Diana McCaulay | The problem of beach exclusion
I read with interest Carolyn Cooper's column on her search for a public beach in the vicinity of Ocho Rios (Gleaner, Sunday, January 8, 2017). The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) shares these concerns and has tried for many years to get the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) to commit to a position on public access to beaches, as well as employ effective coastal management.
A little history: a special commission of inquiry was held in 1954 on beaches and foreshore lands in response to concerns that fisherfolk were being denied access to beaches. The Beach Control Act of 1956 was then passed; the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) now administers the Beach Control Act.
Despite the good intentions of the 1954 Commission and the subsequent legislation, for more than 50 years, more and more of Jamaica's coastline has disappeared behind walls, gates and fences.
In 1997, the NRCA began work on a beach policy to address issues surrounding public access and a Green Paper was drafted which proposed open access. There was immediate pushback from the tourism industry. The draft policy was then amended in 2000 and 2002, and has since languished. A new draft is currently in review, but development that effectively denies Jamaicans access to beaches and the coastline continues to be approved. Moreover, there are many government agencies that own, lease or are responsible for beach lands - specifically Urban Development Corporation, NRCA, parish councils, Commissioner of Lands, Fisheries Division, Tourism Product Development Company and Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica. There may be others. In keeping with the general policy of divestment, more and more of these beaches are being leased to operators who for the most part require a fee for entry or in some cases, the "prior arrangements" encountered by Professor Cooper. Many are poorly managed.
Today, there is a bewildering array of overlapping and sometimes contradictory policy documents in various stages of completion, overlapping ministerial responsibility, numerous categories of beaches and no overarching set of rules as to how beaches should be managed. Some public beaches have beach licences but many do not. A survey of the state of public beaches in roughly 2002 found most were in a poor state with facilities in disrepair and appalling sanitation. Many beaches are experiencing erosion and legal and illegal removal of important natural resources (mangroves, beach vegetation, seagrasses). There are also a host of poorly regulated and operated recreational activities - parties, horseback riding, jet skiing, parasailing, etc.
The 1954 Commission and every development order for parishes with a coastline thereafter stated the importance of providing access points for beaches, protecting sea views, and ensuring that Jamaicans have legal rights to access at least parts of their own coast, but to date, this has simply not been done in an effective or coherent way. Now the GOJ is contemplating a further step - the privatisation of parts of the sea itself to facilitate the building of overwater rooms and other types of coastal development.
It is true that harassment is a problem for the tourist industry - or indeed for any visitor to a Jamaican beach. But the response cannot be exclusion. The response has to be commitment to a set of articulated principles - frequent access points; provision of well-managed public beaches, including the requirement for behaviour by beach users that does not present a nuisance or threat to others or to the beach itself; some beaches protected in their natural state; windows to the sea at specific intervals; protection and restoration of coastal resources; required setbacks; protected seascapes and views; controlled recreation at suitable beaches - backed up by enforcement by the State. There is just no way around this final point. The GOJ has to emerge from its inertia, take a position on beach access, make whatever legislative changes are required and enforce them. And it cannot continue to articulate principles of access and coastal protection in development orders and then ignore its own policy positions.
- Diana McCaulay is chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.