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Let us protect our forests

Published:Thursday | January 10, 2013 | 12:00 AM
A section of Castleton Gardens, which is a mini rainforest. Ian Allen/Photographer
This photo shows seedlings in the Forestry Department nursery in Constant Spring. The Forestry Department operates nurseries across the island.

 THE NEXT 50 years

Jamaica continues to celebrate 50 years of Independence. We have achieved a lot. However, there is much work left to be done if we are to progress as a country. We must begin to tackle Jamaica's chronic problems in a targeted and sustained way, to make this country a better place to live, work and grow families. The Next 50 Years, a special Gleaner series, will spotlight some of the challenges we must fix in the coming years. We want to hear from you. Email us at and join the debate.

THE QUESTION of the health and adequacy of Jamaica's forest cover is of concern not only for environmental reasons: it is of strategic importance and there are also economic and national security implications.

Forests are natural ecosystems which perform many important functions. Arguably, their most essential is their watershed function: rainfall is attracted and captured and channeled underground into aquifers, later to appear as springs and rivers. Significant reduction in forest cover will result in reduced humidity and a generally hotter climate, lower rainfall, less productive or run-dry wells, reduced flow and the drying up of rivers, as well as soil erosion as rainfall washes away topsoil.

Less groundwater and surface water mean less water available for agricultural, industrial, or domestic use, which can lead to a national crisis. Water shortages can be a threat to public health and can slow down or reverse economic growth. When the demand for water regularly exceeds supply, the political directorate has to take the decision as to who will get the available water and who will have to do without. Often, crop irrigation and aquaculture are favoured over domestic consumers. It is important that both policymakers and the citizenry in general make the organic link between forest cover and water supply, so that steps can be taken to safeguard the common weal. It is not a new linkage. In 1494, Christopher Columbus attributed the daily rainfall he encountered around Jamaica "to the great forest of that land".

Forests have other important functions which need to be mentioned: forest ecosystems are important reservoirs of animal and plant biodiversity, including birds, reptiles and insects; the trees in the forests produce oxygen, without which we human animals cannot survive; forests extract carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas causing global warming - from the air and through the carbon-sequestration function, convert it into wood. Forests are also an important source of firewood and charcoal, timber for furniture and construction, and poles for scaffolding, fence posts and yam sticks. All of these functions can be environmentally sustainable if managed properly.

As Jamaica's population increases, her forests will be called upon to work harder to capture more rainfall to be processed into drinking water. Jamaica's resident population has almost doubled since Independence: 1.6 million in the 1960 Census to the 2011 estimate of 2.7 million. Yet our forest cover has gravely diminished over the same period.

As Christopher Columbus sailed around Jamaica in 1494, he observed that it was densely covered with hardwood forests, except for the areas the Tainos used for settlement and cultivation. Spanish settlers cleared forests to establish and expand their hatos, or cattle ranches, and under the British in the 18th century, there was a feverish period of deforestation as indigo, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and coffee plantations were established. Geographer Dr Alan Eyre has estimated that, in 1491, Jamaica's forest cover was 432,500ha. Over the next 300 years, he determined that this decreased by 224,350ha (51.87per cent), which is an average of 748 ha, or 0.17 per cent per annum.

19th century regrowth

There was a significant regrowth of forest cover in the mid-19th century after many plantations were abandoned after Emancipation. It is estimated that, by 1886, it had increased to 323,760 ha. The upsurge in banana cultivation towards the end of that century caused more land clearance, which again led to reduced forest cover. By 1943, forest cover had decreased by 32 per cent to 219,230ha, or by about 0.57 per cent per annum. Still, in 1943, about 20 per cent of Jamaica was covered in forest.

The first systematic land-cover study in Jamaica was done in 1968 - published in 1972 - by Gray and Symes. They determined that Jamaica was covered by 260,869ha of natural forest, 4,131ha of forest plantation, and 226,252ha of other wooded land for a total of 491,252ha. This introduces an important complication into the discussion: "What exactly is forest cover?"

If forest cover is broadly defined to include any trees covering the land, then a citrus grove is a forest, as is a mango orchard, a coffee piece, and a stand of otaheiti apple trees. Is this reasonable?

What if you defined forest cover as consisting not of fruit trees, but of hardwoods - 'forest trees' like mahogany, pine, cedar and Spanish elm?

