Paradise or Parking Lot? The Dilemma of Negril Beach

“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.

Negril in 1972, with Sandals Club in the foreground. (Photo: Courtesy of Mary Veira)
Negril in 1972, with Negril Sands Club in the foreground. (Photo: Courtesy of Robin Farquharson)

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?

Erosion at the Tree House Hotel in Negril. (Photo: negril.com)
Erosion at the Tree House Hotel in Negril. (Photo: negril.com)

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.

The eroded Negril beach. (Photo: Jamaica Observer)
The eroded Negril beach. (Photo: Jamaica Observer)

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?

Yes, Negril sunsets ARE this beautiful. A photograph taken from Couples Resort. (Photo: caldwelltravel.com)
Yes, Negril sunsets ARE this beautiful. A photograph taken from Couples Resort. (Photo: caldwelltravel.com)

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.”

Diana McCaulay of the Jamaica Environment Trust makes a point while Lee Issa listens.
Diana McCaulay of the Jamaica Environment Trust makes a point while Lee Issa listens.

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 Grize  Roumel, of the Charela Inn,
Sophie Grizzle-Roumel of Charela Inn read out a statement from her parents, who pointed out that Cuban experts had provided good advice on slowing beach erosion in the late 1980s – involving nourishing the beach with fresh sand from offshore.

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.

At the westernmost tip of the island, Negril is famous for its beautiful sunsets. (Photo: Courtesy of Mary Veira)
At the westernmost tip of the island, Negril is famous for its beautiful sunsets. (Photo: Courtesy of Mary Veira)

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.

Mark and   Williams.
Mark (left) and Ralph Williams are local hotel owners.

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.

Concerned residents came along to express their views.
Concerned residents came along to express their views.

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.

Portland Bight, in southern Jamaica, was designated a Wetland of International Importance on World Wetland Day, February 2, 2006. The Jamaican Government is now seriously considering a demand from Chinese investors to build a transshipment port in the area, which is protected by law and includes recently established fish sanctuaries.  (Photo: Gleaner)
Portland Bight, in southern Jamaica, was designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance on World Wetland Day, February 2, 2006. The Jamaican Government is now seriously considering a demand from Chinese investors to build a transshipment port in the area close to Goat Islands, which is protected by law and includes recently established fish sanctuaries. (Photo: Gleaner)

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.

One of those big crabs in Negril.
One of those big crabs in Negril.

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 

Residents relax on Negril beach, 1975. (Photo: Courtesy of Robin Farquharson)
Residents relax on Negril beach, 1975. (Photo: Courtesy of Robin Farquharson)

 

 

 

 

 


33 thoughts on “Paradise or Parking Lot? The Dilemma of Negril Beach

  1. i am so very sorry that your country is dealing with this same issue. mr. issa sounds like a wise man and one with a conscience. hopefully the people respect his counsel.

    there was another meeting last night concerning these same ongoing issues at el matal/manabi ecuador. there’s a cluster of activists who are tireless in their work to save the beach community in the most holistic way, though many others suffer from apathy…

    the geotube/beach nourishment concept trumps the use of cement or boulders. it’s interesting how we are captivated by a lovely quiet slice of nature then slowly alter and encroach until we squeeze out the native species and replace them with parking lots…

    i’m not online often, but i continue to admire all that you do for your country. thank you for being you!

    z

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    1. It’s so nice to hear from you – always a treat. I know you don’t get online much these days but still love your blog… Well, Mr. Issa does realize that mistakes were made, and he and his colleagues are seeking to make amends, somehow. It’s amazing – I realize that beach erosion is not unique to Jamaica at all. We need to respond in the most sensible way. Interesting to hear that the same thing is happening in Ecuador and yes – apathy on environmental issues (including all those related to climate change) is a real problem, isn’t it; it’s the same here. Until there is a natural disaster, that is…then everyone panics. Thanks so much for your comments and support!

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    1. Yes, we do! The problem is, the “P” in “NEPA” doesn’t stand for Protection, it stands for Planning… And the Planning of developments usually wins out…

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  2. I have a picture of me holding one of those land crabs, he was trying to get in our room. I gently put him back on the beach where he would be safe.

