Presented in partnership with the Jamaica Environment Trust, Dr David Smith and Professor Byron Wilson of the University of the West Indies, Mona

[tw-column width=”one-half”]In the Caribbean’s small island developing states, the opportunity cost of deferring foreign investment for environmental protection is high, but sometimes necessary. [/tw-column]

[tw-column width=”one-half” position=”last”]In this conclusion to this two-part AMG series, we explore the proposed Chinese-led development of a transshipment port near to Jamaica’s Goat Islands, and the Save Goat Islands campaign.[/tw-column]

We were part of a trip to the Goat Islands on Sunday, August 17th, hosted by the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) and the Caribbean Maritime Institute (CMI), to familiarize stakeholders with the area slated for the port development.

We learned that the development would be land-based and would require construction of a shipping channel and space for ships to turn. A causeway connecting the Goat Islands to the mainland has also been proposed. Additionally, land might be created by dumping and making modifications to the Goat Islands themselves. The existing shipping channel may be enlarged as well.

We left on our trip from Old Harbour Bay, one of Jamaica’s important fishing beaches, for the two Goat Islands, about 1.5 km away. Fishing is an important occupation in the area, with the Port Authority indicating that there are over 2,500 fishers registered in Rocky Point and Old Harbour Bay.

Fishing boats at Portland Bight. Credit: Shane McCall

Naturally, Old Harbour Bay has a large fishing community and the trade remains a viable way to make a living, with the industry supporting many families in the area. As Old Harbour grows, its population is merging with Old Harbour Bay, and it is likely that the area will soon be one large urban area.

It should also be noted that Old Harbour Bay is low-lying and often badly affected by storms and floods and any new construction in the area will have to take into account sea level rise, and the increased risk of damage caused by stronger hurricanes due to climate change.

The Portland Bight Coast, near to the Goat Islands, contains important natural resources – mangroves, seagrasses, forests, coral reefs and fresh water.  These assets are critical to Jamaica:

  1. Numerous species of animals and plants, found only in Jamaica live in the nearby forests found on Great Goat Island and on the mainland at Hellshire
  2. Mangroves filter runoff from the land and sequester silt, eventually building land and assisting in maintaining coastal water quality
  3. Mangrove forests protect the coastline against erosion.  Together, coral reefs and mangroves buffer wave energy and prevent land from washing away. For the flood prone areas in the PBPA like Old Harbour Bay or Portland Cottage, mangroves perform a very important function in reducing the impact of storms and hurricanes on the coast
  4. The mangroves are a nursery for fish. The PBPA has several no fishing zones – some of which protect fish nurseries – and protecting fish nurseries protects the livelihoods of the people who fish on the reefs nearby. Indeed, many of the fish caught on reefs develop among the roots of the mangroves, and migrate to reefs when they reach sufficient size
  5. Removal or damaging the mangroves would increase the damage to people’s homes in the future. Because planting mangroves helps to protect people’s homes, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) was able to obtain funding to plant additional mangroves in the area
  6. Seagrass beds and coral reefs provide an important habitat for fish, thus also supporting the livelihoods of the fishers
  7. Rivers and underground water provide water for agricultural, industrial, and domestic use

[tw-column]Simply put, the natural resources of the PBPA are valuable to thousands of Jamaicans and that is why the Government of Jamaica declared the Protected Area under the NRCA Act.[/tw-column]

Our JCC/CMI tour included a short visit to the most degraded part of the island. Unfortunately, most visitors got the impression that the entire island is little more than ‘bush’, comparable to the highly degraded Little Goat Island.

We did not see the high quality dry forest occurring on the steep hillsides and on top of Great Goat Island — neither from land or from sea.  Our boat tour consisted of viewing the disturbed northeastern part of Great Goat Island (where we landed), the mangroves connecting Little to Great Goat Island, and much of the eastern, western, and northern shores of degraded Little Goat Island.

The forest in the center of Great Goat Island is in surprisingly good condition, and is quite capable of supporting threatened species such as the Jamaican iguana and the Blue-tailed galliwasp, among others.

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Species like the Jamaica Iguana could find a predator-free refuge in the Goat Islands. Image credit: Georgia Popplewell

The tremendous natural value of the Goat Islands lies not in the species they now support, but in the potential for establishing a safe refuge to prevent multiple extinctions in the near future.

For example, the iguana is currently threatened in Hellshire by habitat loss due to illegal tree cutting for the burning of charcoal, and by predation by non-native predators such as mongooses, cats and dogs. Given the tenuous survival of the iguana in Hellshire, experts have long agreed that establishing a predator-free refuge on the Goat Islands represented the most viable option for preventing its extinction.

And in addition to the iguana, a host of other Jamaican endemic species could be similarly re-introduced to the Goat Islands – including the island’s only native land mammal, the Jamaican coney.

The establishment of such a biodiversity reserve – essentially protecting all of the island’s endemic dry forest species – would represent the most significant single conservation effort ever achieved in the Caribbean.

That is precisely why the international conservation community stands poised to support such a plan — a plan incidentally, that was included as a high priority objective in NEPA’s National Strategy and Action Plan on Biodiversity. So the Goat Islands sanctuary was a government mandate not so long ago.

Several aspects of the environment in the area are unique, and if lost could not be replaced. This would likely include the eventual loss of species found only in Jamaica, and would constitute ‘Global Extinctions’. Development does not necessarily require the destruction of unique resources; explicit efforts must be made to protect environmental resources and services, beginning with the selection of an appropriate project site for CHEC’s planned development, and including proper design and diligent operation thereafter.

[tw-column width=”one-half”]If the proposed Goat Islands port is to provide net benefits to Jamaica it must create minimal environmental damage during construction and operation. [/tw-column]

The ecosystem services and natural resources which support the livelihoods of local people and contribute to the welfare of all Jamaicans must be protected. From the beginning of the project, Jamaica should identify its most important resources and ensure that the hub does not damage them. Conservation of those resources should be made part of the contract between the Government and the developer, which the Government monitors to ensure that the conditions are strictly adhered to.

In many countries, an economic assessment is done to value the environmental assets and the developer is financially responsible for replacing the value of environmental goods or services lost or degraded.

However, Jamaica has no experience in carrying out a project of this magnitude in an environmentally sensitive area, and so in the same way we are using foreign investment to support the proposed project, the Government should take up the offer made by IUCN, the World Conservation Union, to assist it in ensuring that environmental values are maintained if the project goes ahead.

We suggest that the selection of the Goat Islands/Portland Bight Protected Area as the site for such a massive and environment-transforming project is unwise. Locally, negative impacts would include a significant loss in critical ecosystem services (e.g., storm protection, climate change mitigation, fish nurseries, forest, underground water) and current livelihoods (i.e., jobs, fishing); internationally, the project would likely result in a loss of global biodiversity and the probable extinction of unique species.

While we are broadly in favour of the logistics hub initiative, we remain convinced that the Goat Islands/Portland Bight Protected Area is not a suitable location for a transshipment port, a coal-fired electricity generating plant, or the other large scale developments proposed for this valuable and  gazetted Protected Area. We therefore recommend that another, less sensitive site be chosen.

Dr. David Smith is an ecologist and the Coordinator of the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies. Professor Byron Wilson is a conservation biologist with 17 years’ experience conducting ecological research in the Portland Bight Protected Area.

What does Jamaica stand to lose in the Goat Islands?

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Category: Sustainability