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Peter Espeut | Is this a green government?

Published:Friday | October 21, 2016 | 10:00 AM

"We won!" shouted Professor Les Kaufman of Boston University to me two nights ago as we met in the hotel bar overlooking Holland's North Sea. News of the Jamaican Government's decision to save the Goat Islands from becoming a Chinese enclave flashed around the world last month, and wishes of international positivity poured in.

Gathered here in Noordwijk in the Netherlands at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Pew Marine Fellows are the biggest names in coastal conservation from all around the world. Twenty years ago, I was named in the first batch of Marine Pew Fellows as I worked towards the creation of the Portland Bight Protected Area, Jamaica's largest conservation complex containing swathes of valuable terrestrial and marine ecosystems, including the Goat Islands. When the area came into existence in 1999, the director of the Pew Fellows Programme flew in to Jamaica for the occasion to celebrate with us.

And, for a change, there is now a lot to be happy about. The decision of the new generally young JLP government to abandon the ill-conceived Negril breakwater project was well received. And the resolution proposed by young Matthew Samuda and passed in the Senate last week to ban the importation of styrofoam and some plastic bags is a huge positive step towards sustainable development in Jamaica. Maybe this JLP Government will be green after all!

It didn't look so when this Government hid the environment portfolio inside the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation and combined the fisheries portfolio (really a type of hunting of wildlife) with Industry and Commerce. I am still to be fully convinced, but the Government's first few environmentally related announcements have been in the right direction.

 

BELOW SEA LEVEL

 

Here in Holland, 60 per cent of their land area is below sea level, 60 per cent of their population lives below sea level, and 60 per cent of their GDP is earned below sea level. We Jamaicans learn from our primary-school days that this maritime nation defends itself from invasion by the sea by a system of breakwaters, dykes, locks, and windmills which pump and transport the water out to sea.

At our conference yesterday, we were addressed by Dr Rien van Zetten, the coastal engineer responsible for sea defence in the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. He explained that their coastal defence problems have become even more acute as they are affected both by sea-level rise and the subsiding of already low-lying coastal land areas because of the overpumping of aquifers for irrigation and the compression of the peat underlayer.

I sat with him at lunch, and he explained that they have also decided that their centuries-old sea-defence system of breakwaters, dykes, locks, and windmills was part of their problem. For the last several decades, they have been using beach nourishment, pumping offshore sand from 20 kilometres out into the North Sea into ships, and discharging it onshore to build up the dunes on the seafront. Natural processes will then redistribute the sand to where it is most needed.

Dutch government policy calls for 12 million cubic metres of sand per year to be put onshore each year, and they have calculated that at that rate of beach nourishment, they have enough sand to protect their 375km (233 miles) of coastline for the next 1,000 years.

The Dutch, with centuries of experience in coastal engineering for sea defence, and more profound problems than we have, have rejected breakwaters in favour of beach nourishment. The Government has made the correct choice for Negril. We need to consider what our approach to Hellshire and other beaches should be.

And maybe the government of the Netherlands can help.

This year's new Pew Fellows have some great projects. One is working on shark and turtle conservation among fishing communities in Costa Rica. Another is working to inform policymakers and communities in Sri Lanka on environmental issues. Yet another is enhancing the effectiveness of marine protected areas in the western Indian Ocean.

Looking at what is now being done elsewhere, our plans for Portland Bight 20 years ago were decades in advance. We would have been far ahead if we had not been sabotaged by the very Government that brought the Portland Bight Protected Area into existence. History will not be kind to them.

There is always something new to learn about sustainable living. The carpets at the hotel here in Noordwijk are made of recycled discarded fishing nets - and there is much more. If we want more environmentally conscious tourists to come to Jamaica, and if this government is really green, it will have to infuse sustainable-tourism concepts into our hospitality industry.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist, rural-development scientist, and natural-resource manager. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.