I am returning to the issue of environmental conservation, because I have a sense of urgency. Somehow, I don’t want to leave this one till later. Time is pressing, so bear with me.
Because, as one speaker at this evening’s public forum at the University of Technology (UTech) said, we must realize that “everything is connected.” That is one fundamental fact that so many people don’t seem to be aware of – until it is too late and some disaster has occurred. In other words, on our small island, something that happens ten, twenty, thirty miles away down the coast will have an impact right here. If the Goat Islands are concreted over and the surrounding seas dredged, this will have negative effects both inland and along the coastline, throughout the Portland Bight Protected Area.
The discussion, hosted by UTech’s Faculty of Science and Sport in collaboration with the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ – now merged with the Forest Conservation Fund), focused on “Cockpit Country: Jamaica’s Natural Heritage.” I love the word heritage; yes, our environment is handed down to us its custodians by our forefathers and mothers, in more or less pristine condition. Now it’s up to us, in turn, to shoulder that responsibility.
UTech’s Associate Vice President in the School of Graduate Studies, Research and Entrepreneurship, Dr. Paul Ivey, pointed out that Utech “must engage on issues of public interest, and propose solutions based on sound science.” And talking about solutions…Did you know that UTech is actively involved in scientific research in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country? And not just research for the sake of it, but with a practical purpose that the scientists hope will bring economic and health benefits to the Jamaican people. UTech is creating a DNA fingerprinting lab for plants, building a database of the chemical composition of the huge variety of plants that live in the Cockpit Country. There are 1,500 varieties of vascular plants in the area – 400 of them endemic to Jamaica, and 106 endemic to the Cockpit Country itself. In other words, many varieties (some probably waiting to be discovered) only live in Cockpit Country; some plants only live on one or two hills, and nowhere else on earth.
Dr. Andrew Lamm, who heads the research division of the Science and Sport Faculty’s Centre for Science-based Research, Entrepreneurship and Continuing Studies (CSRECS) is spearheading this initiative – because, he says, “we need to show the value” of a forested area that some may dismiss as “bush.” Dr. Lamm’s Natural Products Research Lab is painstakingly extracting chemicals from plants in the area and conducting anti-bacterial tests to see how these compounds affect bacteria. Already there are interesting results, with several endemic plants showing proven anti-bacterial properties. The plants may well contain new compounds that could be used to create natural medicines, pesticides, even new food sources. And, by the way, this is the way that penicillin was discovered, through these kinds of cultures.
So perhaps, one day, a farmer could grow his own natural pesticides (plants) alongside his crops. Now that’s sustainable living.
In this effort, UTech has received funding from the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme administered by the UN Development Program, and from the EFJ, with collaboration from the Institute of Jamaica, Scientific Research Council and several other partners. In fact, the EFJ has funded projects in the Cockpit Country to the tune of around J$30 million, including $5.53 million for the plant extracts project.
Senior Director of Forest Science & Technology Services in the Forestry Department Donna Lowe provided us with a wealth of information on the Forest Reserve, which was established in 1950 and makes up the dark green heart of the Cockpit Country. Its 22,000 hectares represent the largest and most intact area of moist/wet limestone forest on the island. In 2001 it made up 14% of the entire island’s carbon inventory. And as we know it is a major water catchment area and the source of several of Jamaica’s largest rivers.
Underneath it also lies Jamaica’s largest remaining deposit of bauxite (the key ingredient for aluminum). And there lies the threat.
Ms. Lowe told us about the three community-based forest management committees that her Department works with; and the nine distinct forest types in the area, determined over two years through collections from sample plots. While primary (that is, “virgin”) forest decreased between 1991 and 2001, tall open dry forest and secondary growth increased. The tree species that regenerate are not the same as the original ones, she showed us. So a number of tree species are now threatened, including the Sapodilla, the Bob Cock Tree, the Gutterwood. Nevertheless, there are at least 214 different tree species in the Cockpit Country.
Director and Wildlife Ecologist at the Windsor Research Centre Dr. Susan Koenig described Jamaica, and in particular the Cockpit Country, as a “Biodiversity Hotspot.” Her enthusiasm was such that she had the entire audience entranced and fascinated by land snails, crabs and bats. The density of endemic snails in some parts of the Cockpit is extraordinary. And the land crabs that live there – adapted over time to live in fresh water – are unique in the entire world. The little sesarma fossarum, for example, lives at the headwaters of the river. The delightful Metapaulius depressus breeds in the rainwater held by the leaves of the wild pine – that huge bromeliad you see on the branches and trunks of large trees. Sesarma jarvisi, the other small ecological wonder, actually balances the acidity of the rainwater by putting small snail shells into its little pool. The last two species nurture their young for three months. The only two crab species in the world that do that!
I asked about the timeline for the government’s decision on Cockpit Country. The Environment Minister mentioned during a press briefing recently that discussions on Cockpit will soon be wrapped up. The government has been anxious to “determine the boundaries” of the Cockpit Country, and has been commissioning studies and holding public consultations. There are no less than seven different sets of boundaries. Why is this necessary? Because the government – and the bauxite companies – are eyeing it for mining and quarrying for bauxite and limestone.
But the information on Cockpit Country is already available, says Donna Lowe. What we need is “everyone on board.” Born in south west St. Ann, she describes the destruction that bauxite mining has wrought on the area. Sixty years after the mining operations, she said, it is still just “big gaping holes.” You can go and see it for yourself. As we know, mining is the most destructive of all human activities. The landscape simply never recovers.
“The acid test is Goat Islands,” says Ms. Lowe. If that goes – if that slips through the cracks – then Cockpit Country will be fair game for the government and the mining companies.
Everyone on board! That means you…and me.
Related links and articles:
http://www.jamentrust.org/advocacy-a-law/campaigns/cockpit-country.html Jamaica Environment Trust: Save Cockpit Country – including Fact Sheet
http://prezi.com/bsxjqsbgwwoi/bromeliad-crabs-jamaicas-little-boss-ladies/ Bromeliad crabs: Jamaica’s little boss ladies: prezi.com
http://www.cockpitcountry.com/JPP.html Windsor Research Centre: Jamaica Parrot Project
http://www.caribbeanbirdingtrail.org/sites/jamaica/windsor-research-centre/ Caribbean Birding Trail sites/Jamaica: Windsor Research Centre
http://www.caribherp.org West Indian Amphibians and Reptiles: database
https://petchary.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/lets-save-jamaicas-portland-bight-protected-area/ Let’s save Jamaica’s Portland Bight Protected Area: Petchary’s blog
http://www.change.org/petitions/no-to-port-on-goat-island-jamaica-no-trans-shipping-port-portland-bight-protected-area-jamaica?share_id=eqkTTbjcGd&utm_campaign=autopublish&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=share_petition Petition: No to port on Goat Island, Jamaica: change.org
Save The Goat Islands In Jamaica (thedrylandtourist.wordpress.com)