treasure Beach. Coral Spring. The Blue Mountains. These I saw over the past ten days, all up for grabs, these I said good-bye to, hiding my tears from my son and his friends.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Little Critters that Shine and the Falmouth Pier

On Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 a second public meeting was held for the construction of a cruise ship pier in the historic town of Falmouth on Jamaica's north coast. The meeting was necessary because the plan presented to the public in 2008 had changed substantially from a “finger” pier to a solid quay. In addition, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) had required a hydrodynamic study to ensure the currents in the inner Falmouth harbour (Oyster Bay) were understood, in order to assess the impacts of the quay construction on the Luminous Lagoon.

The organisms that cause the phenomenon of luminescence are called dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense). They are common, tiny animals the size of a pinhead. These are little critters that shine. The conditions that lead them to clump together and to persist over time, however, are extremely uncommon. The Luminous Lagoon near Falmouth is one of only FOUR such places in the entire world.

Essentially, the mechanisms that cause the persistently high concentrations of dinoflagellates at Oyster Bay are unique to this particular location. They are: (1) the position of the Martha Brae River causing a certain pattern of currents in the bay, a stratification of brackish and sea water and a concentration of nutrients favourable to these organisms; (2) the presence of sea breezes, starting at mid morning; (3) the absence of wind at night.

What happens is this: At night, the water column becomes stratified into brackish and salty water. At dawn, the dinoflagellates congregate upwards towards the light into the least dense salty layer, but not into the topmost layer. The morning trade winds then move this top layer of fresh/brackish water in a westerly direction. The sub-surface, uppermost layer of saline water, full of the dinoflagellates, is moved in an easterly direction towards the eastern shallows of the bay where the dinoflagellates find conditions to their liking –salty and warm. In short: it's complicated.

The question thus became: what will happen to these local conditions during and after the construction of the enormous solid cruise ship quay?

Smith Warner International carried out a hydrodynamic study to assess the currents in Oyster Bay, using a computer model. They tested the predictive power of their model by using a combination of a current meter as well as drogues (floating items). Current measurements were collected over only 45 days, using the meter. Two drogues were used to track currents over two days in May. This limited period of data collection will not capture any kind of seasonal variation – Smith Warner’s study had to meet a deadline that was apparently too short. Further, the data were averaged over the entire water column, and did not incorporate any of the stratification described above. As a result, the modeling done is extremely limited in its ability to predict how the proposed Falmouth Cruise Ship Quay will affect the Luminous Lagoon and its concentration of dinoflagellates.

This notwithstanding, it was clear at the July 29th public meeting that a decision has been taken to go ahead with this project, regardless of its potential impact on the heritage or natural resources of Falmouth and its environs. It was clear in the exuberance of the meeting Chairman, who, despite NEPA’s requirements for neutral chairmanship, was obviously in favour of the project. It was clear in the slick presentation on the new quay which did not mention the written reservations of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust – who did not see fit to attend the meeting themselves, to let the public hear of these reservations. It was clear in the speed with which the hydrodynamic study had been conducted, and in the references to work starting “shortly.” It was clear when NEPA reduced the requirements for notice of a public meeting from 21 to 10 days, and reduced the public comment period from 30 days to 14. It has been clear for several weeks in the advertisements in local newspapers for concessionaires. And it is crystal clear that new permits will be granted and this project will go ahead, as equipment has already started arriving at the port area.

Not even questions about the economics of the project were welcome at the public meeting. The Chairman of the Port Authority, Noel Hylton, initially responded to a request from a member of the public (that would be me) as to the financing with a brusque: “Submit your question to the Minister of Finance.” In response to murmurings from the crowd and encouragement from those around him, he did then take the microphone and say that yes, this is a loan of US$121 million at 4% over ten or eleven years, and yes, it will have to be paid back by already struggling taxpayers. There was no detailed information given on the economic benefits to the people of Falmouth or Jamaicans in general, beyond a mention of the amount of visitors that will result from these ships and a vague promise of jobs. Mr. Hylton’s reluctance to take the microphone suggested he felt no need to involve the public in these decisions.

And so it is that in all likelihood, the light of the little critters that shine will be dimmed, even extinguished entirely from that special place. It is also likely that this murky experiment with Jamaica's natural resources - I have not here described the cutting of the coral reef to accommodate the giant ships, or the dredging - will bring very small economic benefits to the people of Falmouth by way of short term, low paying jobs. It is very likely that an authentic place of history will be part Disneyfied, wholly faked, and this old town constructed on a crime against humanity - for Falmouth's wealth and status was built on the enslavement of Africans - will welcome cruise ship passengers with rum punches and mento dancers. And the little critters that shine will become part of history, perhaps part of a report headed "lessons learned," a story told by old people, perhaps eventually assuming the realms of myth.

So to anyone reading this living in Jamaica, my advice is this: go and see the Luminous Lagoon. And do it very soon...

Pellew Island Photo by John Maxwell

If Pellew Island cannot be kept in its natural state, what can?