Petre Williams-Raynor, Contributing Editor
A TEAM from the University of the West Indies (UWI) is currently undertaking research on one of Jamaica's most valuable natural resources - the Pedro Cays.
Their work follows a bevy of news reports last year on poor public-health conditions at the cays, where numerous Jamaicans eke out a living, thanks to the lucrative conch industry - worth US$30 million to Jamaica annually - and other marine resources there.
A September 2012 visit by members of the media to the cays, which comprise three tiny islands, courtesy of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), uncovered inadequate toilet facilities, a lack of running water and a pile-up of garbage on the main cay, called Middle Cay.
The subsequent reports prompted Government to formulate a remedial plan. At the same time, those occupying the island, including women, and some of them for up to six months each year, sought to themselves do something about their situation by sorting the garbage and burning what could be burnt.
Government's plan followed a visit to the cays by a team headed by Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke.
It included garbage disposal and the conduct of a survey to determine the precise number of people living on the islands - home to an abundance of birds, including the masked booby - during the year and their socio-economic status.
The minister said at the time that they would also limit the number of people on the cays, beginning with those without the proper licences. He also promised the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee to oversee the implementation of the plans and long-term management of the cays.
Efforts to stymie the burgeoning garbage pile began with a $6-million commitment from the agriculture ministry to finance garbage collection by the National Solid Waste Management Authority.
Up to April this year, things appear to have been moving apace. The inter-ministerial committee was established and fisheries officers were dispatched to the cays to get a handle on the number of people operating there without a licence. Garbage collection was also taking place.
However, in recent weeks, garbage collection appears to have been halted.
"The garbage collection has broken down," said JET's Chief Executive Officer Diana McCaulay, whose organisation is running a conservation programme on the cays.
"There hasn't been a pickup and they are burning about three times a week," she told The Gleaner last week.
Added McCaulay: "The basic problem out at Pedro is that they are generating too much garbage."
"The medium-term thing that we have to do is to convince everyone to reduce the amount of garbage they put out there, and that could be done via the cay licence," she insisted.
McCaulay noted that stipulations on the licence for what type and quantity of garbage can be taken on to the cay would help to solve the problem.
Meanwhile, the scope of the UWI study for which an initial $2.4 million was budgeted, according to the permanent secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Agriculture, Donovan Stanberry, has been extended.
The PS told The Gleaner earlier this year: "It turns out that we not only need the socio-economic survey because it would only answer the question of who is there and their profile; that does not solve the problem. What we need to know is how many [people] ought to be there because of the carrying capacity of the cays."
Added Stanberry: "What we are doing is expanding the scope of the survey to include a carrying-capacity study. What the carrying capacity study will tell us is how many people the cays can sustain, given the state of the natural resources, etc."
RESEARCH UNDER WAY
Speaking to this newspaper last week, he could provide no details on the precise date for when the research work got under way. However, the PS said as far as he knew, things were progressing well.
"I know the contract has been signed. Money is not an issue, and I know for sure that they [the research team] went to sea. That would have been early July," he said, adding that the research team amounted to a consortium from the UWI.
Dale Webber, head of the Centre for Environmental Management at the UWI and who is leading public consultations on the Cockpit Country boundary, has confirmed he is involved with the work.
He also revealed that the effort was being led by Dr Kevon Rhiney from the Department of Geography and Geology.