    Sand erosion does happen. When my grandmother lived on Lake Erie, we saw a lot of erosion and she was constantly trying to fix it to no avail. She lived on a cliff, and it was slowly sliding into the lake, new owners eventually built a steel wall to stop the erosion. Big and ugly.

    What’s the answer? Let nature take it’s course until a suitable, more environmentally friendly answer can be found.

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    1. Oh, amazing Catherine! I am glad to hear there are still some around… I agree with you on the erosion… Let nature take its course, and that was the conclusion some of us at least were coming round to. But…

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  3. Emma,
    On Long Beach Island here in New Jersey, they did a VERY successful beach replenishment project – It even helped the island when hurricane Sandy came through.. Mr. Issa may want to contact the folks in Harvey Cedars NJ to ask about it..

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    1. Thank you Bill, for your comment. I am certainly going to make sure Mr. Issa gets this information. It’s good to know that this actually worked in your neck of the woods…

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  4. Beach erosion is usually not caused by 1 factor. The removal of the wetlands and the construction of the hotels along the beach has been one of the major causes of the erosion along the years. Perhaps the hoteliers who are now complaining should remove their hotels and replant the wetlands or allow them to naturally re-vegetate for the beach to re-establish itself. I don’t see how beach nourishment, which is merely putting sand back in the area will do much in the long term, won’t it just wash away like the sand that was there before? What is the long term solution being proposed by the writers of the article, that is left to be seen!!

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    1. Yes, it definitely has been a combination of factors. The people whose comments I wrote about in the article don’t have an answer for the long term, but the government think they do, which is why they are going ahead with this useless and uglifying project. However, our government’s “solutions” are purely short-term. They just want to do something quickly, and they love construction projects. I don’t think it would be practical for the hoteliers to just get up and leave. Restoring the morass, which is behind the hotels is something I think they want to see happen, though.

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  5. Anybody think to reach out to the United States Army Corp of Engineers? They have a lot of experience with beach erosion – When Jamaica needs help with roads, sewage systems, infrastructure, etc. they seem to go all around the world looking for assistance but forget we’re 100 miles to the north – what’s up with that?

    Miami & the Florida coast suffer from the same problems. I’ve lived in Florida for decades and I’ve watched these guys make it work.

    http://www.usace.army.mil/Missions/MilitaryMissions/InteragencyInternationalSupport.aspx

    Ck it out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A very good question, Fred. What IS up with that? Thank you very much indeed for this helpful suggestion, and I will make sure that Mr. Issa and his colleagues see it… You have made a good point, and thank you for your input.

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    2. am not sure the army corps of engineers is a wise resource. they have recently approved a project in northern california that involves filling in of wetlands (!) to build a 4 lane highway that is unnecessary and unwanted by local residents.

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      1. Oh dear – that does not sound like a good project at all for the environment. I don’t know much about their work in general so can’t really comment…

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  6. What I find very sad is that the Negril beach challenges have been around for over 25 years and all attempts to get assistance from the governments over this period from the Negril private sector failed. My roots are from there and Westmoreland and it hurts me to see what has happened to the most amazing beach in the Caribbean and the world – whatever needs to be done must be done together with the many investors and community in Negril. Let us make the right decision and not create further problems. I also want to know why Font Hill Beach on the south coast is closed – this was a popular community beach – so many questions to be answered!

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    1. Yes, I don’t know why Font Hill is closed – I was hearing about that for the first time and don’t understand why. I shall put some feelers out with media contacts. It is very sad that the Government is only now suddenly picking itself up to do something, now that overseas funds are available. They must have been aware of the problem for a long time now. It is really very sad and one wonders whether there has been any attempt to think this through carefully. It all seems to be happening in such a rush…

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  7. I live in Virginia Beach, VA. USA. We too have our share of sand erosion. Our sand replenishments have been very successful!! I love Negril and go often. I too am against the breakwater solution.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Sheila. I am glad to hear that your sand replenishments have worked. Do you know where the sand came from? So happy to hear that you are a regular visitor to Negril. Thank you for your concern!

