“They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot…”
Chairman of Couples Resorts Mr. Lee Issa wryly quoted these lines from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” at the opening of an urgent press briefing in Kingston last week. The matter at hand has major implications for the resort town of Negril; and also, it is clear, for the island of Jamaica on the whole.
Mr. Issa started with a “mea culpa” – and quite a major one, too. Over the last three or four decades, the town of Negril has grown up like an unruly child. Development has not had the proper controls. Mr. Issa said, “Today, I want to acknowledge these mistakes,” pointing out that when they first began to build in Negril in the 1970s, hoteliers were not as enlightened as they are now about environmental issues. “Now we know – and there is no excuse for continuing the mistakes of the past,” said Mr. Issa. He went on to list the worst errors they made (are they irreversible, one wonders?) such as building too close to the sea, removing mangroves and seagrass, poor sewage treatment (which continues to this day) and draining the nearby Great Morass. Over the years, there has been talk of restoring the Morass, replanting coastal vegetation and so on – but it has just been talk.
And now – as all of us who have visited Negril in the past few years have noted – there are buildings with steps in the sea. The once-famous “seven-mile beach” is not a continuous beach that you can walk along for seven miles; it is severely eroded. Last year’s hurricane season was uneventful; but what of future storms?
The press briefing once again brought Negril’s famous beach into sharp focus. Why? Because the Government plans to build two breakwaters 1,500 – 1,600 meters offshore in Long Bay. One will be 1,700 feet long and from 40 to 75 feet wide. The other will be 1,400 feet long and 60 to 75 feet wide. The aim is to prevent further erosion of the tourist town’s most important asset. The breakwaters will consist of huge stones, weighing from five to thirteen tons each, with some extra-heavy ones on top to anchor them. The work will be carried out by the National Works Agency under the supervision of the National Environment and Planning Agency, who have promised that the process will be closely monitored.
Where will these stones come from? They will be dug out of a hillside somewhere, causing more environmental destruction, and will then be transported through the town (24 truckloads daily) causing a great deal of noise, disruption, dust and so on. They will be dumped and stored on the banks of the South Negril River – which will be dredged, by the way. When they are put in place (construction period will be approximately eleven months, and this will involve 240 barge trips in total back and forth), the rocks will disturb and destroy a prime snorkeling site that visitors and locals enjoy. Remember, this is a very small town, a former fishing village, catering primarily to tourists. The actual construction process will be a nightmare. It will scare away the visitors, and disturb the residents greatly.
Now, why is the Government rushing ahead with this project at this time? Because funds are available from the European Union (US$5.5 million) that must be used. Perhaps contracts for the work of mining and hauling and construction are already under consideration. Now, the full cost of the project is actually US$8 million. Last September, the Grizzles pointed out, Minister of Land, Water, Environment and Climate Change Robert Pickersgill met with hoteliers in Negril and challenged them, the stakeholders, to “put their money on the table” in support of efforts to resuscitate the beach. They subsequently sent letters by courier and emailed the Minister indicating the financial contribution that they could make. Until now there has been no response to their positive offers. Why?
Lee Issa and his colleagues suggest a “beach nourishment” project to arrest the problem. This would involve bringing sand from elsewhere, or blowing it in from a sand bank further out at sea; the sand would have to be matched to that already existing on the beach. Neither the hoteliers nor I have that kind of technical expertise; we are not engineers. But this seems to me an idea worth exploring. Mr. Issa observed, “Beach nourishment would buy us some time while we try to figure out how we can fix the damage we have done over many decades.”
Mr. Nehru Coalsingh, who owns a hotel called Crystal Waters, was passionate. He is distressed that the Government has apparently “put the cart before the horse,” approving the project before an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is done. Mr. Coalsingh’s voice became more urgent as he described how, during the energy crisis of the 1980s, peat was dug out of the Great Morass. Representatives of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sent an expert over, who convinced the Government of the day that the peat was not of good enough quality for fuel. The project ended, but this was a solution that could only have lasted ten years at most. Mr. Coalsingh described the Government’s monitoring of development in the area as “intermittent” at best. “We must tread carefully,” he stressed, because the tourism industry – which he sees as Negril’s and Jamaica’s long-term future – is fragile.
Sophie Grizzle-Roumel, owner of the Charela Inn, read out a statement from her parents, Daniel and Sylvie Grizzle. The Grizzles pointed to various overseas and local experts who have lent advice on how to restore the beach since the late 1980s. One thing the experts all agreed on was “at no cost should we ever allow anyone to install any hard engineering solutions…they create far more problems and do not achieve their goal.” Sophie Grizzle said the Finance Minister should consider whether Jamaica can afford to lose millions of dollars’ worth of taxes from tourism – because if the project goes ahead, it will take years to recover.
