Diana McCaulay: Why Moving Sand From Negril Matters

There has been much discussion on the topic of the sand that has been removed from Negril and carted off to St. Ann in large trucks. Videos of the trucks lining up to collect the sand, and photographs of huge piles of the sand, have been posted on social media. Yesterday, CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust Diana McCaulay shared this article, explaining the complexities of it all – including the nature of sand, beach nourishment, and the overwhelming problem of beach erosion. Listening to Ms. McCaulay discussing this on radio this morning, I was repeatedly struck by this question: Where is the logic in all of this? Do these developers (and technocrats) know anything at all about climate change? Is this even a viable proposition for them business-wise? Their millions of dollars of investment might possibly just get washed away. Have they heard of hurricanes? 

A section of the eroded Negril beach. (Photo: Jamaica Observer)
A section of the eroded Negril beach. (Photo: Jamaica Observer)

To me, this truly defies logic. The Ministry of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change (along with its agency, the National Environment and Planning Agency/NEPA) has suddenly gone quiet on the issue. NEPA’s CEO Peter Knight is not speaking to the media. Clearly this ministry and that of the Ministry of Mining and Energy were on completely different wavelengths (the opposite of “joined-up government”!) While the developers have said they received all the required permits, it’s still not quite clear whether NEPA actually issued only a “no objection” letter (following which the developers would have to apply for an environmental permit, which would have specific conditions attached). Ms. McCaulay points out that at present we do not know exactly what environmental permit was granted, for what activity (it could have been for the hotel itself). There is a whole slew of documents and permits required by various agencies for such developments to take place. 

One more point of interest is that last year a new Development Order for Negril and Green Island was drawn up (probably at considerable expense) noting that no sand should be extracted (Ms. McCaulay refers to this below). It seems that Protected Areas are in name only, however (e.g. Goat Islands, in the Portland Bight Protected Area – still threatened by plans for a transshipment port development). They are not law, and therefore they can be ignored.

And what do the Members of Parliament have to say? It appears, nothing – at least not publicly. Negril is on the border of Westmoreland (MP Wykeham McNeill) and Western Hanover (MP Ian Hayles). Opposition Spokesman for Land and Environment Daryl Vaz says he plans to table questions in Parliament (which Ministers have a full three weeks to answer). I hope someone says something, soon. Although I fear, as Ms. McCaulay suggested, it all may just “fizzle out.”

Diana McCaulay
Diana McCaulay, founder/CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust.

Please see Ms. McCaulay’s article below:

Last week, a large volume of sand and soil was removed from the foundation excavations of a hotel in Negril and the ensuing commentary has focused on whether or not the investor had the correct permits and licenses. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) would like to outline the reasons why the removal of beach sand from one part of the coastline to another is often problematic.

Sandy beaches are built by a variety of processes – weathering of rocks, breakdown of coral and shells, deposition of sediments by rivers, transport of suspended particles of sand by ocean currents, decomposition of certain types of algae, and excretion of particles by some marine organisms, like parrot fish. Influenced by weather, currents, time of year and other factors, beaches naturally become wider and narrower over time; hence, one definition of a beach is: “sand in motion”. Beaches are maintained by other natural features like coral reefs, sand dunes, mangroves and seagrasses. Beaches tend to occur where conditions favour their development and not where conditions are not right.

Every area of the coast has a sand budget – which is the amount of sand available to build beaches. The amount of sand coming into an area must be compared with the sand leaving, in order to establish the propensity of the beach to either erode, accrete or be stable. Sand is stored in the dunes at the back of the beach, which can be small or large, held in ocean currents and sandbanks in the sea. The stability of beaches is helped by the existence of coral reefs, which form a protective barrier against storms, because the storm waves often deplete sand from beaches. When you remove sand from one area of the coastline to the next, you reduce the sand budget in the source area. Simply put, to take sand away from an area already suffering from beach erosion is poor environmental management.

Beach sand is not all the same. Before sand can be added to a beach – so called “beach nourishment” – thorough study must be done of the current and wave patterns, the shape (profile) of the beach and the actual grain sizes and type of sand. If sand from one place does not “match” sand in another place and is just dumped there, it will likely not persist and may even affect other natural processes, such as those carried out by very tiny organisms (meiofauna) that live between the grains of sand, or it could also affect turtle nesting.

Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting. (Photo: Caribbean Conservation Corporation)
Leatherback Sea Turtle nesting. Shifting large quantities of sand around and depositing them somewhere else could affect turtle nesting, especially if the sand does not “match.” (Photo: Caribbean Conservation Corporation)

Jamaica is suffering from beach erosion in many places because we have damaged the natural features and processes that build and maintain beaches. Our coral reefs are severely degraded, especially along the north coast, from over-fishing, poor water quality and hurricanes. Dunes, mangroves and seagrasses have been removed and continue to be removed both legally and illegally. Coastal structures such as groynes and breakwaters have been constructed, often without proper study, and these may further disrupt natural processes. Construction of buildings has often taken place too close to the high water mark. Now Jamaica faces the clear and present danger of sea level rise associated with climate change and our beaches are under immediate and serious threat.

Jamaica does need investors of all kinds, including in tourism, but we should not want them at any price. We should insist that investors obey our environmental laws. We should be taking the most careful approach to any form of coastal development, requiring wide and increasing setbacks from the high water mark, restoration of lost coastal resources (dunes, mangroves, seagrasses, reefs) and there are parts of the coast from which managed retreat is going to be necessary. Indeed, the new Development Order for the Negril and Green Island Area, passed in 2015, explicitly states: “The extraction of onshore coastal sand will not be permitted except in exceptional circumstances and sand extraction in such circumstances will be stringently controlled and removal confined to reuse in the area.” (Emphasis mine).

The questions as to whether what was taken was sand and whether or not its removal to another beach site needed an environmental permit are questions for the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to decide – they are Jamaica’s lawfully constituted environmental regulatory bodies. In any event, if there was a debate about the required permits and licenses, it should have taken place before sand was removed.

In this case, NEPA acted belatedly, but they have acted to protect the environment. The public should support the Environment Minister and NEPA; and call for the sand, if, indeed it was sand, to be returned to Negril.

Diana McCaulay is the CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust.

3 thoughts on “Diana McCaulay: Why Moving Sand From Negril Matters

  1. So overwhelmed by the shortsighted, dangerous, nonsensical madness going on in our country – and worldwide. My question is the same as yours “Where is the logic?”, but then a jaded sighing answer always follows: “There is none. So, now what?”


    1. Yes, dear Berette. It’s hard to follow the thought processes that go into these things. I just don’t understand! And the question is, “Now what?” Can what’s been done be undone? Thanks for your thoughts.


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