Officials insist Goat Islands must be protected

BY KARYL WALKER Editor — Crime/Court Desk walkerk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 01, 2013

FOLLOWING an announcement by environment minister Robert Pickersgill that the Goat Islands are being seriously considered for the site of a logistics hub to be built by the Chinese Government, environmentalists have been up in arms about the move.

The Goat Islands are located less than a mile off the coast of Old Harbour Bay and can be accessed in about 15 minutes by boat. The cays are among 14 small islands that are part of the Portland Bight Protected Area and are officially a part of the parish of St Catherine.

Great Goat Island is approximately 600 acres while Little Goat Island is about 300 acres.

According to environmentalist, member of the Jamaican Caves Organisation and the Jamaican Iguana Research Project, Jan Pauel, any form of industrialisation of the Goat Islands will have a devastating effect on the environment and will cause untold suffering to the many persons who make a living off the sea.

"Those islands are a nursery and breeding ground for every kind of seafood that we eat in Jamaica ... fish, lobster, crabs, conch. It is not suitable for any kind of industrialisation. There is a lot of undiscovered stuff out there. It's jobs versus conservation. It is not about saving lizards and animals and it is not about jobs, jobs, jobs. First of all, the jobs are going to go to the Chinese, as we have seen with the road in Palisadoes, the Chinese Embassy and the Spanish hotels on the North Coast who are all managed by Spanish, Spanish front desk, Spanish housekeepers," Pauel said.

On Friday, Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce Anthony Hylton sought to reassure Jamaicans that protocols were already in place to ensure that a fair ratio of local to foreign workers are employed on all existing Chinese projects.

Hylton said that the hub would integrate Jamaica into the global economy, given its worldwide connectivity and the integrated activities with global value and

supply chains.

"We must get our people ready for the jobs and they must have world-class training and world-class standards. The Logistics Hub is a global asset, so there can't be two standards, a Jamaican standard and a global standard — there can only be one standard," he said during a press briefing at his office in Kingston on Friday.

But Pauel would have none of it.

"How many workers you would need to be ancillary staff, to clean the floors, cut the grass and be security at the gate?" he asked.

The Sunday Observer visited the islands last week to get a first-hand look at what would be destroyed if

a logistics hub were to be

constructed there.

Both islands have beautiful white sand and mangroves on their coasts which serve as sanctuaries for reef fish which breed in the area and whose fry use the roots of the mangroves as protection from larger predatory fish.

Small fish could be seen swimming about less than one foot from

the coast.

There were also starfish and oysters in the pristine waters.

On Great Goat Island there is a variety of plant life including cacti, aloe vera and large trees. Many species of butterflies, birds and green lizards and the common Jamaican Anole lizard were also seen on the islands which were overgrown with thick brush.

The islands were once the habitat of the threatened Jamaican Iguana until the 1940s, when the population was thought to have become extinct, mainly due to predation by mongooses and wild goats who destroyed the lizards' natural habitat.

Surprisingly, the water around the western side of Great Goat Island

is fresh.

If the Government gives the go-ahead for the Chinese investors to build the logistics hub, both islands will most likely be bulldozed, the sea floor dredged and connected nearby wetlands of Cabarita Point on the mainland.

It may also require filling in thousands of acres of wetlands, using limestone mined from the hills and spoil dredged from the sea. The resulting loss of the wetlands, seagrasses, coral reefs and coastal forests would result in a massive loss of biodiversity and possible extinction of several species which are only found in Portland Bight.

This, according to Pauel, would sound the death knell for the livelihood of the approximately 55,000 persons who live in the Portland Bight Protected Area as the area around the Goat Islands is only 11 feet deep, which is too shallow to accommodate the large vessels that would most likely dock at the logistics hub.

"They keep talking about a deep-water port; this is a shallow bay. No matter what, this is of tactical importance, food, water and protection-wise for Jamaica. There is nothing that is worth giving that up for," he said.

Environmentalists have often been labelled as being anti-development zealots who go to great lengths to protect the environment even if it means the loss of earnings and non-creation of employment.

However, Chief Executive Officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) Diana McCaulay told the Sunday Observer that the goal of the environmentalists was not to block development at all cost, but to make sure that Jamaica's natural heritage was protected and not mercilessly raped in the name of development.

"JET is not against development on Goat Islands. We are against the development of a large transhipment port in the most protected area in Jamaica, without any information on the criteria for site selection, the alternative sites that were considered, or any public consultation, even with groups involved in managing the protected area," she said.

She said that JET was particularly anxious that consultation takes place before any agreements are signed - the consultation that takes place as part of any Environmental Impact Assessment process takes place far too late when the decision has already been taken to go ahead.

She agreed with Pauel that the proposed hub was not suitable for the Portland Bight Protected Area.

"We believe that to protect an area by law must mean something; it must mean that great care is taken to ensure the type of development done in that area is appropriate, sustainable and does not damage the protected natural resources," she said.

McCaulay was also critical, and labelled as inept the way the matter is being handled by the Government.

She pointed to leaked details, speeches and newspaper columns from unofficial sources, Pickersgill's statement from China, a speech by Hylton at a private sector function to which the media was invited and then asked to leave as proof of the Government's bundling of the matter. A group of environmental experts, including Marcia Ford environmental data manager- UWI Centre for Marine Sciences; Robert Stephens, chairman Jamaica Protected Areas Trust (JPAT) and Jamaica Conservation Development Trust (JCDT); Professor Dale Webber, chairman Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ); Susan Otuokon, executive director, Jamaica Conservation Development Trust (JCDT); Richard 'Dickie' Crawford, chairman, Jamaicans United for Sustainable Development (JUSD); Peter Espeut, environmentalist and natural resource manager; Michael Schwartz Windsor Research Centre (WRC), and Dr Ann Sutton — have all come out against the proposed site of the hub.

"The entire Portland Bight Protected Area, including the Goat Islands, is totally unsuitable for the proposed Chinese logistics hub. If Jamaica needs this project, Jamaica needs to find a different site," a news release from the group said.

The group is arguing that not only would the project destroy livelihoods, but also destroy the mangroves which are a natural protection from storm surges, and would increase vulnerability to natural disasters.

"Portland Bight is already the most disaster-prone area of Jamaica. Floods, storm surges and hurricane damage have caused massive and widespread damage to property, infrastructure (including ports) and livelihoods. In 2004, during Hurricane Dean, the people of Old Harbour Bay had to moor their boats to the upper parts of their houses. The problems come from a combination of storm surge from the sea and flooding from the land on a scale that could not be reverse-engineered," the news release stated.

The Portland Bight Protected Area, declared under the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act in 1999 and is a wetland of international importance, declared under the Ramsar Convention in 2006.

"We are calling on the Government to carry out a thorough, scientific and transparent assessment of all the options for sites before making a decision. We believe that there are other more suitable sites for this development. Portland Bight cannot be one of the options — it is the worst possible location and will have much more negative than positive implications for the people of Jamaica," the news release said.




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