Minister Vaz’s Bid for Land in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park: Can We Please Protect our Protected Areas?


Yesterday (June 16), a report by the excellent environmental reporter and Associate Editor of the Jamaica Observer Kimone Thompson appeared in the newspaper with the headline “Government wants to lease Holywell land.” The article did not mention the name of the government minister, who reportedly wished to lease a piece of land in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, a protected area, from the National Land Agency at the very low rate of J$120,000 (around US$850) per year. This was for the purpose of building a single-family dwelling house in a district called Forest Hut, on the border of the parishes of St. Andrew and Portland – apparently to be rented out as an Air B&B property. We learned that the interested party was Minister Daryl Vaz, the Minister whose portfolio includes agencies related to Water, the Environment, Housing, Investment, Land, and Works in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. All of this comes under the umbrella of the Office of the Prime Minister.

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A map of the National Land Agency property (subject property) consisting of 7.7 acres. One of several trails runs along the boundary.

The correspondence tells the story, beginning with the original strong objection from the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, the non-governmental organization headed by Dr. Susan Otuokon, which administers the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. The Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015:

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Dr. Susan Otuokon, Executive Director, Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, speaking at BirdsCaribbean’s International Conference in Kingston, Jamaica. (My photo)

11th June, 2020

Mrs. Elizabeth Stair, Commissioner of Lands, National Land Agency, 20 North Street, Kingston

Dear Mrs. Stair,

Reference: Request for the Submission of Offers for the Lease of “Land part of Holywell (Forest Hut), Hardware Gap, St. Andrew)

The Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT) strongly objects to the offer by the National Land Agency (NLA) of land for lease within the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, which we manage on behalf of the Natural Resources and Conservation Authority (NRCA) through the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). We note that the area is also within the Blue Mountain Forest Reserve and Protected National Heritage.

First, we are disturbed that the NLA is offering land for lease within the National Park and Buffer Zone of the World Heritage Site, without first requesting the non- objection of the JCDT, and by a way of a notice which was clearly intended to be as narrowly circulated as possible, and which only recently came to our attention as it was posted a few days ago at the Holywell entrance. This is of particular concern as we have already objected to a proposed lease at Mt. Horeb in a letter to NLA dated 18th September, 2017 in response to a letter from you dated 4th September, 2017 regarding lease to Mr. Daryl Vaz of lands adjacent Holywell (Mt. Horeb) for coffee farm and farmhouse. We indicated that we would be opposed to that particular site or any other nearby site. However, we have not been informed or asked to comment on this proposed new area.

Later, we heard of continued interest in that property and wrote to NEPA in January, 2018, objecting to the lease of any such land and reminding NEPA that we would be requesting extension and expansion of the Holywell lease as per the Holywell Ecotourism Development and Management Plan. We did not get a response until 9th October, 2018 when it was indicated by way of a letter from NEPA that they were “minded to support the lease of a portion of the 2.4ha of land for erection of a log cabin” and that there was an alternative site under consideration immediately adjacent land within our current Holywell sub-lease. We met with NEPA on the 16th October and submitted a letter dated 24th October objecting to lease of land in the National Park. We note that the land now being offered for lease is larger (3.143 ha) than that under consideration previously and immediately adjacent the Holywell site Recreational Area.

 

We now reiterate the issues raised in all our earlier correspondence and strongly object to the offer of land for lease (i) within the National Park and (ii) at the particular location indicated within the NLA Request for Submission of Offers for Lease of land at Holywell:-

  1. The objective of the National Park is to protect biodiversity, ecosystem services and provide recreational and educational opportunities for the public. Leasing land to private individuals, within the National Park is not supportive of these objectives.
  2. The National Park legislation and Management Plan are not supportive of the type of private development proposed in the form of a privately owned home.
  3. Leasing land to a private individual within the National Park sets a bad precedent and poor management of land under existing old leases (prior to National Park des- ignation) does not augur well for management of land under the proposed lease.
  4. The land is within the Buffer Zone of the Blue and John Crow Mountains World Heritage Site (and within a few kilometers of that boundary) and use for a private development will bring the World Heritage Site status into question by UNESCO and its World Heritage Committee in terms of Jamaica’s commitment to the World Heritage Convention.
  5. The land proposed to be leased for constructing a private dwelling, is one of the few remaining sites in the area under good forest cover and will require the clearing of trees to establish a house. This certainly is not in keeping with the objectives of protecting the natural forest within the National Park. Further, it is located on a ridge which should be kept entirely under forest cover.
  6. The proposed lease area is within the area submitted to NEPA for expansion of the Holywell Recreation Area, by way of a letter dated 4th November, 2019 and indicat- ed to them earlier.
  7. The use of the proposed area is not compatible with the use of the Holywell area for enjoyment by the public and for income generation for the National Park and World Heritage Site (currently under-funded by the Government of Jamaica).
  8. The Shelter Trail which is used and enjoyed by the public visiting Holywell has been included in the proposed lease.
  9. The almost 20,000 persons/year that use Holywell and appreciate the National Park are likely to support our objection to this proposed lease.
  10. We take special note based on our enquiries and an examination of the public records that one of the interested parties expressing interest at this time is the same person mentioned by name in letter from NLA to us in 2017 as exploring for land to lease in the area, is a government minister.
  11. You hold this land in trust for the people of Jamaica to use it for their benefit and not for that of any individual member of the Government, without being prepared to make land available to other members of the public who may express an interest to you.

