International Day of Forests in Jamaica: The Wood and Water Connection


The Taino word for Jamaica, Xaymaca, means “Land of Wood and Water.” The Tainos were describing tall trees, flowing rivers, splashing waterfalls. The two words fit together.

The thick rainforest of the John Crow Mountains in Portland, from Ecclesdown Road. (My photo)
The thick rainforest of the John Crow Mountains in Portland, from Ecclesdown Road. (My photo)

Today (March 21) was International Day of Forests; and the theme is Forests and Water: Sustaining Lives and Livelihoods. What could be more important than the forest/water connection? However, the average man or woman may not easily make that connection – although forests actually provide what we call “ecosystem services.” Here’s an important, vital service: Forests are the providers, the generous facilitators of what some local journalists like to call “the precious liquid.” How do forests do this? Through “recharging” groundwater, acting as a filter system and protection against soil erosion and flooding. They are a water storage system, absorbing and releasing groundwater. Our forests are called “watersheds” and we must protect them.

Here’s the UN Secretary General’s message for International Day of the Forests. It is not long and contains some important information and food for thought:

The world’s forests are essential to realizing our shared vision for people and the planet. They are central to our future prosperity and the stability of the global climate. That is why the Sustainable Development Goals call for transformative action to safeguard them.

In this first year of implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the International Day of Forests focuses on their role in supporting water systems. Forested catchments provide three-quarters of all the freshwater used for farms, industry and homes.

City dwellers in Bogota, Durban, Jakarta, Madrid, New York, Rio de Janeiro and many other major cities rely on forested areas for a significant portion of their drinking water. When we protect and restore forested watersheds, we can save on the cost of building new infrastructure for water purification.

As the global population grows and demands for water escalate, safeguarding the water-providing capacity of forests is becoming more urgent. By 2025, nearly 1.8 billion people will live in areas with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could face water-stressed conditions.

Forests are also central to addressing climate change. Forests provide one of the most cost-effective and efficient natural carbon capture and storage systems. Investing in forests is an insurance policy for the planet.

Yet, despite their critical importance, forests continue to be razed and damaged. Every year, 7 million hectares of natural forests are lost and 50 million hectares of forest land are burned.

On this International Day of Forests, I call on governments, businesses, civil society and other partners to adopt holistic policies and practices to protect, restore and sustain healthy forests for our common future.

Last June, I shared an article by environmental journalist Zadie Neufville about the encroachment of Noranda Bauxite Company’s bulldozers into the outer rim of the Cockpit Country. You can read it here: https://petchary.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/as-jamaicas-prime-forests-decline-row-erupts-over-protection/ Roads were dug and prospecting done. I have written about this situation before in this blog. Why is this a huge concern? Cockpit Country is a mostly trackless land of steep hills, deep gullies, sinkholes, deep historical and cultural significance, incredible biodiversity – and water. Bauxite mining is arguably the biggest contributor to deforestation in Jamaica, although our forests are under pressure from various quarters, including the clearing of land for agriculture, lumber and housing developments. Our forests cannot/do not recover from mining activities.

Residents of Cockpit Country stand in protest on the roads hacked out by the bauxite company. "We want clean drinking water" says one placard." (Photo: Wendy Lee)
Residents of Cockpit Country, members of the Cockpit Country Stakeholders’ Group stand in protest on the roads hacked out by the bauxite company. “We want clean drinking water” says one placard.” (Photo: Wendy Lee)

The then State Minister for Mining and Energy Julian Robinson insisted last year that his ministry would not allow mining in Cockpit Country. We all stared at maps showing several different “boundaries” established by various groups (including the Maroons, Windsor Research Centre and the University of the West Indies) – with the Cockpit Country gradually shrinking in the middle.The most popular, and widest boundary was put forward by a large group of concerned citizens and NGOs, the Cockpit Country Stakeholders’ Group. But here was the catch. Despite long and often heated public consultations on the boundaries, the Simpson Miller administration simply put off making any decision on which boundary was the “correct” one. As the likelihood of an election grew stronger, it became increasingly clear that no such decision would be made – too much of a hot potato. What the new administration will do is anybody’s guess. The new Minister Without Portfolio in the huge Office of the Prime Minister responsible for environmental matters is Daryl Vaz. He will have to deal with this one at some point; I hope he does the right thing. He must also liaise with the minister responsible for water (Horace Chang, I believe) when he makes that decision. Lives hang in the balance. The people of Cockpit Country have been put on hold for too long.

