Human and nature-ravaged St Thomas - a happening disaster
St Thomas, Jamaica's most easterly parish, is a region of great geographical diversity.
At the extreme north, the Blue Mountain range stretches across the parish.
The wetlands are concentrated in the southeast - all the way to the Morant Point Lighthouse. The Golden Grove/Duckenfield sugar cane belt is also in that area, where there are undulating hills.
Right throughout the parish, there are swathes of flat lands, especially near the coastline, which is punctuated by idyllic coves.
The salt ponds - interesting ecological features separated from the sea by narrow spits - are at Yallahs.
Inland, there are more majestic mountains; between them are great basins, gullies, and ravines, through which rivers and streams flow.
St Thomas, then, is a pretty picture, it seems - a landscape artist's dream. But he can dream on, always. For, wide awake, he will realise that St Thomas has long passed its pristine days. It is a land ravaged by man and nature itself.
It is particularly vulnerable to the impact of hurricanes because of its location, and on Monday, the start of the 2015 hurricane season, The Gleaner toured the parish, and we got the feeling that environmental-wise, it
is a disaster already happening, and on the verge of getting worse.
Generally, despite its abundance of rivers and streams, it is a drought-stricken place, where the earth is parched and sick. Trees and other vegetation are brown, and farmers are drowning in their sorrows for the loss of their yields. But their tears are not enough to water their plots.
The brown vegetation is not only because of the dearth of water. Fires have been scorching the land, parish-wide. The fires, some people told us, are deliberately set for a multitude of reasons, including farming. The heat, it appears, was turned up in the Llandewey to Ramble stretch. For miles, we saw reddish-brown mountain and hillsides. It seemed to have been a great fire.
Deforestation by man is another serious assault on the environment; lands are being cleared wholescale for farming and to make coal.
A resident told us that the parish will soon look like Haiti, where there is catastrophic deforestation. The situation is extensive. We saw big empty spaces on hills and mountainsides where trees used to be. There were fallen trees ready to be removed, and remnants of coal-making kilns along the main road.
burning trees for years
And at Pamphret, not far from the ponds, we saw a youth making a kiln. When we asked him whether he was aware of the possible harm to the environment by cutting down the trees, he said he had no other option. He told us he has been burning trees to produce coal for years, as he has to find food for his seven-year-old son. He also said the trees would spring back, while showing some sprouts on a stump embedded in the ground.
He was operating near the main road from which the ponds can be seen. The resident with whom The Gleaner spoke said the ponds were not visible from the spot, until the trees were removed.
Trees are important to keep the soil together and to buffer it from the direct impact of rain. The denudation of the land is one of the reasons for the widespread erosion we saw. Heavy rains over the years have been washing away soil left bare by deforestation. The gullies and ravines are full of sand, stones, silt, and huge rocks that have been washed down.
At Hillside, a village situated immediately at the foot of the Blue Mountains, where a deluge of water, rocks and silt destroyed many houses in 1993, some structures are still partially buried. The relocation that was promised to the residents is yet to happen. A woman, whose family house was destroyed in the disaster, lamented the neglect from the member of parliament and Government, by extension.
There are many mounds of washed-down earth and rocks. Some houses are near wide gullies. One vital bridge in the community is now buried beneath washed-down aggregates. Below the small community, the wide Morant riverbed is just waiting to gobble them up, and take them to sea, should another deluge occur.
The coastline, at many places, is under constant erosion, and we have seen beaches where houses used to be, and houses whose foundations are being compromised by wave erosion. Southaven, where the waves are great for surfing, is a case in point.
From sea to mountain, the great disregard for the environment is demonstrated by the vast amount of non-biodegradable refuse scattered all over the parish. The drains in the capital town of Morant Bay are blocked. In black stagnant water, garbage marinates and maggots squirm.
Unsightly man-made structures all over blight the beauty. But, is St Thomas singular in its decadence? Parochial neighbours, near and far, might not think so.