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  8. The long term solutions do not interest politicians in Jamaica. It is an “eat a food” society – unfortunately.
    Long term would be to restore the wetlands and stop development in them (most are done illegally by dumping and capturing). Enforcing set backs from the high tide mark – many places would have to remove buildings. Enforcing the marine park and establishing a fish sanctuary (NEPA has zoned both but there Is nothing happening) replanting of sea grass and beach vegetation and coral reef restoration. Long term solutions do not get them votes so they don’t care.

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    1. I know – it is, as always, short term thinking. A “quick fix.” If only there was a meaningful effort to put SOME of the solutions that you and Diana put forward in your comments, at least that would be a start. It seems there are zones and protected areas, and no regulations to enforce them… That is the Government’s responsibility.

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    1. Thanks so much for your concern, Rachel. It would be great if you could sign the petition and share this blog post (and the petition) with others. We are all seeking solutions, but they must be the RIGHT ones, as far as we can possibly make that judgment. So many mistakes have been made. Thank you for your kind thoughts…

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  9. Thank you for writing about this Emma. Many true statements in the thread of comments, including how long we have avoided taking steps to address the numerous environmental and developmental issues in Negril. Beach nourishment IS a legitimate approach to erosion – it is not without its impacts, of course. And if we were unlucky with storms we could lose the new sand. But a storm could move the breakwaters too. What we cannot escape is the necessity to restore Negril’s ecosystem functions – replanting mangroves, seagrasses, restoring the Great Morass – as well as adhering to setback limits, or possibly even increasing them. Beach nourishment would buy us some time to do those things. The GOJ agencies need to learn to consult at a FORMATIVE stage and to listen to the public.

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    1. You’re welcome, Diana. I tried to faithfully record all the comments… If you look at some of the many comments from readers on this page, you will see that some did actually report success in their “neck of the woods” with beach nourishment. I actually didn’t mention the fear that a storm could move the rocks, too, and we just don’t know any more what the impact of storms will be, do we? At least, it’s impossible to predict how violent the storms are likely to be… From the discussion, it seems that the health of the Great Morass is a major factor. I just don’t know why the Government do everything backwards – why the hurry?

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  10. Allow Mother Nature to take care of problems without man stepping in and trying to “fix” what they already broke!
    This idea is atrocious and would have horrible negative impact on an area that is already struggling to survive.
    I say DON’T allow this to go through!!

    frequent visitor to Negril

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    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Rhonda. If we do want to “fix” the awful mistakes already made, we really have to think about it carefully, don’t we. Negril is such a lovely place… Thank you for visiting our island – and for caring!

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    1. Thank you, Debi! That is amazing! Thank you so much. The contact person in Negril for this is Mary Veira (mary@couples.com) at (876) 881-8698, if anyone wishes to contact them directly. All the best and that is so sweet of you!

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  11. I hate the thought of looking out to sea and seeing huge boulders in place of the endless, uninterrupted blue sea. Negril will be changed. There was no control of early building and the cheapest establishments seemed to put buildings on the edge of the beach to stake their claim. Draining the Morass was another bad idea. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. As I drive past the mega hotels with HUNDREDS of rooms spread along the coast, I wonder where all the sewage from those toilets goes. So glad I had a chance to enjoy Negril back in the 70s when it was still ‘virgin’. Seems like nothing can stop the Government’s mega-stone breakwater juggernaaut now. SAD 😦

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    1. It is terribly sad, Barbara! I have to get an update from the people in Negril as I understand the project is going ahead (they have received a grant for it, you see – but I understand the grant doesn’t cover the full cost). I always wonder about the sewage, too. I was quite shocked when the Spanish hotel-building craze started that it extended right down to Negril. Those places are huge (but do local people benefit? That’s another question). Negril must have been simply wonderful in the 1970s. I visited there in the mid-1980s and although there were several hotels, we stayed in a tent on a piece of land right next to the beach, owned by a local man who rented tents and small cottages there. It was peaceful, simple enjoyment of nature! Those days are gone…

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