Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Jamaica's swamp forests 'all' most gone

Published:Monday | February 6, 2017 | 2:00 AMChristopher Serju
It was a reunion of sorts for Marilyn Headley (right) and Sister Mary Andrew Campbell, general minister, Franciscan Missionary Sisters, as they teamed up to plant one of the eight yellow poui seedlings donated by the Forestry Department. Sister Mary Andrew taught Headley in third form, and the 1968 graduate of Holy Childhood is the first female CEO and conservator of forests at the Forestry Department.

On Thursday, February 2, as the rest of world observed World Wetlands Day under the theme 'Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction', evidence came to light that Jamaica has very little to celebrate in that regard. Very little, literally.

The Forestry Department was the whistle-blower, reporting that Jamaica has lost a whopping 95.5 per cent or 2,124.1 hectares of its swamp forest over the past 15 years. The measly 122.9 hectares of swamp forest left represents a mere 0.1 per cent of the country's total forest cover, which accounts for 40 per cent of its land surface.

"We are in big trouble," Marilyn Headley, CEO, and conservator of forests, lamented in a press release on Wednesday, as she appealed to policymakers for balance between the demands of development and conservation of natural resources.

Swamp forests are located in flat, easily accessible areas which are ideal for housing and other development, with the soil usually rich in plant nutrients, which also adds to the appeal for agricultural investment.

"If we fail to sustain our environment, we will fail to sustain the economy. Development is necessary. It's one way we grow as a country and as a people, but when we do it at the expense of our natural environment, we are in big trouble," Headley warned.

"Jamaica is a hazard-prone country, and one of the main purposes our wetlands serve is to lessen the impacts of storm events, thus reducing the amount of money to repair damage, so we have to play our part in reducing the threats to our country by protecting and conserving our wetland resources," she added.

$73B IN ECONOMIC LOSSES

Economic losses attributed to the combined effects of three major hurricanes and several flood events which affected Jamaica between 2002 and 2007 amounted to more than J$73 billion, according to a 2008 study conducted by the Planning Institute of Jamaica.

Despite this, Jamaicans are still failing to appreciate the invaluable role of swamp forests when compared to mangrove forests, another type of wetland, which has seen an increase of 1.4 per cent over the last 15 years. They both play a critical role in water supply and fish production.

The conservator of forests explained, "Wetlands are important for maintaining freshwater supplies as they catch and store rainwater, refill underground reserves and protect them from salty water. Our wetlands also act as sponges that hold floodwaters, preventing the likelihood of flooding. The issue of caring for and protecting our wetland forests is not a Forestry Department business or Government business. It is a Jamaican business, and it will take each citizen playing his or her part to stop the destruction of this valuable resource."