During a visit to the tourist resort of Negril in Jamaica several years ago, I ventured out in a glass-bottom boat. Snorkeling and diving make me claustrophobic, so this is the only way that I can really see what is happening under the surface.
I had hoped to see glowing, flourishing and healthy coral reefs; I saw very little of that. However, we did see, for a beautiful instant, a sea turtle. He (or she) sparkled in the fractured sunlight, like a freshly painted toy, suspended from an invisible string. I wondered how he/she survived in an environment that seemed almost devoid of fish. But it was an exquisite moment that I will never forget.
At a meeting last month with representatives of the United Nations Environment Programme‘s (UNEP) Caribbean Environment Programme in Kingston, we heard from Alessandra Vanzella-Khouri, Program Officer for the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) treaty – the only regional and legally binding biodiversity treaty for the Wider Caribbean. I noted in my first article that the Wider Caribbean includes all the coastlines bordering on the Caribbean, including the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, it is four million square kilometers of deep water basins, estuaries, islands, sandbanks and coral reefs. SPAW is concerned with the life that exists in this beautiful, but far from pristine environment.
Here’s a bleak fact: 76 per cent – over three-quarters – of all species in this region are threatened by habitat loss or changing habitat. Over-fishing, unplanned coastal development and pollution (which I discussed in the first article) are wreaking havoc on our marine life – fish, sharks, lobsters, whales, dolphins and all the much tinier creatures too. All six species of sea turtles in the Caribbean are endangered, largely because people collect their eggs from the beaches where they nest.
Let’s go back to the United Nations’ SPAW Protocol for a moment. The Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife to the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region was adopted at a conference in Kingston, Jamaica in 1990 and entered into force in 2000. Ambassador Don Mills (Jamaica) was elected President of the conference. How many countries in the region have signed and ratified the agreement? Sixteen so far, as indicated on the map.
You will notice that the name of Jamaica, the conference host in 1990, is not among the sixteen. You will also note that Cuba, the Dominican Republic and most of our Eastern Caribbean neighbors have ratified it. But there are benefits to be acquired – tangible benefits. It’s more than just a piece of paper. The pluses to ratifying the agreement are greatest in the field of the Marine Protected Areas, where there is much work to be done. In fact, Ms. Vanzella-Khouri revealed that there are eighteen protected areas from the Caribbean recently listed under the SPAW Protocol to be included in a regional cooperation programme. There are over 300 marine protected areas established in the region.
As Ms. Vanzella-Khouri pointed out, it is “increasingly difficult” to raise funds from the UN and elsewhere for local projects, as long as Jamaica is not a party to the agreement. The lack of ratification appears to indicate a lack of commitment to the goals of the Protocol and an unwillingness to co-operate as an important player in the region; or that is how I see it.
Some projects are under way; there is a sustainable management project on Pedro Cays, including training and capacity building; there is a Sea Turtle Recovery Action Plan and a Manatee Action Plan. But if Jamaica were to ratify SPAW, so much more could be achieved. Jamaica could obtain training; sustainable tourism and fisheries programs; technical co-operation with regional partners; funded participation at all SPAW meetings and workshops; access to specific guidelines, materials and research in order to meet the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international agreements; and all kinds of support, (including financial) for much-needed conservation, awareness, community participation and best practice programs.
Jamaica is out on a limb. It is not a part of this international network of knowledge, co-operation and most importantly – action projects that will benefit us all.
As I noted in a previous blog post (and this seems so obvious to me) the beautiful Caribbean Sea, on which much of our livelihood and wellbeing depends, needs our love and nurturing. It is our birthright. And what is hugely important is that all those nations that border on the Caribbean, whether large or small, must co-operate and support each other to protect this precious jewel that we have inherited. Its waters lap all of our shores. We are all inter-connected.
There is “a lot at stake for Jamaica in SPAW,” said Ms. Vanzella-Khouri with a note of slight frustration in her voice. Jamaica can become part of this regional network of co-operation; at the moment it is not benefiting. There are no financial obligations required on Jamaica’s part, and it is already meeting some of the objectives of SPAW, she added.
