The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has broken another record in the number of beach cleanup sites registered for this year’s International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) Day activities in Jamaica (on Saturday, September 20, 2014). 114 ICC beach cleanup sites across the island have been registered, including ten underwater cleanups. JET expects the number of participants to increase from last year’s 6,000 to 8,000 in 2014. And, at the same time, JET is preparing to launch another marine litter focused initiative – the Clean Coasts Project (CCP), a one-year program expanding on the theme of ICC and targeted at Jamaican resort areas.
We left the offices of JET and moved quickly through the sultry morning’s rush hour traffic yesterday, heading for the Port Royal Marine Laboratory. On board the bus were JET staff, journalists and cameramen, representatives of Recycling Partners (the new private sector initiative), Sandals Resorts, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the National Solid Waste Management Agency (NSWMA). Importantly, too, a representative of the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) participated. TEF is the primary sponsor and long-time supporter of Jamaica’s ICC Day and is also funding the CCP.
As we set off, JET Program Director Suzanne Stanley told us to take note of all the drains and gullies along the way. These are the veins and arteries of the city. Rainwater runs from the hills above, sweeping through Kingston, filling the gullies and flooding many streets and drains (tropical rain is generally emphatic in nature). The waterways carry the débris that has accumulated in them or floated down from the streets, down to the sea.
It is quite extraordinary how different a place looks from the water. There are so many hidden things that you never see driving along on land with the water alongside. This is especially true of Kingston Harbour (the eighth largest natural harbor in the world). And one of the mostly hidden things you see is…garbage. Plenty of it.
After our drive to Port Royal (as always, sleepy) at the end of the long narrow Palisadoes strip, we retraced our steps by boat, across the smooth, shining water. The harbor is almost always very calm in the morning. Pelicans scooted low across the water, and the occasional frigate bird sailed above. As we approached the towers of downtown, the quality of the water changed. It became very dark, and it began to smell very bad. We saw the occasional dead fish and some pieces of floating garbage. Llewelyn Meggs, JET’s Conservation Director, pointed out large pipes and openings, through which waste passed into the harbor (including sewage). The General Penitentiary, housing well over 1,000 inmates, was across the road from one of these large pipes.
The highlight (or rather the low point) of this part of the tour was the Rae Town Fishing Village. Rae Town is a vibrant but impoverished community, famous for its mid-week street dances – when uptowners would venture downtown for a bit of excitement. Not sure if those are still taking place. But from our boat it’s a sad picture – chaotic and filthy. The small concrete huts built to hold fishermen’s equipment are now occupied by families; they don’t have proper sanitation. Children played surrounded by piles of garbage. The Rae Town Gully, as it empties into the sea, is filled with garbage, and you can see even more all the way up the gully, waiting to come down. Surprisingly, I noticed Great Egrets and other birds picking through the filth at the mouth of the gully. Llewelyn Meggs explained that they are probably feeding on the algae and other nutrients created by the garbage (pieces of bright green algae floated by the boat). They are taking in toxins, too.
We were happy, at this point, to have the boat turn around and head back towards the mangroves that fringe the Palisadoes strip. The smell from Rae Town was so overwhelming I was feeling nauseous. It was indescribable. Don’t tell me there are no public health issues there.
On the Palisadoes side of the harbor, we turned towards the mangroves (yes, this is a Ramsar site, although a chunk of the mangroves fringing it on the harbor side of the long spit of land was destroyed when the airport road was raised and rebuilt by the Chinese. They promised to replant mangroves, but have not done so). We circled Refuge Cay, which is covered with mangroves and is a breeding and roosting spot for sea birds such as the Brown Pelican and Magnificent Frigate Bird. It is also carpeted with garbage. On one side of the small cay, the garbage (a large plastic laundry basket, yards and yards of plastic bottles and plastic bags) chokes the mangroves. The tap roots cannot grow down. Marine life cannot breed there. On the other side – which does not receive the wave of garbage moving across the harbor from the gullies – the mangrove looks fairly healthy. We spotted pelicans perched in the bright green foliage like statues. Roosting areas were white with bird droppings.
