By Dipika Chawla
Jamaica’s Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) is the largest in the country, covering 4.7% of the island’s surface as well as almost 524 square miles of its marine territory. Portland Bight encompasses the Hellshire Hills and Portland Ridge Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), defined by the IUCN as “places of international importance for the conservation of biodiversity through protected areas and other governance mechanisms.” It is home to more than 50,000 people as well as more than 20 globally threatened species, including the endemic and Critically Endangered Jamaican iguana (Cyclura collei).
In recent months, the Jamaican government has come under fire for a proposed deal with the China Harbour Engineering Company to build a massive transshipment port and logistics hub on the Goat Islands, two cays located in the Hellshire Hills KBA, within the Portland Bight Protected Area. Environmental experts say the proposed US$1.5 billion project would wreak havoc on the area’s biodiversity, devastate the local fishing economy, and further endanger a region already prone to natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding, and storm surges.
“The livelihoods of thousands of people will be lost. Residents will no longer be able to supplement their diets by fishing. Those people will not benefit from the proposed hub, and they know it,” said Ann Sutton, an ecological consultant for the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), in a statement released by ten environmental experts in response to the proposed Goat Islands project.
In the 1990s, C-CAM worked with scientists and local communities to achieve legal protection for Portland Bight. Ingrid Parchment, executive director of C-CAM, recalls many hours of meetings with community leaders, listening to their concerns, and creating sustainable development solutions that would benefit them as well as the area’s biodiversity.
“The intention was never to make a ‘close-out’ zone, but rather to look at how people relate to the natural resources and create a protected area where people can still live and work,” explains Parchment.
Their efforts were rewarded in 1999, when the Jamaican government created the Portland Bight Protected Area, a 463,360-acre (187,515-hectare) area that contains one of the largest dry limestone forest in the Caribbean and Central America and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country. C-CAM was charged with managing Portland Bight, and, with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), created two sub-area management plans, one for each KBA, that were designed to ensure the long-term survival of the area’s threatened species and their habitats. The plans were developed during an 18-month participatory process that involved numerous meetings and workshops with a broad cross-section of stakeholders including government agencies, land owners and managers, and community representatives.
The Jamaican iguana, the country’s largest native land animal, is one of the protected area’s flagship species for conservation. Once plentiful along Jamaica’s southern coast, especially on the Goat Islands, these large lizards were thought to be extinct from 1948 until their rediscovery in 1990. Jamaican iguanas are found only in the dry limestone forests of the Hellshire Hills. Portland Bight is also home to several other endemic and threatened species, including the Jamaican hutia (Geocapromys brownii), the Jamaican pauraque (Siphonorhis americana), the blue-tail gallywasp (Celestus duquesneyi), and the yellow snake (Epicrates subflavus). CEPF has distinguished Portland Bight as one of the most important protected areas in the Caribbean.
Now, Parchment and other Jamaican conservationists worry that their work to protect and restore Portland Bight will be undone by the transshipment hub project that was first proposed in August of this year. Of particular concern are the mangrove forests that would be destroyed by the construction of the port. Mangroves perform many important ecological functions for the region, such as regulation of nutrient flow, fish nursery support, coastal water quality improvement, and sediment trapping. They also sequester carbon and prevent erosion, helping to mitigate climate change and protect against damage caused by natural disasters. C-CAM has educated local communities in the past about the dangers of cutting down mangroves, emphasizing the important role mangrove forests play in protecting the area from storms.
The Goat Islands transshipment port has captured national and regional attention in a way that no environmental issue has in recent memory.
“Nothing has had this kind of impact on the Jamaican people in a very long time,” said Parchment, noting the deluge of reporters, organizations, and bloggers that have spoken out against the proposed project. Many people are using social media, especially Facebook, to voice their frustrations, recruit for petitions, and share the latest news on the subject.
Parchment speculates that public opinion has been partially influenced by previous development failures in Jamaica. In 2011, for example, Jamaica’s newest cruise ship port was opened in Falmouth, a coastal town on the north shore. To drum up local support, developers promised the local community that the port would bring new jobs and increased income from tourism. However, this has not been the case. Tourists who arrive at the port tend to dine and shop at expensive international chains along the pier and go on excursions organized by the cruise lines, often having zero interaction with locally-owned businesses. In addition, construction of the port caused major damage to the coral reefs and mangroves around Falmouth. The communities of Portland Bight, fearing a parallel situation on the Goat Islands, remain skeptical of any economic benefits from the proposed transshipment hub.
One of the biggest concerns is that the proposed hub would also destroy multiple fish sanctuaries that were established by the Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to protect fish nurseries and improve stocks for fishermen. Large ships coming into the port would continue to have an adverse effect on marine life even after construction ended, and, according to Parchment, thousands of fishers and their families would lose their livelihoods and be displaced.
As the controversy over the Goat Islands continues, C-CAM is moving forward with their plans to sustainably manage the Hellshire Hills and Portland Ridge KBAs and to support the best interests of their local communities. In addition to advocating for transparent development planning, C-CAM’s management plans recommend forest restoration, increased enforcement and monitoring to protect forests from further damage, and increased community outreach and education activities. C-CAM also wants to explore the development of an ecotourism market in Portland Bight to provide income for residents and an additional incentive for conservation.
“Determining how people can live in harmony with biodiversity was an important part of the process to create the Portland Bight Protected Area, and that is how we will continue to operate,” says Parchment.