Thu | Nov 26, 2020

Peter Espeut | You cannot mitigate destruction

Published:Friday | November 20, 2020 | 12:13 AM
This 2003 photograph shows a section of Cockpit Country, home to numerous flora and fauna which are unique to the area.
This 2003 photograph shows a section of Cockpit Country, home to numerous flora and fauna which are unique to the area.

None of the definitions of the word ‘mitigation’ that I have seen suggests that negative impacts can be eliminated; all define mitigation as the “lessening in severity” or the “reduction in harmfulness” of negative impacts. The best mitigation can do is decrease the damage; but damage will take place.

The concept of mitigation has been abused by environmental consultants for decades. They seem to make the assumption that all negative impacts can be mitigated, and by that they imply that all can be neutralised or compensated for, such that the project under consideration becomes sustainable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let us be clear that some negative environmental impacts can be mitigated. Encircling booms can contain oil spills, preventing them from spreading too far; electrostatic precipitators can remove most of the polluting particles which might be emitted from smokestacks; instead of discharging hot water from cooling towers or condensers directly into the sea, it can be sent to holding tanks until it cools to room temperature before dumping it into the sea.

But some negative environmental impacts cannot be mitigated. When mining or quarrying digs a hole in the ground and bauxite or limestone is removed, the damage cannot be mitigated. Jamaica’s Mining Act of 1947 pretends that the mined-out areas will be ‘rehabilitated’; they claim that the topsoil will be removed and stored, and replaced after the minerals are extracted; but where this happens (rarely enough), the rehabilitated land is only good to grow grass; not even tree crops do well.

NO WAY TO REHABILITATE

If a dry limestone forest was there before the mining or quarrying (like on the Bengal Cliffs) or a wet limestone forest (like the Cockpit Country), there is no way to rehabilitate that! Even if all of the 72 conditionalities imposed upon the applicants for a quarrying permit on the Bengal Bluffs in St Ann were strictly adhered to, the ecologically valuable dry limestone forest on Puerto Bueno Mountain will be destroyed forever!

The vegetation in the Puerto Bueno dry limestone forest is adapted to the local geology and climate, and provides habitat for a variety of rare and endangered species, including (according to the environmental impact assessment (EIA)) the Jamaican yellow snake (boa), various galliwasps and geckos, and 16 of the 30 bird species endemic to Jamaica. These rare animals can never go back to reside on the mined-out limestone pits.

According to the Forestry Department, which submitted comments, while the EIA “explores the impact of the quarrying operations, it does not propose feasible and effective mitigation measures geared towards minimising the overall negative impact of the quarry on the forested area”.

In denying the permit to quarry in May 2020, the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (NRCA) stated:

• A quarry of this nature, size, scale and intensity will have a deleterious effect on the environment in general and the surrounding uses.

• The impact and loss of biodiversity and natural resources in an area of environmental significance and unique biodiversity is irreplaceable.

If the unique biodiversity which will be lost is “irreplaceable”, then no mitigation is possible, and the NRCA was right to refuse the permit. Not even 100 jobs can make up for that.

There is much talk of ‘balancing’ environmental concerns and the demand for economic growth and development. This is another red herring.

If there is going to be such a balance, it must take place across Jamaica as a whole; and that is why you protect some valuable ecosystems from ‘development’ and allow construction in the rest. But in any one particular place, there is no balance: so in Portmore, no natural environment can be protected, and in certain valuable areas like the Cockpit Country, no construction or mining should be allowed. There can be no balance at Puerto Bueno Mountain; that area is for preservation; not having quarrying there is part of the balance for Jamaica as a whole.

If we argue that any type of economic activity may be allowed anywhere as long as there are ‘mitigating conditions’, then nowhere will ever be protected, and everywhere will be deforested, dug down, and destroyed sooner or later.

We environmentalists have spent the last decades trying to protect our natural heritage from being raped by the misplaced development libido of the government.

It is time to draw a line in the sand!

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com