Today (July 26) is World Mangrove Day. What does this mean for Jamaica?
Regrettably, the average Jamaican might regard mangrove areas as dirty, smelly, somewhat scary places (scary because endangered American Crocodiles live there) – and riddled with mosquitoes. What possible benefits could they bring to the island?
Personally, I find wetland areas in Jamaica have their own haunting beauty. Sunlight flickers on the water; rotting leaves glow with brilliant colors.
As is usually the case, the relevant government agencies rolled out videos and social media messages today – lots of great images and information. We are told that mangroves are biologically diverse and productive ecosystems, providing eco-tourism opportunities. We have also learned that they are “carbon-rich,” storing vast amounts of carbon; they protect shorelines from damaging storms, waves, and floods; they help prevent the washing away of soils by holding them together with their tangled root systems; and they maintain water clarity, like a filter. They also act as nurseries for small fish and crustaceans, as anyone who has taken a boat ride through mangroves will see.
Several weeks ago, the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation embarked on a series of very useful webinars during Environment Week. You can find recordings of these on the Ministry’s Facebook page. The first (you can watch it at this link) was on Mangroves (we have four species of mangrove, by the way).
At the webinar, the Forestry Department presented on the latest Mangrove Assessment over the past two years, funded by the European Union (EU) Budget Support Programme. There is an envisioned National Mangrove Management Plan – on which the Department will hold public consultations in due course. Plans and consultations are good, but I am worried about subsequent actions.
To be fair, the presentations did not shy away from the numerous threats to mangrove systems. These include invasive alien species such as the Mangrove Vine, and shipworms in the Red Mangroves. Those things that take away space from native plants and animals, throwing everything out of balance. Then there is pollution of various kinds, including solid waste – trash in all its forms, brought down through streams or simply dumped there. Deforestation for charcoal burning (mainly affecting the Black Mangrove) is a major issue. And then there is development (the latter somewhat downplayed).
There has been a dramatic loss in swamp forest areas: from 2,247 hectares in 1998 to a mere 122.9 hectares in 2013 – that’s around 95 per cent lost. While, according to the Forestry Department, mangrove areas have stayed relatively stable (9,732.8 hectares in 2013), these are not extensive and once the swamp forest is gone, the next to go are the nearby mangroves. Mangroves owned and administered by the Department have improved, but only account for some 2,000 hectares; the remaining 7,000 or so privately owned hectares had decreased by 3 percent over the same period.
What are swamp forests? Well, they include the magnificent, endemic Royal Palm (as in the Negril Reserve), which grows in Jamaica and nowhere else, and the Hog Gum. The trees like to grow in nice, waterlogged soil, as mangroves do.
And what is the greatest threat to our coastal areas, including the swamp forests and the mangroves? Well, tourists love the “sun, sea and sand” and so, despite all the alarm bells going off about sea level rise, storms, climate change and the like, we continue to build new hotels on the coast (and even new highways). The word is “development.” It is noticeable from the Forestry Department maps that mangrove areas on the north coast are almost all small and fragmented.
Three years ago Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley sounded the alarm on the swamp forests and was surprisingly frank in her comments:
“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.”
Succinctly put. However, who is listening? In fact, who has been listening, over the years? Jamaica’s mangroves have been chopped, abused, polluted, ignored, devalued and degraded for quite some time now. Here are some examples, in no particular order, and some more recent than others…
- The airport road (Palisadoes): Mangroves – in a Ramsar site and protected area – were cleared when the road was raised, and efforts to replant them have been struggling ever since. The young mangroves have had to contend with the extraordinary amounts of garbage that are a feature of Kingston Harbour. A monitoring program has been ongoing;
- The Port Royal cruise ship pier, also situated in the same Ramsar site, which included the destruction of Red Mangroves (the Port Authority of Jamaica denied this during consultations);
- The Falmouth cruise ship pier where a large area of mangroves was destroyed;
- Pear Tree Bottom in Runaway Bay, St. Ann. Read here Diana McCaulay’s eloquent account of the hard fought ultimately unsuccessful legal battle by Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) and the Northern Jamaica Conservation Association (NJCA) to save the wetlands and coastline from a mega hotel development, the Gran Bahia Principe (opened in 2007, and subsequently expanded).
- Plans for another huge hotel and casino at Green Island in Hanover (over 2,000 rooms) – the five-star Grand Luxury Princess Hotels and Resorts – will impact mature coastal forest as well as the marine environment with a sea wall, dredging and damage to what is left of the coral reefs. I am not sure whether this has received NEPA approval.
- Plans for the Montego Bay bypass, delayed until 2022. Will it force its way through mangrove areas just outside the town?
There are many more (perhaps smaller) examples, of a kind of nibbling away at mangroves along both the north and south coasts.
The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) discussed in the webinar how to “fix back” the mangroves once they have already been destroyed, and the different levels of effort put into doing so. Firstly, there is mangrove restoration – that is, to try and restore conditions that would have occurred naturally in a degraded forest (which is extremely challenging to do). Rehabilitation for NEPA, seeking to define terms, seems to be a watered-down version of restoration.
And then there is “compensatory mitigation,” meaning the “enhancement” of wetland (NEPA’s term) – where the Natural Resources and Conservation Authority (NRCA) has already issued permits for development. This sounded to me like creating a “fake” wetland (not necessarily mangrove?) to make up for what has been destroyed. I hope I have got this wrong, but I heard the phrase that this is “not restoration in its true form.” However, we learned that the developers have to present a plan to restore an area (somewhere else?) equal to what they have destroyed. OK.
Nevertheless, two major projects have been completed, in Portland Cottage, Clarendon, which was badly hit by Hurricane Ivan (the mangroves are “doing very well”); in Winns Morass, Trelawny, which just started (a mitigation project to make up for the destruction caused by the Falmouth cruise ship pier); and another major five-year project is on its way, a partnership between the University of the West Indies’ Solutions for Developing Countries (UWI/SODECO) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to restore 1,600 hectares of mangroves in South Clarendon.
Obviously, there is a huge need for more mangroves to be legally protected, with appropriate enforcement and penalties.
And even more obviously, we need to think differently about our environment. Instead of deliberately destroying it, and then trying (often, not very successfully) to “fix it back” afterwards – why not try not destroying it in the first place?
Yes, it’s a great volunteer opportunity to plant introduced seedlings, but they must have been acclimatized beforehand. However, every place where mangroves grow is very different; you cannot simply move mangroves around and expect them to grow. They have their little niches; replanting mangroves has had very mixed success. Take a quick read of this piece by Conservation International, which explains this well. Assuming no die-off, it takes five years for mangrove plants to establish themselves.
Legal protection for our coastal forests, yes; and conservation. While our leaders solemnly aver that they care about the environment, and discuss the perils of climate change in lofty speeches, they cannot then look the other way and encourage the precious, carbon sinks that are our mangrove forests to be bulldozed to build another fancy hotel, as is planned in Hanover.
This is like saying one thing, and doing another. What is left of our coastal forests deserve better.
P.S. I know; I used the word “destroy” a lot. I did it deliberately. Destruction it is…
I will be writing more about the EU’s much-needed support for the forestry sector in a later blog post.