Tue | Jul 23, 2019

Peter Espeut | Growing environmental awareness

Published:Friday | April 12, 2019 | 12:35 AM

Although over the last quarter of a century I have written on many and diverse subjects in this column, when many people see me on the street they identify me as ‘the environmentalist’.

My childhood was full of snorkeling on our reefs, and coming from a scouting and guiding family (and as a Scout myself), I did a lot of mountain and forest hiking and camping in Jamaica and elsewhere, interacting closely with nature.

Over the years, I personally have observed the advance of deforestation for timber, and the encroachment of various types of farming (coffee, scallions and ganja by small farmers, and Caribbean pine by FIDCO) into our natural forests. It was clear to me that with less forest acreage, the amount of water captured was bound to decrease, causing rivers to dry up, reducing the amount of water available for human consumption.

This has come to pass, with more than one hundred Jamaican rivers drying up in the 20th century, and the south coast lurching from drought season to drought season, experiencing water lock-offs and rationing. In the 1980s, Jamaica had the highest rate of deforestation in the world!

My initial university training was in the natural sciences (chemistry, zoology), and there I learnt about the finely woven tapestry which is our natural environment. When I took up scuba diving as a hobby and explored a little deeper the marine environment of Jamaica and elsewhere, I saw our problem.

Why did Cayman and Belize have so much marine life (especially fish in your face), while Jamaica had so little? And the little we had was rapidly declining! Why were the two largest barrier reefs in the world (in Australia and Belize) so healthy, while Jamaica’s reefs were dying or dead, overgrown with gardens of algae? Something was fertilising the algae, which was smothering and killing our coral reefs.

Water quality data proved it: runoff entering the sea was heavy with plant food – excess and unused fertiliser from agriculture, nitrates from sewage, and phosphates from household chemicals (dishwashing liquid and laundry detergents).

‘BASKET CASE OF THE WORLD’

Our soakaways are working perfectly! Sewage and domestic wastewater soak away into the aquifers and polluting groundwater, which enters the sea, killing the reefs. Even where sewage is treated (and we treat only a small amount of our sewage in Jamaica), except for the relatively new Soapberry tertiary sewage-treatment facility, all we do is kill the bacteria and discharge the nutrient-rich effluent into the sea. What else are we to expect?

London and New York do not have coral reefs, and so the sewage-treatment technology we import from them hurts us more than helps.

Jamaica has the most overfished waters in the Caribbean (and probably the world), and when it comes to coral reefs, we are considered the ‘basket case of the world’.

The problem is not the environment. Left to itself, the corals and fish, and trees in the forests would do quite well. The problem begins with us humans, who chop down the trees without replanting, who overfish using small mesh and dynamite, and dispose of our waste and wastewater in ways which damage the environment.

I have come to see that the management of the environment is not a biological problem for biologists to address, but a human problem for social scientists to tackle and solve. The difficulty is that we tend to put natural resource management into the hands of biologists, who are not trained to manage people and their damaging behaviour.

Thankfully, over the last 30 years we Jamaicans have become much more environmentally aware. I appreciate the concern about Kingston Harbour coming from the private sector, and the recent seizure of the boats of the foreign conch poachers by the courts. We are slowly getting there.

Development is false and counterfeit if we create jobs that damage or destroy the very habitat in which we humans live. Every manifesto in recent decades has committed both political parties to sustainable development, but their actions when in power are otherwise.

We will know we are there when we turn down foreign investment on environmental grounds.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a natural resource manager. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.