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Earth Today | Scientist flags urgent need for Cockpit Country boundary

Published:Wednesday | July 12, 2017 | 12:00 AMPetre Williams-Raynor
An expansive view of Jamaica's biodiversity-rich Cockpit Country.
Daryl Vaz

A REMINDER has come for the Government to put a new pep in its step in reaching and disclosing the decision on a boundary for the biodiversity-rich and ecologically sensitive Cockpit Country, this time from a respected local scientist. He is Professor Dale Webber, who chaired the University of the West Indies' Centre for Environmental Management between 2010 and 2015 and who, during that time, led public consultations on deciding a boundary for the Cockpit Country.

From those consultations, he, together with Dr Claudel Noel, prepared a report, complete with recommendations, and submitted it to the Government led then by the People's National Party in 2013.

"We were asked to do the public consultations, to talk to as many people as possible. We did it in what was clearly defined as Cockpit Country, we did some that would have been on the edge of the Cockpit Country, and we did some far away ... in Montego Bay, in Kingston, in Santa Cruz, to try to find out from people exactly what they thought the boundary should be. We put in a number of boundaries as drawn by various scientists, as well as people who have other interests, the Maroons, etc, asking, should this be included in Cockpit Country?," he told The Gleaner.

Four years on, Webber, a coastal ecologist and a professional with a good track record in environmental management, academic achievement, teaching, and administration, is puzzled as to why a final decision has still not been made.

"I am not sure what they would have decided, and I am not sure why they would have taken so long to decide. Of course, we have had a government change since then and I know that the discussions are ongoing. But it just pains me that it has taken so long," said the current pro vice-chancellor for graduate studies at the UWI and chair of the board of the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica.

The Government is currently led by the Jamaica Labour Party.

In April, Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Daryl Vaz, said in his Budget speech to Parliament that the boundary had been accepted "save and except for a small section, which is environmentally sensitive.

"Cabinet has taken a decision to have an independent assessment done, taking into consideration the concerns of the various interest groups and stakeholders in relation to environmental protection and economic growth. The findings of this report will be examined by Cabinet in short order, given the time-sensitive nature of the matter. It is expected that the matter will be resolved very shortly," he added.

With its rich biological diversity, including several endemic species, together with it being the source of some 40 per cent of the island's fresh water and a significant piece of forest cover, the Cockpit Country's value, Webber noted, warrants a boundary that allows for its effective protection.

"That is something I think that the Government would want to do, but (also) the entire country. When you think of the reserves the water reserves, the biodiversity reserves, the forestry reserves many people would say that we need to draw a boundary around it and leave it alone. If we think of the inter-generational equity, we are leaving something that the next 10 generations should be able to say, 'Aha, this is how it was and still maintains'," he said.


Short on resources


"But in a country like Jamaica where we are short on resources, some people say we should we be exploiting those resources ... it is the balancing act we need to decide on. If you ask my personal opinion, I think we need to draw the boundary as wide as possible, bearing in mind the people who are using it currently; because what they do in terms of their land operations, their livelihoods, that needs to be considered as we implement what it is we are going to do," Webber added.

In their 2013 report, he and Noel wrote that the "official boundary for the Cockpit Country should be comprised of a core, a transition zone and an outer boundary" each with its own level of protection and degrees of restriction.

At the same time, they cautioned Government against authorising "any form of exploration of mineral deposits, mining and quarrying activity within the Cockpit Country, as the level of emotion is too high and the level of opposition and resistance by community members and leaders, community-based organisations, non-governmental and civil society organisations, some governmental agencies and members of the academic community may not provide enough guarantee and confidence for potential investors".