No, I know. Jamaica doesn’t have alligators. It has crocodiles. But Alligator Head is the name of a place in Portland, so we can’t change that.
We recently attended a rather unusual gathering in the lovely parish (which always has the word “green” attached to it, although it was hot and dry throughout our stay there). The occasion was the launch of the Alligator Head Foundation at a place called Turtle Crawl, in a swampy cove and not far from a few real live crocodiles. The Foundation announced the creation of a fish sanctuary in the area, which is exciting. Let the trumpets blare!
I first heard of the Foundation last summer, when long-time Portland resident and Swiss-born Archduchess Francesca von Habsburg-Lothringen announced the establishment of a Marine Laboratory at Alligator Head (where she lives) with US$25 million of her money and US$30 million from the University of the West Indies (UWI). Marine scientist Dr. Dayne Buddoo is Director of Research. By the way, UWI operates a marine laboratory in Discovery Bay, St. Ann, further along the coast; and one at the mouth of Kingston Harbour in Port Royal.
As we entered the flat green space by the sea, where baby mangroves sprouted, we heard roots reggae music and the tinkling of glasses. The event was billed as “a day-long festival” and a party was scheduled for the evening, including a performance by Sizzla. People we should look out for were pointed out to us, including former Third World musician Cat Coore, and some others, whose names I cannot remember. At this point, one is supposed to say to one’s companions: “Oh, how cool! So-and-So is here.” Apart from celebrities, there were a lot of foreigners. Various silent, pale young men in casual designer chic drifted around with laptops in their hands. There was an additional sprinkling of Portland ex-pats.
All the foreigners looked wealthy to me. So is the Archduchess, of course. I always used to call her “the Baroness” to myself. In fact, she’s the daughter of a Baron and the wife of an Austrian Archduke, who is head of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine. She calls herself Francesca von Habsburg for short. She is an art collector and patron of the arts; she organized a series of cultural events in Kingston just before this inauguration. She has committed US$100,000 to the new fish sanctuary, and is seeking more funds to make it sustainable over the long term. Hence all the wealthy-looking people. The Archduchess was dressed rather casually, in a long blue dress with some heavy jewelry. Some of us had been expecting her to wear a tiara, perhaps – but she was much more down-to-earth as she welcomed the large crowd. I sipped my Ting.
It was something of a relief to find Jamaicans there too: environmentalists, scientists, NGO people and a few socialites, including some Rastafarians in fantastic Afrocentric dress. There was a large group of UWI students. I wondered, though, about the fishermen. Where were they? There were a few bemused-looking young men sitting on the edge of the lawn, watching. The fishermen were talked about a lot, but did not speak themselves. Although I know they have received training and will be themselves monitoring the new marine park, I do hope that there is full “buy-in” from the locals. Otherwise, this worthy venture will have very limited success.
We were expecting the Minister Without Portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Daryl Vaz – whose home is in Portland. He arrived just five minutes late, by which time the Archduchess had invoked her “Swissness” as she called it, and started without him. Minister Vaz did not seem perturbed and launched straight into his speech. Later, he scooted off to the other side of the parish to say thank you to his party supporters for helping him get re-elected there in last month’s elections. He pointed out that the over-fished waters around our island are a threat to food security – and to the stability of communities, I would add. “The environment is the business of every citizen,” said the Minister, pointing to the “painful” lessons we are already learning from climate change.
Francesca von Habsburg described her first experience of Jamaica as a young child in the 1950s. Her childhood memories were of bright flowers, swimming at the reef – and many, many fish. Years later, she saw and heard that things had changed, and not for the better. She is concerned about the fate of local fishermen and their families. She played a short video of the President of the Pacific island of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, who had illegal Vietnamese fishing boats burned to send a message: “We hope to send a very clear message to poachers, who are raping our marine environment…We will not tolerate any more unsustainable acts.” Last October, he signed legislation designating a reserve about 500,000 square kilometers in size. It is now one of the five largest fully protected marine areas in the world.
This makes the size of the new fish sanctuary in Portland seem extremely small – six square kilometers. But it’s a precious coastline. And it’s a very good start.
The Foundation has established a partnership with the Cabo Pulmo marine protected area and national park in Baja California, Mexico. The fishing community was on the decline – until a grassroots initiative to protect the zone eventually resulted in Cabo Pulmo being declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site for its extraordinary marine and reef life. Established and managed by fishermen, this seems a fine example of community-led action for the sustainable development of the area. We heard an inspiring (and at times emotional) presentation from Judith Castro, who comes from a family of fishermen and who now heads the local conservation group Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo. Now the town is better off, with a thriving diving and snorkeling industry. “We can get thousands of dollars taking tourists to see the fish that once drew 100 pesos,” says Castro. Residents’ quality of life has improved.
Change is not easy. For Judith and David Castro, helping their community to move from fishing to eco-tourism took years of work. People who have been pursuing the same livelihood for generations will always resist moving into completely unfamiliar territory. As Dr. Dayne Buddoo noted, the Alligator Head fish sanctuary cannot be “copied and pasted” from the Mexican experience, but we can learn a lot from it. Four Portland fishers have already been trained as PADI divers and in non-motorized sports and a dive shop will be set up. Art, culture and music are to be incorporated into the new eco-tourism product. Turtle monitoring is to be established, on the model of the Oracabessa Foundation in St. Mary. Later in the afternoon, the Foundation honored local dive specialist Jan Lee of Lady G’Diver.
The pioneering, prophetic biologist and environmental writer Rachel Carson wrote this in her book The Sea Around Us. It’s a sobering thought.
“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
It’s our beautiful Caribbean Sea. It is not our personal garden to pick from, nor is it our garbage dump. It has so much to offer, if we nurture it.
The Alligator Head Foundation website is not yet up, but you can find the Alligator Head Marine Lab on Facebook and at http://ahmarinelab.org. To donate please contact Machel Donegan at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also transfer funds to Scotiabank Spanish Town branch, Jamaican a/c 600679; US$ account 827815. Mark deposit “Foundation.” If you would like to get on the mailing list email email@example.com. You can also volunteer.
If you are interested in the artistic side of things, go to http://www.tba21.org/#item–program_march–1248 to find out more about the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation (TBA21) in Vienna, Austria, founded by von Habsburg. It has a lovely section called “Ocean.”
To read more about the Cabo Pulmo experience, go to: http://www.oceanhealthindex.org/news/History_Of_Cape_Pulmo