Apparently, it is very difficult to extract the garbage from the mangroves. But I wish we could at least try.
Back in Port Royal, Suzanne Stanley updated us on the last ICC Day in Jamaica (see my blog from last year). There were close to 6,000 volunteers island wide last year. A huge number descended on the Fort Rocky site on the Port Royal road. On three miles of coastline there, 2,366 volunteers collected 820 bags with 12,300 pounds of garbage. This included 27,000 plastic bottles! When JET returned a few weeks later, Suzanne said, “The garbage was back.” Jamaicans generate approximately one kilogram of waste per person per day. Kingston’s Riverton City dump receives sixty per cent of the island’s garbage (the NSWMA prefers to call it a “disposal site”). 38 per cent of the population burns garbage (open burning is illegal but the law is not enforced) which causes major environmental and health problems. Overall last year, about two thirds of the garbage collected on ICC Day was plastic.
One more stop before we returned to Kingston. A quick detour to a piece of land adjoining the Norman Manley International Airport, near a go-kart racing track. The land belongs to the Airports Authority of Jamaica. It consists of a garbage dump and a piece of waste land covered with garbage, which is thick along the shoreline. When we arrived a man was sitting motionless next to the dump, which was smoking heavily. The smoke was choking and toxic. Walking down to the shore, we saw garbage literally piled up. An old television and any amount of household waste was there – including a great deal of plastic of course. Here and there, there was a small pile of garbage which had been burned (this is illegal) – including a pile of aerosol cans!
This is private property; I don’t think it will be a part of ICC Day. In fact, it does not look as if it has ever been cleaned. It is utterly disgraceful, a major health hazard. Wouldn’t a small park be nice?
ICC Day 2014 will be rather different from last year. There were so many people at Fort Rocky (with sponsors’ tents dispensing free food and drink) that the event turned into a “lyme.” After everyone had gone home, we had to clean up after the volunteers! This year is going to be more focused. It will be shorter, with no sponsors’ tents. Volunteers will split into groups of five, with a leader. All groups must register by Friday, September 5! For more information, visit JET’s website at http://www.jamentrust.org/all-events/details/26-international-coastal-cleanup-day-2014.html You can also find JET on Facebook and on Twitter @jamentrust and call them at (876) 960-3693.
“Once waste enters the marine environment, it’s much harder to deal with,” says Suzanne Stanley. “When it’s on the shoreline, it’s pretty much the last chance to capture it before it ends up in the sea.”
That’s why International Coastal Cleanup Day is so important. Sign up today. And even more importantly, we need to get involved in keeping our environment clean and healthy on a regular basis, every day of the year.
P.S. A piece of empty land opposite Gloria’s restaurant in Port Royal is now thickly strewn with litter. I mean, really thick. It has always been bad, but yesterday I noticed that it is a great deal worse. Wind from the nearby beach seems to blow every single piece of litter onto this land. As a responsible corporate citizen, couldn’t Gloria’s make the effort to clean this area adjacent to their business? It does not reflect well on them, at all.
P.P.S. One bright moment in the tour was when I was just settling into the boat at the Port Royal Marine Lab. I looked down in the water and saw a beautiful Spotted Eagle Ray swimming past. I wish I had taken a photograph, but he was moving quite fast… It was heartening to see.
ICC efforts began in Jamaica in the mid-90s with small cleanups taking place in a few locations across the island. In 2008 the Jamaica Environment Trust became national coordinators of ICC activities in Jamaica, with the support of TEF as the primary donor. JET works with local site coordinators – community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, private sector organizations, hotels, tourism stakeholders, youth clubs, service clubs, and schools. ICC volunteers don’t just pick up trash on coastlines; they also collect data on the type of garbage they find. JET compiles the data and sends it to the global coordinator, the U.S.-based Ocean Conservancy. “ICC Day in Jamaica has grown leaps and bounds each year,” says Suzanne.“The overwhelming response we have received this year makes us feel really positive about other marine litter focused activities we will be undertaking this year through the Clean Coasts Project.” More about that project in another blog.