Protests Mount as Development Plans Threaten One of Jamaica’s Tiny Gems

Environmentalists in Jamaica are understandably in an uproar over plans to build villas on a tiny island off the coast near Port Antonio. We called it Monkey Island when I was a child in Portland. The island was then part of Cold Harbour, where Ronald Beswick was the overseer. He was one of my father’s best buddies, and we often visited the island by boat, played and swam on the tranquil beach, and enjoyed a picnic lunch. I can still taste the jerk pork, Irish potato salad and sweet potato pone.

Part of a coral reef protecting San San Bay, it is also known as Pellew Island, in honor of Admiral Edward Pellew, the First Viscount Exmouth. A British naval officer, he distinguished himself during the American War of Independence, as well as the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars.

You probably recognize the island from the accompanying picture. The Jamaica Tourist Board has used that scene for decades to illustrate the country’s beauty.

A German industrialist, Baron Heinrich Thyssen, bought it in 1953 as a Valentine’s Day gift for his fiancée, internationally famous model Nina Dyer. Their marriage lasted two years and she went on to marry Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan, who gave her an 11-acre property overlooking the island. She visited it every day with her pet panther (allegedly a parting gift from former lover Prince Rainier of Monaco). She killed herself in her Paris apartment at the age of 36..

A close frend, Betty Estevez, bought the island from the estate and sold it to Beverly Barakat-Haddad – allegedly on the premise that it would not be developed. But the current owner plans to build tourist villas on it. (I knew some Haddads and Barakats in Jamaica, and I would never in my wildest dreams have predicted that a member of either family would contemplate despoiling their beautiful homeland. But, I guess money talks.)

You can readily imagine the mess that will result from construction and the damage that will be done to the delicate marine environment. It’s no wonder the proposal has sparked intense outrage.

“Ever since the development concept first became public knowledge, via the internet, over three years ago, public comment has been negative about the proposed construction that could have far-reaching impacts on Portland’s existing seascape and future tourism prospects as a Green Tourism Destination,” journalist Marguerite Gauron reported in a recent radio newscast.

And Peter Espeut, pastoral administrator at St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church, and past executive director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, was quoted in a Jamaica Observer article as calling the project “unthinkable.” He said he used to swim across to the island as a child, and now the public would have to “keep off.”

The Jamaica Observer story also quoted Danielle Andrade, legal director at the Jamaica Environment Trust, as listing these reasons for opposing development of the island:

  • Pellew Island is an iconic landmark in Portland and has been used to market the parish as a tourist destination for years, and is thus seen as an important part of Jamaica’s natural heritage.
  • The development calls for the removal of vegetation, including sea grass beds, and is likely to have significant environmental impacts both during the construction and operation phase on the coral reef.

“We are also concerned that approval is being deliberated in the context of a long-awaited policy on Jamaica’s islands and cays that we are currently lacking,” Andrade said.

While the owner has the right to enjoy her property, “it should not be at the expense of what is in the public or national interest,” Andrade explained.

Feelings are running so high that the Jamaica Environmental Advocacy Network posted a petition site on the web, and the petition has been handed to Prime Minister Bruce Golding with over 2000 signatures on it from all over the world.

The Monkey Island incident is a symptom of a much larger problem – one that looms menacingly over Jamaica. The country is critically dependent on tourism, especially with the demise of the bauxite industry and the decline in agriculture over recent decades. This has put pressure on the government to permit unprecedented hotel and resort development. Casino licenses have been approved, airport expansion is underway, and a number of hotels and luxury resorts are coming to the ecologically sensitive shoreline.

The infrastructure to accommodate all of this will inevitably affect the character of the island. And critics warn of the impact poorly regulated development will have on such things as water quality. They also warn of the depletion of marine species and the degradation of shoreline habitats.

But even more deplorable is the exclusion of Jamaicans from their beaches. The government will be tempted in coming years by the prospect of economic rewards that inevitably mean the loss of traditional benefits – such as public access to the beaches and the quiet enjoyment of an unspoiled natural beauty that equals any paradise on earth.