Kurt McLaren & Byron Wilson, Guest Columnists
The current economic and related unemployment crises now gripping our country are of serious concern. What is also of concern is that the Government of Jamaica might press ahead with development plans that will irrevocably damage our natural environment.
One such proposed development is the construction of a trans-shipment hub in Old Harbour Bay, including the use of Great Goat Island, to generate 'jobs, jobs, jobs'.
Ronald Mason's column ('Environment vs job, economic development') The Sunday Gleaner of August 18, 2013 gives support to this idea. We would like to remind Mr Mason, the Government of Jamaica, and Jamaicans in general, that regardless of the area not being 'pristine', it encompasses a variety of habitat types (mangrove forests, coral reefs, seagrass beds and dry forests) that represent the best that the island still has left.
This site also lies in the middle of a protected area, abuts two important fish sanctuaries, is part of a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance), and is critically important for the continued survival of species that occur nowhere else on Earth.
Ultimately, the GOJ must also decide whether they should adhere to the numerous environmental conventions to which they are a signatory, or simply stop signing them. We are fast losing credibility within the international conservation and conservation funding communities.
Jamaica must decide where we stand regarding our natural environment. It is either that we designate some sites as off limits to any kind of destructive development, or we press ahead with any and all development projects regardless of short- and long-term environmental consequences.
While we agree with Mr Mason that we need to encourage dialogue, our Government has shown time and time again that development will proceed regardless of environmental costs or negative impacts on the livelihoods and health of those who do not benefit directly from these developments.
No doubt, an environmental impact assessment will be requested and completed, which will essentially rubber-stamp the development regardless of deleterious impacts - because this is how things seem to be done here in Jamaica.
Port development of this scale in a protected area with both marine and terrestrial elements simply cannot be mitigated. What is needed is a thorough assessment of ecosystem services (such as the provision of fish and shellfish nurseries, drinking water, protection against storm surges, etc), climate change considerations, and a cost-benefit analysis that must include quantifying and valuing the ecosystem services that will be crippled or destroyed if the development goes ahead. Such an assessment should be based on empirical data.
A trans-shipment port is not the only opportunity for income generation and jobs. Income can be generated from GGI and its surrounding environment through ecotourism and from the REDD programme (reducing emissions from deforestation and environmental degradation).
Recently, a representative from the United Nations Development Programme stated that Jamaica "has the potential for substantial hard-currency earning by implementing a United Nations special programme aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions". He went on to state, "It is predicted that financial flows for (implementing) greenhouse gas emission reductions (activities) from REDD, could reach up to US$30 billion."
In fact, we are now in the process of quantifying carbon sequestration to ensure that the country can benefit from REDD, and the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) is one of several sites that should be used to secure some of this hard currency.
Wouldn't it be better to gain income from a trans-shipment hub at a more suitable site AND from ecotourism and REDD in the PBPA - three sources instead of one?
Because time is of the essence and hot air earns very little, further discourse is indeed desperately needed. This discourse should ensure that the site-selection process is as rigorous as possible. And if a site is found to be unsuitable for development because of potential impacts on ecosystems, that site should not be chosen.
We are very sure that there are more suitable sites for this port, where the impact on the environment would not be catastrophic. Therefore, please, let's try to identify these sites, and with urgency.
Dr Kurt McLaren is a forest ecologist; Professor Byron Wilson is a conservation biologist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.