Fri | Feb 3, 2023

Natural environment is our heritage, too

Published:Friday | October 18, 2013 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

this National Heritage Week, we should remember that Jamaica's heritage is that which is inherited from past generations, maintained in the present, and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. In Heritage Week, we focus a lot on our cultural heritage and our history (especially on our heroes), but we also have a natural heritage - animals and plants - that is more Jamaican than you or I because they were here before humans came to live on this archipelago.

Before the Natural Resources Conservation Act, before we had the term 'biodiversity', Jamaica's natural heritage was protected by the Jamaica National Trust Commission (now the Jamaica National Heritage Trust), the same government entity which protects historic buildings and landmarks. During National Heritage Week, it is appropriate to focus on our natural environment - including our coral reefs, mangroves, forests and fish.

It says a lot that Gleaner columnist Gordon Robinson has chosen to write his National Heritage Week column advocating utter disregard for our natural heritage. Last Tuesday ('Once more unto the beach'), he wrote: "Everything, especially development, comes with cost, including environmental degradation. Anybody who doesn't want a degrading environment should ask Doctor Who for a ride back to the Garden of Eden."

Therefore, he implies, since, "Everything, especially development", degrades the environment, then there is no need to protect it. The Goat Islands are not worth protecting because there are no iguanas there; the "goats ... made life impossible for any iguanas left behind by their earlier predator, the mongoose". And the iguanas? "The iguana fled to Hellshire (from frying pan to fire) where their hardwood tree refuge is constantly burned by charcoal burners".

And as for the waters of Portland Bight around the Goat Islands, they have no environmental value. According to Robinson, "the poor little fishes" were eliminated years ago by "local fishermen's overfishing. ... The remaining fish population has surrendered to invading lionfish, as the iguana did to the goats". And the coral reefs? "Jamaica's coral reef is an islandwide disaster. The reef around the Goat Islands is no different."

Therefore, Robinson says, the outrage expressed by environmentalists and other supporters of sustainable development against the location of elements of the proposed logistics hub on and around the Goat Islands is just so much "pompous hoo-hah".

finish them off

Since the Goat Islands and surrounding waters are already degraded, finish them off!

Of course, the forests, fish and coral reefs of Jamaica are sorely depleted because of government slackness. Lack of legislation, lack of management planning, and lack of enforcement have had their inevitable result. Jamaica has the most overfished waters in the Caribbean (and maybe the world). We once had the highest rate of deforestation in the world. And I'll never forget Dr Jeremy Jackson of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama calling Jamaica the "basket case of the world" because of how we have allowed our coral reefs to deteriorate because of marine pollution and overfishing.

Nevertheless, my old schoolmate Gordon Robinson needs to know that all is not lost for our natural environment. With proper fisheries management, the fish stock will recover; the fish sanctuaries around the Goat Islands - along with other strategies - will soon result in increased catches. The Iguana Head-start Programme has brought the Jamaican iguana - the most endangered lizard in the world - back from the brink of extinction. And if we embark on serious reforestation and enforce our effluent discharge standards, the reefs will recover somewhat.

Gordon Robinson and the Government itself must not use successful state abuse and neglect of the natural environment as an excuse for further environmental destruction.

Adopting sustainable development as official government policy after the Earth Summit in 1992 was supposed to have a ripple effect across all ministries of government, all parish councils, and throughout civil society.

Having seen Jamaica's natural environment 'mash up' from years of unsustainable practices, having seen 100 Jamaican rivers dry up over the previous 100 years, ratification by the Jamaican Government of the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 was supposed to lead to a change in the trajectory of the country. Public education was supposed to infuse sustainable development concepts through all government policy, through the civil service, and through the education system.

It hasn't happened! Since 1992, we have carried on as before, and the Government shows no interest in adhering to the treaties it has signed. Desperate as we are for economic development after decades of state mismanagement, the Government and people like Gordon Robinson "can't afford long-term thinking", and are prepared to squander our natural heritage without even knowing what the Chinese want to build on the Goat Islands.

In this Heritage Week, let us try to regain our balance and our composure.

Peter Espeut is a natural resource manager. Email feedback to