Lifeline for Cockpit Country NGO
Petre Williams-Raynor, Contributor
FACED with a lack of donor funding, the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA) is pursuing alternative financing to continue its conservation work while sustaining its operations.
They have found an alternative in ecotourism, an option identified as ideal, given their location in one of Jamaica's key biodiversity areas - the Cockpit Country.
"STEA has decided to come out of the business of straight cap-in-hand, and to instead try and generate some of its operating costs through independent income generation," said Executive Director Hugh Dixon.
"We took the view that one way to achieve that would be to increase our ecotourism activities in Cockpit Country and primarily in the area we are closest to - south-east Cockpit Country," he added.
And so it was that Cockpit Country Adventure Tours (CCAT) was born.
"Essentially, what we have done is developed attractions that are showcasing the unique characteristics of Cockpit Country," Dixon said.
Included in its offerings are hiking, birding and guided cave tours.
"Naturally, we would add to that picnicking," the STEA boss said.
They have managed to get this far, in part, because of the Jamaica Social Investment Fund's Rural Economic Development Initiative (REDI), started in 2011.
Under REDI, 600 metres of walking trail has been established; safety rails, posts and signage put in; safety equipment provided, including helmets, headlamps and flashlights; and a new kiosk, with seats, sanitary conveniences and changing rooms, set up.
But things have not been smooth sailing. There have been many delays, with what Dixon considers a critical component still left to be rolled out - the rebranding.
Their predicament is reflected in the number of visitors, which has fluctuated since 2011 when they had 787. That number fell drastically in 2012 to 312. Whereas it jumped to 947 - including 61 foreigners - in 2013, it again fell to 739 last year, though the number of foreigners grew to 68.
"The marketing is really the bugbear. Three quarters of the project has been implemented, except this critical piece to really get the word out and the place into the market," Dixon said.
"I would have hoped it would have been finished a year ago and, more so, that we would have been seeing Cockpit Country Adventure Tours kicking off. We are [instead] still awaiting the deliverables on the rebranding," he added.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
But there appears to be hope yet. JSIF has said it will move full speed ahead this year, with significant strides already made.
"CCAT's branding strategy has been completed; logo, website and collateral material designed [and] a 30-day social media campaign mounted," the entity said in a written response to Gleaner queries.
"A challenge identified by the organisation is an individual to focus on ongoing marketing activities. We will be working with CCAT, in the short term, to see how best to address this situation and they will be included in the cluster/group marketing strategy to facilitate participation at JAPEX, the Jamaican Tourism Trade Show [in] September," JSIF added.
While they wait, Dixon said STEA has taken advantage of the recent Panos Caribbean project, funded by the Critical Ecosystem Fund, which targeted civil society organisations (CSOs) for training and networking on biodiversity conservation.
"I would have to say that Panos helped STEA to not just be sitting, waiting on this rebranding. We have gone the route of doing up our own brochure in-house [and] tackled the social media on our own merit. We are working on our Facebook page because of the initiation from Panos," he said.
At the same time, Dixon said CCAT embodied the best of what is possible for the Cockpit Country.
"People who work as tour guides are finding employment, as well as the people who provide us with food, and the people who we pay user fees, because we have to access these places through their properties," he noted.
"The people who provide accommodation are also in the loop and, by virtue of our interaction at that level with farmers, we are able to pass on some of the best practices for environmental sustainability. Lastly, we are able to showcase the Cockpit Country as having the potential for a different kind of resource use other than mining," he added.
The Cockpit Country — home to diverse plants and animals, and the source for freshwater for 40 per cent of Jamaicans — has been the centre of debate between CSOs and Government over mining in the area, which could force a permanent loss of ecosystem services. Stakeholders are currently awaiting a decision on a designated boundary for the area — one that is expected to inform Government's decision on whether to allow mining.