What Is It About Trees That Jamaicans Don’t Like?

Happy National Tree Planting Day!


Many years ago, we moved into our house in what was then a relatively green, leafy area of uptown Kingston. Charles, who used to clean up our yard, insisted that we should cut down every single tree and bush. Otherwise, thieves and murderers would find places to hide behind them, and pounce on us. We politely ignored his remonstrations. We kept our few scruffy bushes – including a young guango tree, now resplendent, and virtually the only remaining large tree in our neighborhood.

In the past decade the area has changed dramatically. Townhouses with tiny windows and air conditioning units have mostly replaced the stately old colonial era homes, and the rambling green yards have gone. Instead, we have concreted areas and parking lots, fringed by imported palm trees (by the way, this is often called by our planners and developers “beautification.” I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder!) And if our employee Charles was still around, he would be happy to see security guards at every gate, and even razor wire on top of some walls.

Well, that is apparently “progress,” or “prosperity” as the politicians would have it. But, we cannot lament the good old days. We have to find things to celebrate.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness is back, fresh from the UN Climate Action Conference in New York. While he was there, he told the Jamaican diaspora in a radio interview that “there is no trade-off between the environment and the economy. The environment always comes first.” He is trying to re-establish his administration as the most “environmentally aware” government ever. He added during the interview:

I totally reject any form of suggestion that the Government is insensitive to the environment and I totally reject any movement which would want to suggest that the Government would allow mining in any environmentally or ecologically sensitive area. There are those who would want to protest –  protesting, that is our democratic right and that is good that people can hold their government to account and I believe that people should be informed before they go out and do anything that could be destructive to Jamaica’s reputation.

He is apparently worried about Jamaica’s reputation. After all, it would look bad if he is so deeply involved (in a totally laudable leadership role) at the United Nations on climate change, while back home… OK, hence the tree-planting plan. I totally get it.

Speaking at the inauguration of a solar power plant in Paradise Park, Westmoreland, the Prime Minister went on to dismiss “loud voices” seeking greater protection for Jamaica’s environment, suggesting that campaigners are following a “fad.” I am sure the people of Gibraltar, St. Ann, are not into fads. And everyone should whisper…

Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley (left) and Prime Minister Andrew Holness help a little girl to plant the mahogany tree at Jamaica House. I hope it survives. (Photo: Twitter)

During the New York interview, Prime Minister Holness mentioned “a massive tree planting programme where we will be planting over four million trees in Jamaica.” Now, it is three million over the next three years, as announced today. A ceremony took place at the Office of the Prime Minister launching the initiative. Other government entities jumped on board, scrambling to make sure we recognize their environmental awareness. I was happy to see the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) plant a lignum vitae tree.

Will these tiny baby trees – being planted by men in suits, cute kids and women in business attire all over the country today – make up for all the large, old trees, the mangrove forests that have been destroyed in the past few years?

Head of the European Union in Jamaica Ambassador Malgorzata Wasilewska planting a tree at Jamaica House today. The EU is embarking on a tremendous J$2.3 billion budget support project focusing on forestry. It is enormously welcome! (Photo: Office of the Prime Minister)

Despite the photo-ops and the speeches, Jamaicans don’t seem to harbor much love for trees, in general. This much is clear in some of these common attitudes:

  • Trees are “in the way.” Last year, mature trees (possibly 100 years old) fell victim to contractors China Harbour Engineering Company (supervised by the National Works Agency) on Constant Spring Road in the name of road-widening to facilitate cars.  As we know, cars come first. The NWA representative commented flatly on the destruction of trees in front of the Immaculate Conception High School: “The trees that have been removed could not remain, as they would have prevented the widening of the road.” Ironically, one of those disposable trees was a Jamaican mahogany – the very same tree that the Prime Minister planted today. Reparation? Well, our great- great-grandchildren will benefit, hopefully.
  • Trees don’t have any value – especially those that are not “attractive,” like mangroves. Mangroves along the Mandela Highway have recently suffered from the cutting of some kind of access road alongside the main road itself (China Harbour, again). Was this approved by NEPA? Well, it’s only a bit of swamp with bugs and crocodiles!
Mangroves are trees, too. I find them quite beautiful. This photo was taken in Salt River, Clarendon. (My photo)
  • People might benefit from them by enjoying sitting in their shade. I recall when trees on Oxford Road some years ago were cut down to nothing. When I enquired as to the reason, I was told that vendors and other “undesirables” gathered under them, so they had to go. So much for the view from my office window.
  • If old houses have to go, then trees usually go with them. There is a major connection between our lack of regard for cultural and our natural heritage. They often go hand in hand. Another example of urban deforestation is the former home of the late Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, Dr. David Boxer. This lovely home is languishing. All the large trees in the yard have been cut down. The house is next. Even Dr. Boxer’s dog has run away.
As Veerle Poupeye tweeted: “Once a beautiful, culturally and historically rich home and garden. We need to value our cultural and green spaces more. Much, much more.” The late Dr. David Boxer’s former home.
  • Trees are a nuisance. They shed leaves. They are untidy. Concrete is so much easier to maintain! I have heard this so many times from householders.

Most of my concerns are for urban areas. I live in the city. But here are a couple more:

  • Lignum vitae trees in a mini-park where a small church once stood were hacked down   last year to make way for…another used car lot, on Old Hope Road. These are the trees that bear our National Flower. Why aren’t lignum vitae trees protected when even NEPA concedes they are listed as Endangered?
Land being cleared for farming in the Blue Mountains. (Photo: JCDT)
  • In the Blue Mountains, farmers have been nibbling at the edges of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now the “slash and burn” and chainsaw techniques of big coffee farmers are taking it to another level. A damning newspaper report recently has prompted Minister with responsibility for the Environment and Climate Change Daryl Vaz to call a meeting with stakeholders. “What bauxite mining is to the Cockpit Country is what coffee is to the Blue Mountains,” said Deputy Director of the Jamaica Conservation & Development Trust Adam Hyde. But like Cockpit Country…it’s complicated. There are legal issues and land rights issues. Note: According to the Forestry Department, 73 percent of Jamaica’s forests are privately owned. The Department is anxious to work with some of these landowners to ensure the protection of our forests.
This is Cockpit Country. (Photo: Wendy Lee)
  • And then there is Cockpit Country. As in the Blue Mountains, there has been a great deal of destruction around the edges by farmers, quarrying, miners and developers. This remarkable limestone karst landscape – its tall “closed canopy” trees (in the deep valley bottoms, at least 50 species) and steep, densely forested hillsides – includes the largest remaining area of undisturbed forest on the island. According to the Windsor Research Centre, at least fifteen tree species grow only in Cockpit Country. These are known endemics. Cockpit Country still has many mysteries, its undiscovered treasures. Now it is threatened by the bulldozers of Noranda Bauxite. Note: The Cockpit Country Protected Area announced by the Government has not been verified on the ground, nor has it been gazetted; therefore, it is not yet closed to mining nor is it yet protected under law. A new mining lease, granted by the Jamaican government in 2018, covers sections of Cockpit Country in St Ann and Trelawny that have been left out of the designated protected area.

I know this is not cheerful reading; it was not intended to be. In my next post, I want to remind ourselves of the many benefits of trees, and look at positive efforts being made in Jamaica.

The Jamaican Mahogany planted by Prime Minister Andrew Holness at Jamaica House today. This is the same species as the mature tree that was destroyed on Constant Spring Road last year for road widening. (Photo: Twitter)

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