Mon | Apr 6, 2020

No love for thatch in St Bess

Published:Thursday | July 21, 2016 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams
Partially burnt thatch palms in Cattaboo, St Elizabeth.
A basket made of thatch from the Black River Lower Morass.

The Black River Lower Morass is the biggest freshwater wetland ecosystem in the Caribbean. It is the habitat for diverse species, some of which are endemic, rare and endangered. The region also teems with non-aquatic plants such as acacia, logwood and thatch palms.

Thatch palms are very common in the southern part of the parish, and in the east and south of the Great Morass of the Black River watershed, they are in abundance in districts such as Salt Spring, Cattaboo, Slipe, Punches and Frenchman.

Their tall and fan-shaped fronds give them a majestic look - nature's beauty on show. But the beautiful sights might eventually be etched only in our memory. Residents have been burning and uprooting the palms.


When Rural Xpress asked a woman in Cattaboo why people were destroying the palms, she smiled and said nonchalantly, "Dem too much."

In essence, the palms are considered too plentiful, and, as such, a problem. Some of them have been removed to create farmlands in a place where subsistence farming is a way of life.

But, decades ago, people knew the value of thatch to the communities, and burning them extensively would never be a thought. A man at Punches told Rural Xpress that when he was a boy, all the houses in his district had thatch roofs, and up to the 1970s, thatch was still a popular roofing material.

It was also used for making household and gift items. But, the popularity of thatch and other natural materials faded with the coming of cheaper, mass-produced plastic items.


Rural Xpress also met a woman who has been making thatch baskets for years. She retrieved some baskets that were in her house being decorated. Sales, she said, were very slow, and when craft vendors show up to buy, they want the items at very low prices.

The abundance of thatch palms in the region is in stark contrast to the situation on the east and north coasts, where artisans say thatch palms are scarce and expensive. Coconut fronds are being used as substitute.

Rural Xpress spoke with Andrea Donaldson at the National Environment and Planning Agency about the matter. She said the palms were not protected by law per se, but species within protected areas are. She said an officer would be asked to investigate the situation in St Elizabeth.

The Lower Morass, a Ramsar Site, is a game sanctuary, a protected area, and a conservation area. The communities where the destruction is taking place are located on the fringe of the site.