Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Devastation of last week

On Tuesday, September 8th, a quarry operation bulldozed a large forested area in close proximity to the Martha Brae River, adjacent to the rafting attraction. Why? The operation is using idle bauxite equipment to provide marl for the Falmouth Cruise Ship Pier and a road was needed. The catastrophic land clearing was illegal – it had neither a quarry license (applied for, but not granted) nor an environmental permit.

So there was the usual flurry by the regulators, once they had seen the photographs sent to them by the Windsor Research Centre, based in Cockpit Country. The work was stopped the next day, but it rained and the soil sheeted off the hillside – it is unclear whether it ended up in the Martha Brae – but it ended up somewhere, possibly in the very harbor that we are now preparing to dredge for the pier.

The contractor was summoned to a meeting at NEPA, no doubt attended by a cast of many. A site visit to the area was done. There are promises of mitigation measures. But the damage has already been done, the trees have been removed, soil erosion has commenced and the peaceful and pleasant aspect from the river itself has been ruined.

The de facto regulatory framework for quarrying and associated roads in Jamaica is utterly inadequate. Although it is clear that under the NRCA Act mining, quarrying and mineral processing activities require an environmental permit, the practice has been NOT to issue environmental permits for mining or quarrying. Environmental oversight of these activities is deemed to be carried out by virtue of representation by NEPA on a quarries control committee.

The obvious direct consequences of this particular large scale forest clearance are soil erosion, river pollution, harbour siltation and loss of wildlife habitat, but there are others. Civil society members have tried hard to educate individuals about the consequences, for instance, of clearing of forest for agriculture or charcoal burning. In this particular region, there is growing acceptance of the importance of the watershed and the consequences of its deterioration. This highly visible clearance on the edge of the Martha Brae River must raise questions about the legitimacy of our arguments and the credibility of our regulators and planners.

The situation at Martha Brae well illustrates why the destruction of Jamaica's natural resources continues unabated. Large scale clearance of forested land, in close proximity to a major river, is carried out illegally by a private sector company without being noticed by the regional NEPA officer. It is reported by a member of the NGO community. There will no doubt be extravagant promises to “plant back” trees, but whether this is done or not, the forest has been lost and the impact to the river and the harbor has already occurred. If the past is anything to go by, there will be no prosecution and no sanctions for the quarry operator or the contractor and the Falmouth Cruise ship pier will get its marl.

You have to wonder about the decision making process that results in already heavily indebted Jamaica borrowing money to dredge Falmouth Harbour, while simultaneously doing our best to silt up the same harbour by destroying the watershed a couple of kilometres away! It’s equally mystifying to plan to bring cruise ship passengers to an area, hoping they will want to raft in the “unspoilt” beauty of the Martha Brae, while destroying the vista and ensuring the rafters will be accompanied by overloaded marl trucks charging along the narrow, riverside road, air horns and “Jake Brakes” blasting…

This is what we call “sustainable development…”