International Day of Forests: A Consultation in Jamaica

The UN International Day of Forests (March 21) has only been around since 2012; but the Forestry Department of Jamaica has been very busy since long before that “official day” was established. In the past few weeks, the Department has been very much focused on a series of public consultations on its Draft National Forest Management and Conservation Plan, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). By the way, if you missed the consultation in Kingston today (the last one) you have until Friday, March 24 to submit your comments and feedback to or in writing to the Forestry Department office at 173 Constant Spring Road, Kingston 8.

The Forestry Department’s Brahim Diop explains the UN’s REDD Plus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, which makes the inescapable forest/climate change connection. I will have to explain more about this in a separate article. (My photo)

The Forestry Department (which became an Executive Agency in 2010) does not just sit in offices, poring over plans, however. It gets out and about. Last weekend, the annual Forest Trek – a way of introducing the general public to little-known areas – was in the Gourie Forest Management Area (around 2,750 feet up), a couple of miles north of Christiana, Manchester. It was apparently a great success, despite dubious and very damp weather. OK, I confess I didn’t go – I have bad knees.

Back to the consultations (I should point out that this is not an exhaustive account of all the topics covered in today’s consultations, which were still going on when I left after three hours). The essential thing to know, according to Ms. Denise Forrest (with two “r”s!) is that developing the ten-year Plan (2016 – 2026) has been “stakeholder centered” – in other words, feedback from the people has been an essential feature of the process. It also has a link with climate change resilience; we do, after all, increasingly know how important forests are in adapting and mitigating the impacts of climate change. The Plan closely follows the UN Forest Forum (UNFF) goals and objectives. “Our forests are vital to building climate change resilience in Jamaica,” Ms. Forrest asserts. There must be a concerted effort, locally and globally, to reverse deforestation, increase the restoration of forests, while promoting equitable – and sustainable – rural economic development. In other words, our forests and our people must benefit, creating what Minister Daryl Vaz called a “happy balance” between exploitation and 100 per cent preservation.

Faces of the Mau: Community Leader in Kenya (Photo: Riccardo Gangale, Italy/UN Forum on Forests)

Here are some facts about Jamaica’s forest, which covers around 40 per cent of the island. As of 2013, 40 per cent of forest consisted of disturbed broadleaf forest. Closed broadleaf forest (about 8 per cent of Jamaica’s total land mass) is 19 per cent of our forests. Why is broadleaf forest so important, and what is it? It’s at least five meters tall, untouched forest with interlocking crowns at the top, so it is a closed canopy, rich in biodiversity. We have lost 3,594 hectares of that original forest cover between 1998 and 2013 – a pretty short period, according to Minister Vaz. Much of it is found in the Blue and John Crow Mountains Forest Reserve, and the Cockpit Country Forest Reserve. 28 per cent of our forest cover is secondary forest – that is, forest that has grown back. Then we have dry limestone forest and swamp forest, totalling 9 per cent and 1 per cent respectively – both of which are losing ground rapidly. Our 2% of mangroves remains about the same.

I met with a group of coffee farmers from Whitehall, St. Thomas at the consultations. (My photo)

Now, here is a concern: approximately three quarters of our forests are privately owned. This obviously presents challenges, and the Private Planting Plan established in 1998 has sought to address this. Incentives are available for people to reforest their lands; but I do feel that NEPA needs to tighten the leash on those private landowners who chop down trees on their lands. Let’s be very strict and careful with our permits, and monitor such activities – including “slash and burn” – closely. NEPA is also introducing a somewhat limited “no burn” season in areas that are at risk of fire. But you know, enforcement is critical and without it, everything falls down (literally) or burns down…

Minister Daryl Vaz, who is responsible for environmental and climate change issues in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation: “This government believes in consultations like this.” (My photo)

There was some discussion about the more tangible economic benefits of forests – in addition to the clear role they play in reducing greenhouse gases. Minister Vaz pointed to the non-timber products – food, medicines, nutraceuticals – and the potential of eco-tourism. The latter activity would have the caveat that it must be carefully managed and extremely limited within Forest Reserves, according to Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley. The clear distinction between permissible activities in Reserves and Forest Management Areas is to be emphasised in the updated Plan. Oh, and by the way all forest areas are to be considered Protected Areas.

However, is there much of a “happy balance” prevailing now as far as our forests are concerned? I would say the scales are tipped more towards exploitation and a subsistence mentality among those who use the forests, currently. A huge public education program is needed, because, as Minister Vaz noted, “how our forests are utilised depends on the mindsets of the users.” This is not a forest plan alone, Denise Forrest pointed out. “It’s a plan for the people of Jamaica across sectors,” for their social and economic benefit. It’s connecting the dots between different areas of people’s lives – agriculture, industry, home and work. It is forward looking and it is about sustainability. That’s where the balance lies.

“It’s a working Plan,” asserted the Conservator of Forests. I think what Ms. Headley meant was that it is a “living” document. It is not static or set in stone. While a number of recommendations have been made for changes to the Forest Act of 1996 (which you can download on the Forestry Department website here) there may be more “tweaking” to do at some point. However, the whole consultation process must be wrapped up by March 31. So take a quick read and send in your comments this week!

By the way, did you know that the Hope and Yallahs River watersheds (which we visited recently when we traveled to Content Gap with NEPA) provide 42 per cent of the water for over 660,000 Kingston residents? If there was serious deforestation in these areas, we would have huge problems.

Let’s consider this, because tomorrow (March 22) is World Water Day. There is a strong connection between today and tomorrow!

Marilyn Headley is CEO of the Forestry Department and Conservator of Forests. (Photo: Forestry Department)







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