Jamel Banton, Guest Columnist
As an environmentally conscious coastal engineer with many years of experience in doing studies for developments along the coastline, I feel compelled to weigh in on the conversation on the Goat Islands development.
First, I would like to clarify my position on this matter. Yes, I am an engineer who is pro-development, and, yes, I am for the protection of our environmental resources. And, yes, these two can coexist in one opinion, and might I say, should coexist if we are to reap long-term benefits from any sort of development.
Let us go beyond the talks about who should "go to hell" and try to reason rationally. My caveat, however, is that we really do not know the full details of the plans for this development, and most of the various opinions may be based on speculation, such as the one you are currently reading. So working with what we have heard or don't know, here are some of the issues from my perspective.
Are the Goat Islands the ideal spot for this sort of development? It may provide some shelter for ships, but aren't there other areas along the coastline which may be also suited for a port development of this nature? Does the location tie in well with the overall master plan for the logistics hub?
For example, how does Vernamfield fit into this picture, and would the Port Authority still go ahead with the expansion of the Port of Kingston? Has the Government come to the decision to use Goat Islands because it was convenient to do so, or because it maximises on the social and economic benefits to be derived?
While I can understand some decisions have to be taken quickly, is the Government now going to evaluate alternative locations? Might I add that such an alternative could still be within the Portland Bight area, just not on the Goat Islands.
There needs to be a paradigm shift in how the natural environment fits in with economically viable development. First, neither the developer nor the environmentalist should believe the other is a hindrance to what should be our ultimate goal: improvement of the livelihood of all Jamaicans.
There are significant long-term benefits to be gained from the natural environment (ecological, physical and social), despite what some of us may think. These are just harder to monetise, hence the reason such benefits are often seemingly less than the forecasted economic benefits from a development.
If the Government is to go ahead with the Goat Islands area, how will the physical environment suffer, and how can the impacts be mitigated?
1. The wetlands, which are home to mangroves and act as a sanctuary to many species, could be significantly impacted. Mangroves also protect us from shoreline erosion during storms and act as a filter after heavy rainfalls to protect the marine life offshore.
2. The offshore areas surrounding the Goat Islands are a good area for fish development because of its sheltered nature. These fish sanctuaries and nurseries will be adversely impacted with the development, which will have economic impacts, as it will affect the livelihood of fishermen.
Mitigation measures can take different forms. First, we must try to avoid negative impacts where we can. This should happen from the site-selection stage in choosing the appropriate location for a project. This brings us back to my first point of whether the Goat Islands is the best option for this project.
Next, we should attempt to minimise impacts. For example, the area for development should be selected based on the presence of the least sensitive areas. In the case of the Goat Islands, more land will have to be created to meet the reported 3,000-acre requirement. Where and how this is done should have the objective to minimise the impacts on the wetlands and other sensitive marine areas?
Then we should try to restore the damaged areas where possible. For instance, if there are mangroves damaged during the construction, attempts should be made to replant these. The last and most appropriate form of mitigation for this project is compensation. This speaks to the artificial creation of areas within the marine environment that will enhance marine life.
This could include planting mangroves in other areas where this resource is being depleted, or building artificial reefs to act as fish sanctuaries. These have been successfully done in different parts of the world.
This project would, of course, not be the first of its kind in scope and relative importance in Jamaica. We have done several major projects and, unfortunately, we have a history of sacrificing the environment for development. Montego Freeport and parts of Ocho Rios were a result of dumping material on to reefs, and at the time, there was little regard for the environment.
Much of Kingston Harbour has been reclaimed, and indeed, Portland Bight has reclamation, and shipping channels were dredged. However, the disregard for environmental issues has been changing. More recently, the Port Authority and other branches of the Government have been brought into 21st-century thinking regarding the environment, not necessarily as a result of public pressure through the media, but because of the Government's own regulations.
The construction of Bogue and Soapberry sewage treatment plants is finally putting an end to the dumping of raw sewage into the sea; a massive coral-transplanting programme was undertaken at Rackhams Reef when the entrance to Kingston Harbour was last widened. Sustainable development is, therefore, not a foreign concept to Jamaica.
As the debate rages on, let us recognise the environment should not be treated as a mere hindrance to development. Nor should the promotion of economically viable development be treated as a curse on the environment. We must continue to improve our standards for developing in an environmentally sustainable way.
The approach to the potential Goat Islands project has, however, clouded the positive spin-offs that could be garnered and has shown disregard for the importance of consideration for the natural environment.
We should hope the announcement was premature, and the proper investigations will indeed be carried out before final decisions are made on the project. We need cost-benefit analyses to determine the real benefits to the Jamaican people and we must evaluate our options so that we can maximise the social and economic benefits, while giving due consideration to the ecological benefits of maintaining our natural environment.
Jamel D. Banton, a company director, has more than 15 years of experience in coastal and marine engineering. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.