Sun | May 31, 2020

Selling our birthright

Published:Friday | August 23, 2013 | 12:00 AM
The American flag is raised in 1941 on Little Goat Island, situated at Old Harbour Bay, the United States naval base acquired from Great Britain. The land became the encampment of the 8th Division, Marine Company.-FILE

Peter Espeut

Jamaica is an archipelagic state, consisting of more than 60 islands and cays. The largest, of course, is the island of Jamaica, but few will know the second- or third-largest islands in our multi-island nation.

At 64 acres is Navy Island, off Port Antonio, Jamaica's second largest island? Not even close! The second-largest island in our archipelago is Great Goat Island (600 acres), and the third largest is Little Goat Island (300 acres), both off the coast of the Hellshire Hills, St Catherine.

Great Goat Island is quite craggy, the highest point being 100m (about 300ft) above sea level. I have tried to climb it, but could not get far because the limestone boulders were too large, requiring rock-climbing gear. The island would make an excellent wildlife refuge for Jamaican endemic species in danger of extinction, like the Jamaican iguana, Jamaican boa, thunder snake, coney, skink and blue-tailed galliwas. Such a plan was first put forward in 1921 by the Institute of Jamaica; after almost 100 years, the government's environment agency still has this plan.

Journey into history

The highest point on Little Goat Island is 23m (about 70ft), and no climb is necessary. In World War II, part of this island was used as a United States (US) Naval Air Base, from where two squadrons of PBY Catalina seaplanes patrolled the Windward Passage. The base was equipped with two timber piers, a concrete seaplane ramp, a concrete parking area, and a complement of buildings, including quarters for 75 men and 25 officers, two administration buildings, a 10-bed dispensary, a power plant, a shop, utility buildings, and a warehouse.

Fresh water was brought in by barge from the mainland and pumped from the dock to storage for treatment and distribution. Gasolene storage, totalling 75,000 gallons, was provided in 11 underground steel tanks. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the base on December 5, 1940 on the cruiser Tuscaloosa escorted by two destroyers. The remains of this base may be seen on Little Goat Island to this day, and has profound heritage tourism potential, which would employ hundreds of persons long term.

The two islands are connected by a healthy mangrove wetland, and the huge Cabaritta Mangal (more mangroves) connects Great Goat Island to the Hellshire Hills on the Jamaican mainland, which is also fringed with hundreds of acres of mangroves. The islands and the Hellshire Hills enclose Galleon Harbour, where on August 18, 1494 Christopher Columbus sheltered his galleons from a storm on his first visit to Jamaica. Columbus' diarist records the hospitality he enjoyed from the Tainos living on the Goat Islands who he described as "the most intelligent in all the Indies".

The sea floor is mostly seagrass, making Galleon Harbour one of the most fecund fish nurseries in Jamaican waters. It has been declared a fish sanctuary by the Government. The marine and wetland ecosystems are habitat to thousands of birds, and have been declared a game sanctuary.

Beware of chinese takeover

All this is about to be destroyed. The Chinese have declared the Goat Islands to be their preferred site to establish a huge port and logistics hub. The discussions have taken place in secret, but the scuttlebutt is that Great Goat Island is to be levelled, and the 100m-high hill pushed into the sea to cover the wetlands between them, and to create a huge island on which the logistics hub will be built (as well as a small town for the Chinese workers).

To establish the US Naval Air Base, in 1941, a total of 2.8 million cubic yards of dredging removed coral reefs and shoals from the seaplane runway and to deepen the anchorage and channel approaches to the piers. The justification for the logistics hub is that the Panama Canal is being widened and deepened to accommodate larger ships with deeper draughts; how many hundreds of millions of cubic yards of coral reefs and shoals in Portland Bight will have to be dredged in order to accommodate the bigger ships?

I have to declare interest. When I was executive director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, I led the negotiations for the creation of the Portland Bight Protected Area in 1999, the Game Sanctuary around Galleon Harbour in 2004, and the Galleon Harbour Fish Sanctuary in 2010, among several others in the area.

I know the area well. The natural capital and the heritage resources contained within the forest, wetland, reef and seagrass ecosystems in and around the Goat Islands are worth far more than the actual economic benefits we might earn from a logistics hub. The Chinese will import most of the labour to be employed there, so there will be only a few Jamaican jobs. The Chinese will get much more from this project than we ever will.

We are selling our birthright for less than a mess of pottage.

Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and natural resource manager. Email feedback to