Now, water. We don’t need to remind ourselves that, with climate change and El Niño biting hard, large sections of Jamaica (especially the highly populated south east) have suffered from two summer-long droughts. Water was constantly on our minds – or rather, the lack of it. We know that the tropics are very slowly drying out. At home in Kingston, we only have to observe the remains of what we used to call a “lawn” to know this. And the heat…

The Cockpit Country is a major provider in the household that is Jamaica: it supplies about 40 per cent of Jamaica’s water resources. Rainwater in the pitted limestone “karst” Cockpit fills seven major rivers, and many smaller ones: on the north coast the Great River, Martha Brae, Rio Bueno and Montego River; and Black River, Alligator Pond River and Hector’s River on the south coast. Jamaica is struggling now with the effects of climate change. How would we manage if we lost 40 per cent of our water? We could not.

The riches of the Martha Brae River in Trelawny - water flowing in abundance in Cockpit Country. (My photo)
The riches of the Martha Brae River in Trelawny – water flowing in abundance in Cockpit Country. (My photo)

Let’s not forget our mangrove forests – those rich, dense, mysterious wetland areas, now dwindling in area. Mangroves are important for our water supply too, acting as a filter that purifies. They also prevent salt water from intruding into our water systems along the coast. With rising sea levels, there is nothing to prevent this happening if the mangroves are gone. 

Deforestation doesn’t only happen in the rural areas. Our urban neighborhood – once a leafy, green residential area – has been suffering from the steady removal of trees (especially large trees) for the past ten years or more. With the migration of populations and the Invasion of the Townhouses, what were once large yards filled with mango trees, tamarind, lignum vitae, poinciana and poui trees have become concrete jungles. Our yard is by far the greenest on the street; we planted two lignum vitae trees (a wonderful hardwood that is native to this part of Jamaica) and clung to our guango tree, which houses many birds and is increasingly beautiful and no harm to anyone. Along our street, all the other guango trees have been hacked down to almost nothing. Some are stumps. Instead of these native trees and fruit trees, the Townhouse Brigade plant anaemic imported palm trees, and at least two complexes on our street are named after trees that are actually nowhere in sight! How many yards even have fruit trees any more? We have several mango trees, a cherry tree, an apple tree and moringa trees. Ours is the coolest yard. Our neighbors sweat it out in their concrete, air conditioning full on.

Mist over the Blue Mountains at Newcastle, bringing moisture. (My photo)
Mist over the Blue Mountains at Newcastle, bringing moisture. (My photo)

By the way, this week the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched an interesting new project in eight African countries. According to the FAO it will start with setting up a forest-water monitoring framework to help countries assess potential forest benefits in terms of water resources. This will involve developing a set of standardised monitoring indicators and field methods to identify which forest management interventions result in improved water quality and enhanced supplies. This data will be in turn used to develop better-informed practices and policies to unleash the full potential of forests in improving water supply.” The FAO also notes that “forested watersheds and wetlands provide about 75 percent of the planet’s freshwater resources, while over one third of the world’s largest urban centres depend on protected forests for a significant proportion of their water.” Including, of course, the ever-thirsty city of Kingston.

So, doesn’t it make sense to protect Cockpit Country and what remains of our other forested areas? And it’s not too late to restore what we have lost. Plant a tree – or two.

Note: Tomorrow is World Water Day. Please give this issue some deep thought. Our very lives depend on it.

Naturalist Wendy Lee shared this on Facebook some time ago: "This, believe it or not, is currently an area designated as a bauxite reserve. It is also the eastern-most section of the Cockpit Country and recommended for protection by the vast majority of people who were consulted under the GOJ's Cockpit Country Boundary Study. It is home to at least 27 of Jamaica's 29 endemic birds and the source of my livelihood as a birding guide." Cockpit Country must be closed to mining and quarrying!
Naturalist Wendy Lee shared this on Facebook some time ago: “This, believe it or not, is currently an area designated as a bauxite reserve. It is also the eastern-most section of the Cockpit Country and recommended for protection by the vast majority of people who were consulted under the GOJ’s Cockpit Country Boundary Study. It is home to at least 27 of Jamaica’s 29 endemic birds and the source of my livelihood as a birding guide.” Cockpit Country must be closed to mining and quarrying!

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