In an interview Dr. Kevin Brown, chair of the Jamaica Diaspora in the UK and the North UK Representative on the Global Jamaica Diaspora Council, Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environmental Trust and author of Daylight Come, a dystopian tale that hits close to home, describe in graphic detail the dangers posed to the Caribbean Islands by climate change.
Jamaica, like so many other countries, must balance the demands of a developing economy with the urgent concerns of global climate change and the need to protect a fragile ecosystem.
Members of the Diaspora view with alarm the threats to their treasured island home. Apart from wanting to protect their homeland, many have homes, businesses and investments they want to be protected, especially those who have poured all their savings into planned retirement on the island.
But, so far, apart from signing petitions and protesting on social media, members of the Diaspora have been bystanders in facing the island’s environmental dilemma. What, if anything, can they do to help?
Dr Kevin Brown, chair of the Jamaica Diaspora in the UK and the UK North Representative on the Global Jamaica Diaspora Council, believes the Diaspora has an obligation to get involved.
“The recent devastation to property and roads across the island caused by landslides following heavy rainfall have revealed the impact of growing deforestation,” Dr. Brown said. And he warned that rising sea levels and increasing water temperatures, due to the global climate crisis, present a major risk to the many coastal towns and cities across the country.
“Furthermore,” he said, “Jamaica is vulnerable to the more frequent, powerful and destructive hurricanes caused by warmer sea temperatures.”
He says members of the Diaspora “must increase their advocacy voice and forge alliances with local environmentalists and campaign groups in the fight to preserve Jamaica’s flora and fauna.”
In Jamaica, several groups are fighting depredation of the island’s natural heritage. One of the leaders in the crusade is the Jamaican Environmental Trust.
And an international organization, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, stepped in to help JET when foreign interests attempted to transform picturesque Goat Islands into a giant shipping center.
“Two Jamaicans went to a six-week course in Costa Rica; both were employed at JET after the training,” JET CEO Diana McCaulay said. “They also helped us to review Environmental Impact Assessments – which are large technical documents needing a range of disciplines and expertise that few NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) have on staff. They helped us with legal and scientific advice on many issues and wrote grant proposals with us to fund our law and advocacy programme.”
The Goat Island proposal sent shock waves throughout the Diaspora, and now, less than five years after that threat was fought off, two other projects are raising alarm among Jamaicans abroad as well as at home – bauxite mining in the Cockpit Country and limestone mining in the Puerto Bueno Mountain.
These wilderness areas are home to a vast array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else. And the waterfalls, caves, scenery and culture are important for tourism. There are implications also for the island’s water resources. The Cockpit Country watershed, for example, serves Western Jamaica through the Great River, the Black River, the Martha Brae River, and the YS River.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness has repeatedly acknowledged the importance of protecting the island’s environment. In a speech at the Denbigh Agricultural and Industrial food show in Clarendon on August 6, 2019, he said, “We are not the Government that will trade off economic benefit for environmental cost; that is not this Government. So yes, we hear the complaints, we hear all that is happening on social media, but I want to reassure the Jamaican people that this Government will be responsible with our environment because already we are seeing the effects of climate change.”
Yet he is allowing mining in the Cockpit Country region and in the Puerto Bueno Mountain. He insists that the Government has made an “enlightened” decision in confronting the need for economic growth while ensuring sustainable development, especially in a pandemic that has claimed jobs and diminished much-needed revenues.
“There are those who would want to cast the Government in a position as if to say we are bereft of any form of equity and ethics in the making of decisions about environmental assets,” he complained. “I wish to remind the public that it is this Government who put an end to the Goat Island project — a project that we were told would bring immense economic gain, and we chose the environment over that.”
To JET’s McCaulay, that’s not good enough.
“Despite many fine speeches, commitments, reports and a few good decisions, there is a big gap between what we say and what we do,” she says.
And Dr. Brown agrees that the Jamaican Government’s position in environment conservation has not been consistent.
“In 2016 the Jamaican Government cancelled plans to construct a transhipment port and industrial park on Goat island in the Portland Bight protected area; however, the threats to the Jamaican ecosystem persist,” he points out. “Despite protests from citizens and environmentalist, the Government of Jamaican recently reversed the decision of the National Environment and Planning Agency not to allow mining in the ecologically sensitive Dry Harbour Mountains in St Ann. This follows years of devastating environmental impact from bauxite mining.”
They are dismayed by the government’s decision to allow bauxite mining in the Cockpit Country and limestone extraction in Puerto Bueno Mountain.
“I think mining is inevitably destructive to the natural environment, and those impacts are long term,” McCaulay says. “And it’s not just the mining but the roads which open up areas to other types of degradation. We must protect our underground water supplies by keeping forests, managing watersheds and not building in aquifer refreshment zones.
“Mining removes all surface vegetation and topsoil It destroys biological diversity and ecological processes. We talk about rehabilitation and reclamation, and sometimes we do some of that, but those efforts never restore what was there. Forests are incredibly complex ecosystems that evolve over a long period of time – not merely a collection of trees. We may decide to limit the area mined in a particular project, leaving some parts untouched, but whatever is mined will be destroyed.”
But if exploiting resources such as bauxite and limestone are off the table, how else is Jamaica to earn revenue from abroad?
“Although there are some people who think all mining everywhere is off the table, that is not my view, at least not immediately,” McCaulay responds. “I think there are some places where perhaps mining can be done without too much harm. But it must conform with planning frameworks, such as development orders and zoning requirements.”
To provide jobs without sacrificing the environment, she suggests renewable energy projects.
Dr. Brown also sees clean energy as providing an answer to Jamaica’s dilemma. But the government “lacks adequate financial and technological resources to follow such an eco-friendly trajectory,” he says.
The Jamaican Government should harness the knowledge and skills of the Diaspora for support in sustainable development and environmental conservation, he proposes. “This can be done through forums such as the Global Jamaica Diaspora Council (GJDC) which is a consultative body comprised primarily of elected leaders and specialist appointees from Diaspora communities across the globe. The council is hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade and makes recommendations to the government about its policies toward the Diaspora and the Sustainable Development Goals (adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015).
“As the UK North representative on the GJDC I am committed to ensuring that the concerns of the Diaspora regarding environmental protection and climate change are firmly on the agenda. I will be working closely with fellow GJDC members such as Elizabeth Mullings-Smith, Specialist Appointee for Development (at Jamaica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade), on advocating for a green development agenda for Jamaica.”
The Diaspora could be vital in funding various nontraditional enterprises to fill the void left from traditional ones like mining. So, it might be in the government’s best interest to look at funding clean energy and knowledge industries through bonds available for members of the Diaspora to purchase or through selling shares in a publicly-traded company on the Jamaican stock exchange.
If Jamaica were to manufacture equipment for wind and solar power, for example, not only would good jobs be created but the savings from buying oil and gas could go to needed social services across the island.
The answer to mitigating climate change while providing for an ever-increasing population is not an easy one, but if the increasing intensity of climate disasters is any indication of what the future holds in store, then the time has come to find a viable solution.