Whilst we are a leaseholder, the nature of our lease makes our situation akin to that of a freeholder which includes the right to object to a change in use of land not consistent

with the preservation and use of a national park. We certainly feel that we have an obligation to protect this country’s natural heritage for the people of our country, as should you, and not look to be divesting any portion of it to any single influential person in the society. Further, considering our mission to protect and manage the natural and cultural heritage of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park and World Heritage Site, we strenuously object to the lease of the property to any private individual.

We look forward to hearing from you most urgently considering that the deadline for applications is on 16th June, 2020.

Sincerely,

____________________ Susan Otuokon, Ph.D. Executive Director

Cc: Most Hon. Prime Minister Andrew Holness
Hon. Minister Olivia Grange, Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment & Sport

Hon. Minister Edmund Bartlett, Minister of Tourism
Mrs. Jennifer Griffith, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Tourism
Mr. Peter Knight, CEO, National Environment and Planning Agency
Ms. Rainee Oliphant, Actg. CEO & Conservator of Forests, Forestry Department

Mr. Vivian Crawford, CEO, Institute of Jamaica
Mr. Selvenious Walters, Jamaica National Heritage Trust

 

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A welcome sign at Holywell, showing the trails and cabins. (My photo)

 

There are a whole host of issues, including legislative problems, related to the management of protected areas in Jamaica. It also seems to be a poor reflection on the government agencies that advise on such matters. After Minister Vaz withdrew his bid (see his letter and statement below) he went on to criticize the JCDT, saying: “If I wasn’t a minister, and you know me, there is no way I would accept their objection because it smacks of hypocrisy. It’s a ‘do as I say and not as I do’ approach.” He was referring to the JCDT building a Visitor Centre, Museum and Café at Holywell – for the benefit of visitors and the general public. Not quite comparable to building a private home to be rented out for Air B&B, in my view. But please, decide for yourself. To me, it’s a major disappointment all round.

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Minister Vaz’s letter withdrawing his application.

 

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Minister Vaz’s response to the Jamaica Observer story.

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17th June, 2020

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

The Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT) would wish to have no drawn-out argument with Minister Vaz on the subject of his proposed Lease of lands at Holywell other than to say that:-

1. We are happy that he has withdrawn his offer to lease land within the National Park and that the National Land Agency (NLA) has withdrawn the offer of the land for lease.

2. We manage the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park on behalf of the Natural Resources and Conservation Authority (NRCA) and the National Environment and Plan- ning Agency (NEPA) and the World Heritage Site on behalf of the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport. Between these two, we receive about 30% of the budget for management of the area and generate the remaining 70% from (i) projects funded by grants from several institutions international and national and (ii) operation of the recrea- tional areas at Holywell and Peak Trail/Portland Gap. Management of the area involves a wide range of activities including forest restoration, environmental education, facilitating sustainable community development, bird monitoring etc. as guided by a 10 year management plan approved by the NRCA.

We have a lease for Holywell with the NRCA from the NLA on terms where we must ensure full access to the public and use all the income for management of the National Park and World Heritage Site. This land is held in trust for the people of Jamaica and managed, as far as possible, to protect the environment and ensure the maintenance of the outstanding universal values for which the site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A National Park and World Heritage Site anywhere in the world has facilities for use of the public and income generation, including accommodation and attractions.

Any structures that we build on the Holywell Park property (including the one built to house a cafeteria, museum and gift shop to enhance our offerings to the public), are for the unrestricted use of the people of Jamaica who are charged only a nominal fee for entry.

The lease of land in the National Park to any private individual would reduce the benefits to the public, that a National Park is meant to provide.

Sincerely,

Susan Otuokon, Ph.D. Executive Director

 

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The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park – a view from Holywell. (My photo)

6 thoughts on “Minister Vaz’s Bid for Land in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park: Can We Please Protect our Protected Areas?

  1. Thank you for sharing this important, ultimately uplifting story, and especial thanks to Dr. Susan Otuokan for standing up to this minister and protecting Jamaica’s gorgeous and unique Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park.

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  2. Newcastle have enough old Staff Quarters that can be reconstructed or refurbished for Air B&B. I was partially responsible for the short-term rental of these Change-of-Air quarters back in the 1960s, when I was at HQ JDF. These would be ideal to bring back on stream for rental to government official or the public. Newcastle is famous for its salubrious climate. The protected area must be preserved and no cronyism or corruption should cause the degradation of this important watershed.

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  3. Emma. I love all your posts focussed always on promoting and protecting Jamaica. But this one is special because what we used to call Hardware Gap is so special. I am writing this from Bali but as I do I am in the scents and mists of early morning Holywell and the road north to the Silver Hill junction. 4000 feet up there in the cool. Congratulations to all of you back home protecting it from incursions.

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    1. Dear Mike: Thank you so much for your kind words, all the way from another beautiful island I would love to visit! Yes, it is a unique area – as you say, not only the beauty but the scents, the mists – and the birdsong. I am so happy that the JCDT took a firm stand on this one. It is a pity that several government agencies did not. Thank you so much for your encouragement. Much more to come! Warm regards.

      Like

  4. Emma. I love all your posts focussed always on promoting and protecting Jamaica. But this one is special because what we used to call Hardware Gap is so special. I am writing this from Bali but as I do I am in the scents and mists of early morning Holywell and the road north to the Silver Hill junction. 4000 feet up there in the cool. Congratulations to all of you back home protecting it from incursions.

    Like

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