You may say: Look, Jamaica is in a crippling economic crisis, with almost non-existent growth and low productivity; so why should “environmental issues” be of any relevance, right now? We have bigger fish to fry, metaphorically speaking.
Well, I would suggest that the environment in the Caribbean has a particularly important bearing on its economy. There is the Great God of Tourism, to which our governments bow. How can tourism thrive when the seas are polluted with untreated sewage, and snorkelers and divers can only find dying coral reefs with a scattering of small fish? There are over 20,000 fishermen in Jamaica according to the Food and Agriculture Organization; how many are now struggling to survive, with some turning to illegal ways to make a living? And how much more could our citizens – and generations to come – benefit from a healthy environment?
And here are some figures to back this up: The total value of Jamaica’s ecosystems is an estimated US$245 million, according to a 2009 report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, DC (do check out their fascinating and informative website). The value of dive tourism, fishing and coastal production is between US$3 – 4.6 billion per year. And in the past twenty-five years, Jamaica has lost US$1.3 billion in revenues from reef fisheries, says the WRI.
So why, you may ask, has Jamaica not taken advantage of these benefits that have been on offer for thirteen years or so – at no cost to the Jamaican government? We have heard this phrase many times before: “Lack of political will.” In other words, our leaders, stuck in their short-term thinking, don’t really care. That is just my view.
But we Jamaicans must care, mustn’t we?
P.S. I must stress, again, that the Caribbean Environment Programme office can provide journalists. researchers and anyone interested in the environment with a wealth of information, statistics and analysis of all these issues and much more, related directly to Jamaica and the Caribbean. Don’t hesitate to contact them! They would welcome your interest.
Contact info: Alessandra Vanzella-Khouri, Program Officer, SPAW: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms. Pietra Brown, Communications Officer/United Nations Volunteer Email: email@example.com. UNEP CEP, 14-20 Port Royal Street Kingston, Jamaica. Tel. # 876 922 9267 Fax # 876 922 9292
Related articles and websites:
http://www.cep.unep.org/cartagena-convention/spaw-protocol SPAW Protocol: UNEP Caribbean Environment Programme website
http://www.cep.unep.org UNEP Caribbean Environment Programme website
Pollution Flowing from Land to Sea: The UN Caribbean Environment Programme, Part 1 petchary.wordpress.com
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle petchary.wordpress.com
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/p-s-happy-world-wetlands-day-february-2-2013/ Happy World Wetlands Day! petchary.wordpress.com
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/5498/ Two new environmental films by Jamaican filmmaker Esther Figueroa: petchary
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/a-softer-blue-the-caribbean-sea/ A softer blue: The Caribbean Sea: petchary.wordpress.com
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/our-beautiful-caribbean-sea/ Our beautiful Caribbean Sea: petchary.wordpress.com
Coral comeback: Reef ‘seeding’ in the Caribbean miamiherald.com
Charity of the Week eastaltonrotary.blogspot.com
http://www.conserveturtles.org Sea Turtle Conservancy website
http://www.wri.org World Resources Institute website
http://www.wri.org/press/2011/06/press-release-new-analysis-coral-reefs-provide-great-value-jamaicas-economy New Analysis: Coral reefs provide great value to Jamaica’s economy: WRI press release
http://pdf.wri.org/working_papers/coastal_capital_jamaica_summary.pdf Coastal capital: Jamaica – WRI Special Paper
http://www.fao.org/fishery/countrysector/FI-CP_JM/en Food & Agriculture Organization Jamaica Country Profile/Fisheries
http://www.cep.unep.org/news/govt-losing-billions Government losing billions: Denise Dennis report/Jamaica Observer
A gentle wave gives these baby turtles a lift…into the ocean.
- Cuban Scientists Protect Sea Turtles (repeatingislands.com)
- Sea turtles begin to appear along NC shore (charlotte.news14.com)
- The Open Sea Galleries Offers Art in the Spirit of Ocean Conservation (prweb.com)