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Earth Today | Cautiously optimistic - Conservationists buoyed by Bartlett's statements on Cockpit Country

Published:Wednesday | September 6, 2017 | 12:00 AMPetre Williams-Raynor
A coalition of civil groups and concerned individuals is using the new petition portal at Jamaica House to get the requisite 15,000 signatures in 30 days to force the Government of Jamaica to review and respond to their Save Cockpit Country appeal.

AFTER YEARS of lobby for a Cockpit Country boundary, advocates for the environment are cautiously optimistic their wait for Government's decision on the matter may soon end.

This is thanks to recent utterances from Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett, who said his ministry is keen on the conservation of the ecologically sensitive area, even as it looks to optimise the area's community tourism potential.

"The matter of trying to balance the extractive industry and the sustainable development activities are challenging because while on the one hand the economic value of the mineral extraction is doubtlessly very strong, as it says, it is extractive so it will disappear after a short while. The sustainable development and production that will enure from preserving and maintaining the environment and geophysical features of that area are going to redound forever," he told The Gleaner recently.

"The fact is, therefore, that one has to recognise that there is the opportunity for continued economic activity by sustaining the environment and maintaining the pristine nature of the karst topography, which is a key geophysical feature and a huge attraction to communities across the world," Bartlett added.

Head of the Southerm Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA) Hugh Dixon is pleased.

"It is nice to hear that level discussion and logical discourse coming from a minister of the Cabinet. Yes, among ourselves as environmentalists and people sympathetic to conservation you hear it, but to hear it at that level among the decision-makers is very comforting," he said.

"Hopefully, it will translate into legislation that will be manifest on the ground in the appropriate conservation and protection measures required to prevent the degradation of Cockpit Country and, by extension, the economy of Jamaica because of the critical resources in this part of the country," he added.

A significant source of fresh water for some Jamaicans, Cockpit Country also "supports the largest number of globally threatened species of any key biodiversity area in the Caribbean Islands Hotspot, with 59, including 11 amphibians and 40 plant species".

This is according to the 2010 Caribbean Island Biodiversity Hotspot ecosystem profile report of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.

Dixon is not alone in his optimism.

"It was good to hear Minister Bartlett refer to more sustainable approaches to economic activity in the Cockpit Country. JET (the Jamaica Environment Trust), like Minister Bartlett, recognises the economic opportunity presented by ecotourism in the Cockpit Country, an area rich in unique plants, animals, forests and culture. Ecotourism, when properly conceived and managed is low impact, promotes cultural awareness and environmental protection," said Suzanne Stanley, deputy chief executive officer of JET.




Advocates have long argued for a boundary designation - one that spans more than one parish, as reflected in their Cockpit Country Stakeholders' Group proposal some years ago.

Public consultations done on a boundary for the area by the University of the West Indies Centre for Environmental Management in 2013 helps to lend urgency to the decision.

Authored by Professor Dale Webber and Dr Claudel Noel, the report on the consultations recommends, among other things, the development of "a long vision" for the area and the evaluation "of the true cost of ecosystem services provided by the Cockpit Country for Jamaica and the World vis-‡-vis the persistent threat of permanent removal of mineral resources under current technological conditions".

While emphasising that the area should be "legally protected", the report further recommends that the official boundary "should be comprised of a core, a transition zone and an outer boundary".

Meanwhile, despite the encouragement they derive from Bartlett, environmentalists are sceptical.

"My hope at this stage is there is going to be something concrete and positive happening soon, but I am not moved until it happens in reality," the STEA boss said.

Stanley, too, was not inclined to count any eggs before they hatched.

"We do not feel his comments give any indication of how they might be leaning. There has typically been a divide within government about where the focus should be placed when it comes to the economic opportunity presented by Cockpit Country. Tourism stakeholders have typically supported preservation of the area. The declaration of the boundary is a vital first step in deciding the fate of Cockpit Country," she said.