Petre Williams-Raynor, Contributing Editor
PLAYERS FROM Jamaica's conservation sector have come out against the inclusion of Manatee Bay in St Catherine among the likely areas for development, as Government opens applications for integrated resort developments (IRDs), which are intended to grow the hotel sector.
Under the guidelines for IRDs, which are to include a minimum of 2,000 rooms and casino gaming facilities, the Urban Development Corporation said it is prepared to "negotiate conditions for possible use of properties it owns in Roaring River, St Ann; Success Estate adjacent to Rose Hall, St James; and Manatee Bay, Hellshire Hills, St Catherine". This is in cases where "the developer does not currently have access to a specific development site".
It is a declaration that has angered environmental stakeholders who insist that Manatee Bay, which forms a part of the Portland Bight Protected Area, ought not to be touched.
"It is an important crocodile nesting site. It is adjacent to the core [Jamaican] iguana area. It is a turtle-nesting beach. It has a fish sanitary. You could hardly think of a more unsuitable place for a 2,000-room hotel," noted Diana McCaulay, chief executive officer for the Jamaica Environment Trust.
Further, she said Government ought to at least have included details of the area's protected status in the IRD guidelines.
"I remain concerned that they do not disclose the conservation status of these lands; they should tell an investor. The guidelines also say that they may be required to consult NEPA (National Environment and Planning Agency). But the fact is that they need an environmental permit, so they will have to consult NEPA; there is no maybe about that," she told The Gleaner.
"What disturbs me, [too], is that in some instances, there is a disconnect between them [the Ministry of Finance] and the environmental agencies. You would think they would speak at an early stage to say what sort of development could take place where, but they don't seem to have had that discussion," McCaulay said further.
NEPA boss Peter Knight refused substantive comment on the issue last week, saying only: "This is a matter of policy," while adding that Minister of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change [Robert Pickersgill], would likely speak on the issue at a later date. Pickersgill could not be reached for comment up to press time.
Brandon Hay, scientific officer for the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, whose work focuses on Portland Bight, said Manatee Bay's development was a recipe for disaster.
"One of the things that has helped to protect the area has been isolation. Once you create that kind of fragmentation [roads and other infrastructure], you create pockets for charcoal burning, squatting, invasive species like feral dogs, cats, goats, and plants as well, that will follow people into the forest and take over," he predicted.
Zoologist Dr Byron Wilson, who has done research on iguanas and crocodiles in the area, questioned the Government's decision.
"What precisely does 'protected area' mean in this country? How can an area of international biodiversity value, [and] that is a protected area, suddenly be destroyed through a mega-hotel development? This sort of underscores the reality that all Jamaica has is 'paper parks'," he said. "If occupancy is so low at so many of the hotels, why not convert one of those into a mega-casino or at least convert the unoccupied rooms into gaming rooms?"
Meanwhile, the conservationists' wariness over development in the protected area, which spans 87,000 hectares and is home to 15 globally threatened species is supported by research.
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund's 2010 Ecosystem Profile for the Caribbean Islands, Biodiversity Hotspot said its preservation is essential in the face of climate change.
ESSENTIAL FOR SURVIVAL
"Portland Bight supports the largest intact area of mangrove forest in Jamaica. Hellshire Hills, Key Biodiversity Area comprises relatively intact forest, while Portland Ridge is 50 per cent forested. Connectivity between these unique dry forest areas will be essential for the long-term survival of this ecosystem and its biodiversity, especially in the face of climate change," said the 145-page document.
"The mangroves and dry forested hills provide significant coastal zone protection for Portmore and a number of smaller communities. However, proposals for development projects to expand the city of Portmore, and to build a hotel complex in Manatee Bay, threaten the corridor's resilience, and also its ability to regulate flooding, erosion and sedimentation of the near-shore marine environment," the document added.