Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Peter Espeut | A welcome Christmas present

Published:Friday | December 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I rejoiced last week when I received a letter from Peter Knight, CEO of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), advising me that the Goat Islands in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) would soon be declared a wildlife reserve.

This move has been on the cards for a long time. As early as 1994, when I was executive director of an environment and development NGO working in the area, the Government's environmental agency shared with me its plan to turn Great Goat Island into a wildlife refuge on which they would release endemic Jamaican species in danger of extinction. Their main worry was the Jamaican iguana - the most endangered lizard in the world!

Once common in southern Jamaica (the Liguanea Plain is named after the iguana, once seen there in great numbers), fewer than 100 remain in the wild - and only in the Hellshire Hills, which the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) had big plans to convert into housing and hotel development. If the UDC were ever to implement their plans, that would be the end of Jamaica's largest endemic land animal living in the wild.

The Government moved quickly, and in 1999, the PBPA was created. The NGO that I headed assisted with the drawing of the boundaries, which included both the Goat Islands and the Hellshire Hills. We also prepared a management plan for the PBPA, in consultation with the stakeholders, which was accepted by the government, and in 2003, the NGO I headed was delegated natural resource management responsibility for the PBPA.

The UDC was livid, and fought us all the way. Until now - 18 years after declaration - there are still no regulations specifying what is allowed in the PBPA and what is not! The PBPA is protected in name only!


Iguana rescue plan


The first stage in the rescue plan for the Jamaican iguana was to collect some of the eggs newly laid in the Hellshire Hills, allowing them to hatch, and raising the hatchlings in captivity safe from predators (like dogs and cats and mongooses); and then to release them back into the wild as adults better able to deal with predatory animals.

Over the years, this project has been very successful, but the UDC still kept active their plans to dig down and deforest the Hellshire Hills, and so a safe place to release the iguanas had to be found where they would be able to live undisturbed for decades to come. At the same time, safe habitats for the endangered Jamaican Coney and Jamaican Boa were needed for the same reason, otherwise future Jamaicans would never be able to see and experience this important part of our natural cultural heritage.

The craggy Great Goat Island was the perfect place for a refuge, but the trouble was that the two islands were owned by the same UDC that was threatening the wildlife in the Hellshire Hills!

When, on a visit to China in 2013, then Minister of the Environment Robert Pickersgill announced that Jamaica would give serious consideration to the Chinese proposal to build a logistics hub on the Goat Islands, warning bells went off in the environmental community!

And when the UDC announced its willingness to turn over the Goat Islands and part of the Hellshire Hills to the Chinese company, strong action was clearly called for. No one I know was against establishing a logistics hub; the objection was to the proposed location. I wrote over a dozen columns, and local and overseas NGOs and environmentalists campaigned and lobbied against the plan, but to no avail. Plans for declaring a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve had to be shelved (I had attended a UNESCO meeting in Madrid, Spain, to present the case). Plans for nature and heritage tourism in the PBPA were shelved. Anti-environmental forces (including this newspaper) lined up behind the Chinese plan. The world was watching.


Change of philosophy


It took a change of government and a change of philosophy at the UDC; after a visit to the Portland Bight Protected Area and the Goat Islands, Prime Minister Andrew Holness - the de jure minister of the environment - announced on September 23, 2016 that the Goat Islands would no longer be considered as the site for a transhipment port.

It was a time for rejoicing!

This announcement cleared the way for a rebirth of the PBPA. Peter Knight's letter to me last week indicates that plans for the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Goat Islands Wildlife Refuge, and ecotourism in the PBPA have resumed. What a wonderful Christmas present!

Not everyone will agree. In this newspaper last Wednesday, Leroy Benjamin wrote that protecting the PBPA "is by far the most egregious folly that has ever been meted out to Jamaicans, and it is sinful". He has a lot to learn.

Now I await the promulgation of environmental regulations that will bring reality to the Portland Bight Protected Area!

- Peter Espeut is a natural resource manager and a rural development scientist.