Diana McCaulay, founder/CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, believes aesthetics are important. A huge construction of big ugly boulders stretching out into the sea would completely ruin the beauty of Negril’s beach. Tourists (and local people) settle down on the beach with their cameras to watch and photograph the sunset in the evenings; this view would be obstructed. “People don’t go to ugly places,” said Ms. McCaulay. If you go on holiday, do you plan to go to a country with a dirty and damaged environment? I certainly don’t. Beauty is not a meaningless concept. Look at the tremendous fame of the Grand Canyon National Park, for example; this protected area received close to five million visitors in 2012. Despite strong sea currents, eleven million visitors flock to the beaches of Maui in Hawaii every year.
Ralph Williams and his brother Mark are locals; like Mr. Coalsingh, they are from Grange Hill, Westmoreland. They own the Kuyaba Resort on the beach. Ralph has two engineering degrees, and he knows what he is talking about. With the planned breakwater, he noted, some areas of the beach may benefit; in other areas, more beach will be lost. It will not work. He expressed concern over a pond behind the property, allegedly leased to a neighbor. The plan is to pave over the pond and build…Yes, you’ve guessed it. A parking lot, just like the Joni Mitchell song. Mr. Williams worries about the dehydration of the Great Morass, which cannot function as a natural filter for the agricultural runoff and other harmful chemicals that flow into the sea, and will be blocked off by concrete.
So, what happened to the Shorelock solution? This system, developed by the Florida-based Hydros Coastal, was tested at the community park on Negril beach (a non-tourist area) and at Font Hill in St. Elizabeth, where the beach has now been closed (Why?) NEPA replanted sea grass; 85 per cent of it has since died. The test results have been requested, but are “not available.” Why not?
In the end, the best solution might be to just leave things alone. Yes, the beach is badly eroded, but “Sometimes you have to leave it up to nature,” the hoteliers agreed. Lee Issa said, “I have seen the beach come and go” around his Swept Away hotel. You win some, you lose some. Sands shift.
Finally, a group of concerned residents aired their views. They had traveled all the way from Negril for the press briefing. Mary Veira, who works at Couples, said that some of them were invited to a focus group meeting, during which most expressed opposition to the breakwaters. However, there were no public consultations on the matter (Diana McCaulay pointed out that public consultations and even an EIA are only guidelines – not the law). Elaine Allen Bradley, a “returning resident” who had settled in Negril after living abroad, said, “I always thought Negril was the most beautiful place – full stop.” Another resident, who had been living in Negril since 1970, urged, “Leave nature alone.” All of them said that they are sure that ninety per cent of Negril residents are completely unaware of the breakwater plans, and they would not be happy when they found out. “We will fight!” they declared.
Why does this situation seem familiar? It has echoes of the planned, environmentally destructive project on Goat Islands (where China Harbour Engineering Company intends to build a mega-port with a coal-fired power plant). There’s the lack of transparency, and the non-existent consultations with local residents, who are kept completely in the dark. The “no response” syndrome has been a part of the same Ministry’s modus operandi in the case of Goat Islands, too. It has not even responded to UN agencies and major international conservation groups. An Environmental Impact Assessment seems to be an afterthought. Is this all signed and sealed, without the consent or buy-in of residents, hoteliers and businessmen in the town? Will they have to suffer helplessly?
But the tourists will have a choice. They can (and will) take themselves elsewhere, if the beach is an eyesore, the clear waters muddied and marine life disappears. And whether we like it or not, tourism is a major earner of foreign exchange; more than anywhere else on the island, Negril is entirely dependent on it. As everyone pointed out, this is not just a tourist issue or just a Negril issue. It will affect every Jamaican.
I remember the first time I visited Negril, in the early 1980s. There were huge land crabs that came out at night; local people used to hunt them with a bag over their shoulder and a flare torch, in the dark. Driving along, we were always careful not to crush the crabs. That first time, we stayed in a tent, on a beachfront piece of land owned by an amiable man named Sammy. He rented out tents and cabins. It was basic accommodation. I had probably never felt so close to nature before. I remember falling asleep to the sound of tree frogs chirping and the soft wave sounds on the beach.
And I remember thinking to myself, “Yes. This is Paradise.”
As Joni Mitchell sang,
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”
There is an online petition. If you care about Negril and Jamaica’s environment, please consider signing, and please share: http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Minister_of_Land_Water_Environment_and_Climate_Change_Robert_Pickersgill_Stop_the_Breakwater_Project_for_Negril/?cnyUFab