The crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) posed with his front feet on a rock on the other side of the river, the front part of his body tilted upwards, the lower part in the dark green waters. His jaws were slightly open, displaying some very white lower teeth that my dentist might well admire. He looked as if he was posing for Crocodile Vogue. We duly admired him, and then entered the Field Station of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM) at the Monymusk Gun Rod and Tiller Club in Clarendon, right on the Salt River, to join the World Wetlands Day activity funded by the Neotropical Marine Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA).
The room was filled with schoolchildren, listening intently to C-CAM’s instructor, Angeli Williams Hayman, Community Development Officer (who looked beautiful in a T shirt depicting the West Indian Whistling Duck, from BirdsCaribbean). They were from nearby primary and prep schools, including Alley Primary, Mitchell Town Primary and St. Margaret Mary Basic and Preparatory School in Lionel Town, among others. This year, C-CAM focused mainly on the younger children for their World Wetlands Day activities. Angeli was supported by C-CAM’s great team: Sonnet Morgan, Project Assistant;
Devante Cooper, Conservation Officer; Barbara Graham, Support staff and community representative from Portland Cottage; and Michael Johnson, Caretaker/Maintenance Officer.
The children knew their stuff: Yes, our wetlands protect us from natural hazards such as flooding and storms, making it less likely for such hazards to turn into disasters (echoing this year’s theme for World Wetlands Day, Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction). UN Water estimates that 90% of such natural events are water-related.
We know that these events (including severe droughts) are becoming more frequent in the Caribbean. This area in the Portland Bight Protected Area on Jamaica’s southern coast has suffered more than its fair share of devastation. A major fire that destroyed thousands of acres in Portland Cottage, further south (we visited there late last year in search of flamingos) was immediately followed by the vicious Hurricane Ivan in 2004 – and then Hurricane Dean, which just scraped by our south coast in 2007 but still caused considerable damage. Flooding and storm surges resulted. Now what is left of the wetlands must be preserved at all costs. It is a precious resource.
C-CAM’s Executive Director, the hard-working Ingrid Parchment, kindly took us on a tour of the Portland Bight Discovery Centre, a short way down the road. C-CAM has got tremendous support for this ambitious venture: from the European Union-funded Sugar Transformation Programme, the Alcoa Foundation, the California-based Seacology, the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF), Food for the Poor – and from the Custos of Clarendon William Shagoury. Over the years, C-CAM has also received much support from the German Government, which focuses a great deal on climate change-related projects. Huge thanks to all.
So how is the Discovery Centre coming along? It’s gradually coming together, but there is much work to be done. The impressive, pyramid-shaped building has a great viewing platform on its topmost floor. Other developments are a dipping pond for children to explore what is really in that murky water (with a visual illustration board); a pond for river turtles; and a nursery selling native plants (I want to get a list of these from Ingrid).
I said there is much work to be done, including the building of a “critter fence” to keep the aforementioned crocodiles at bay; substantial landscaping and hedging (the site is very open, as it stands). Sadly – very sadly – there is also a pressing need for effective security measures. Several solar panels installed on the roof of the administrative building have been stolen – and pieces of wood that are part of the two boardwalks through the mangroves. As we walked, we also noted that people using the boardwalk that ends at the Salt River itself are throwing plastic bottles into the mangroves. Someone had even dug a hole in one of the wooden handrails – presumably with a knife. Why do people behave like this?
This is so sad. As Ingrid noted, this amazing facility is being built to attract visitors (eco-tourists and birders in particular) to the area; and to provide a rich educational resource for Jamaicans – adults and children alike. C-CAM is not building this place for its own profit or enrichment; far from it. It is to sustainably develop the area, instill an appreciation for this unique and remarkable part of the island – and likely, also in the near future, to employ local people (which C-CAM already does).
As we stepped on the boardwalks, the cool shade of the mangroves was welcome. When we reached the end of the first, however, I was in for quite a shock. What was a large, murky, rust-colored lagoon when I last visited was now a huge expanse of drying mud. This was only the second time in two years that this had happened, Ingrid said. Could it be because of work being done further upriver that was restricting the water’s flow – or was it the all too familiar impact of climate change? Our climate is drying out, slowly and steadily, as I have noted before.
The second boardwalk, however, ended in the waters of the Salt River itself – a color for which there is no name – with the delicate leaves of the mangrove forest reflected in its still blue waters like lace. We saw very few fish in the transparent water, however, which was not encouraging – just a few small ones. Hopefully there were lots of babies, growing up safely in the mangrove roots.
We returned to the Field Station with mixed feelings. The children were playing environmental games: one group of somewhat bored-looking students were “habitat,” while a very lively group of mostly boys were “migrating birds,” that came crashing over the seas to settle among the habitat students. There was much more to follow, but after a spot of lunch we had to leave.
And then the crocodile made an appearance again (or was it the same one as earlier?) This time, he was resting in the sun on the dock, his back turned to us, displaying the fascinating scales on his beautiful tail – an extraordinary design that only Nature could create. He quietly ignored us, just a few feet away.
I’m very thankful to Ingrid for showing us around, and for her gritty determination to see her vision through. Kudos also to C-CAM’s Science Officer Brandon Hay and the young and enthusiastic Field Officers. Oh, and did I mention – the kids were attentive, funny and aware. One of the boys tried to kid his fellow students that a piece of wood was a crocodile. But… well, I don’t think any of them noticed the real thing. In fact, they were kept well away from the water. Just as well – schoolchildren and crocodiles don’t mix. They should leave each other alone!
Here’s a footnote: According to the Forestry Department, the building of hotels (in particular) and other infrastructure such as roads and housing has resulted in a serious depletion of our swamp forests – those forests that are inundated with fresh water, along the lower reaches of our rivers. Over just the past fifteen years Jamaica has lost 2,124.1 hectares, with only 122.9 hectares remaining. This is disturbing news. However, Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley says our mangrove forests have actually increased over the same period by 1.4 per cent. A little encouragement, there.
I have to end with a quote from the Conservator on the issue of “development vs environment.” It is really not one versus the other, you know. As Ms. Headley puts it:
“It is said that the environment and the economy are two sides of the same coin and if we fail to sustain our environment, we will fail to sustain the economy. Development is necessary, it’s one way we grow as a country and as a people but when we do it at the expense of our natural environment, we are in big trouble.”
My name is Emma Lewis, and I endorse this message. Fully.