In the 1980s, we saw the phenomenon of the Forestry Industry Development Company (FIDCO), a subsidiary of the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, cutting down thousands of acres of natural forest all across Jamaica to plant Caribbean pine, a species exotic to Jamaica. The natural forest that was there before performed the full series of ecosystem functions well; the plantations of Caribbean pine less so. Cutting down the original natural forest by FIDCO was deforestation, and planting Caribbean pine was reforestation. The final state, however, is of less value than the first.

So there is dispute about exactly what may be called forest cover. What is not in dispute is that, to our detriment, Jamaica has continued to suffer loss of forest cover over the 50 years of its Independence.

In the 1990s, Jamaica was rated by the World Resources Institute as having the highest rate of deforestation of all countries in the world, after a survey revealed an annual loss of forest cover of 5.3 per cent. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations did a forest-cover survey in Jamaica for the period 1980-1990 - published in 1995 - which arrived at the same figure. The FAO repeated the study for the period 1990-1995 - published in 1998 - which found that deforestation in Jamaica had increased to 6.7 per cent per annum.

The Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture has never accepted the validity of these figures because, they say, of "fundamental errors in the data", and because of problems with the definition of what constitutes a forest. The Department's survey - published in 1999 - conducted along with the 'Trees for Tomorrow' Project - shows an annual deforestation rate of 0.1 per cent for the period 1989-1998.

30 per cent forest

The Forestry Department reports: "Currently (in 2010), approximately 30 per cent (333,000 hectares) of Jamaica remains classified as forest. About 88,000 hectares of this is classified as closed broadleaf forest with a closed canopy and minimal human disturbance. Most of the remaining forest is "disturbed broadleaf" (showing varying degrees of human disturbance) or natural dry open forest. The overall deforestation rate, according to the most recent and reliable estimates, is about 0.1 per cent per year."

And so, while we can disagree on the rate of deforestation we perpetrate in Jamaica, there is no disagreement that deforestation takes place in Jamaica - and that it is too high.

When FIDCo was planting Caribbean pine a few decades after Independence, they would remove the natural forest cover down to the bare earth before planting. Whenever it rained, the topsoil would be washed down into the rivers, causing soil erosion. FIDCO operated a profitable sawmill, and dollars were earned - but at the cost of environmental health.

And, of course, when Hurricane Gilbert blew here in 1988, the pine trees snapped like toothpicks, and FIDCO was eventually closed down.

I am not sure we learned much from the experience, because, in 2012, the Forestry Department is busy planting hundreds of acres of Caribbean pine and the Australian Grevillea. Both are potentially invasive and detrimental to the soil. I would like to see a Forestry Department that focuses on conserving the natural forests we have and favouring our native trees, rather than planting exotic species.

Mining companies

All the blame should not go to FIDCO. The law requires mining companies to restore mined-out lands. It is impossible to restore a natural forest. Simply planting trees will not restore the complex interactions between flora and fauna, nor will it allow all the functions of the ecosystems of a forest to be adequately performed. Most often, mining companies neglect to do anything at all, and when they do something, the most they do is plant grass. All governments since Independence have failed to ensure that the mining companies adhere to environmental best practices, which has contributed to our world-record deforestation rate. In fact, a major weakness has been enforcement of forest-conservation laws. Every day, firewood and charcoal, timber for furniture and construction, and poles for scaffolding, fence posts, and yam sticks are offered for sale across Jamaica, and it is clear that these forest products are not being harvested sustainably. A glance at hillsides across Jamaica shows that the hardwoods have all but disappeared, leaving low-value softwoods and scrub.

Recognising these problems, the Forestry Department published its forest-management plan: Strategic Forest Management Plan 2010-2014. One of the strategic objectives therein is to "maintain and restore forest cover". Reducing deforestation and restoring forests are recognised as high national priorities. The Department commits itself to maintaining not less than 30 per cent of the country as forest, and to increasing the area of forest cover by at least two per cent annually. Meeting this challenge will require a sustained forest-conservation and restoration effort over the next 15 years. During this time, deforestation rates will be targeted for reduction by at least 50 per cent, and reforestation rates will increase to at least 700ha per year.

The Forestry Department intends to achieve these objectives by putting in place-management plans for each forest. These plans will be drawn up in collaboration with local forest-management committees. The plans will be implemented by and enforced with the assistance of these stakeholders. This approach holds out the best hope for success, and we certainly wish them well over the next 50 years.

Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon and a sociologist. Send feedback to