11 June 2006

Vandalising the Future

Common Sense
John Maxwell

Almost exactly half a century ago, on June 1, 1956, Norman Manley's Beach Control Act became part of the laws of Jamaica. The Beach Control Act (BCA) was an attempt to preserve for the Jamaican people, their rights to access and to use the beaches of Jamaica for recreation and fishing.

On the day the law came into force, I went to the offices of the new Beach Control Authority to interview the secretary of the authority Mr LV Dujon, and the assistant secretary, Jacob Taylor. Jacob Taylor was my friend until he died, four decades later. He was also an indefatigable warrior in the struggle to preserve the Jamaican seacoast for the people of Jamaica.

The BCA had become necessary, Manley told Parliament, because Jamaicans were being prevented from the peaceful enjoyment of their beaches by landowners whose land bordered the beaches. These people had suddenly discovered that there was a new phenomenon called tourism and that tourists wanted to sun themselves on the beaches. Suddenly, the formerly free beaches of Jamaica were being fenced off and claimed to be private property.

Many of these beaches were not only said to be private property, but were refusing entry to Jamaicans of the wrong colour. Norman Manley's son, Michael, and Michael's wife, Thelma, were chased off the Shaw Park Beach in Ocho Rios for that reason.This incident, coming as it did during the public controversy over beaches, lent an inflammatory new angle to the argument.

Nevertheless, Norman Manley's new law was very accommodating to those owning land adjacent to the beaches, allowing them to apply for licences for the exclusive use of the beach for certain private and business purposes.

Thirty years later the Beach Control Authority, the Wildlife Protection Act and the Watersheds Protection Act became the foundation stones of a new authority, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority, which was given the authority and responsibility for the protection of the Jamaican environment and of the rights of Jamaicans to enjoy that environment.

A little before the Beach Control law was drafted, another significant development was beginning on Jamaica's north coast. A young scientist, Thomas L Goreau, had just been appointed the first professor of Marine Sciences at the fledgling University of the West Indies. That scientist's son, Tom Goreau Jr, told me the bones of the story in an email this week.

Tom Goreau the younger is himself one of the world's most eminent marine scientists and is the President of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, dedicated to the study and protection of coral reefs all around the world.
"The reefs at Pear Tree Bottom had the most spectacular vertical coral covered canyons, nearly a hundred feet deep with some of the largest and healthiest corals on the island. It was my father's favourite dive site, and as you know he was the world's first diving marine scientist and the first Professor of Marine Science at UWI, founder of the Port Royal and Discovery Bay Marine Labs, co-founder with Jacob Taylor of the Beach Control Authority (which later evolved into NRCA), and the person who knew more about coral reefs than anyone who has ever lived.

The entire part of Pear Tree Bottom from the road to the sea was given to my father by the owner of Pear Tree Bottom Estate, Major Abbey, to build the UWI Marine Lab in the early 1960s.

Although the reefs, the sea grasses, and the inland ecosystems were about the finest in Jamaica, my father agonised over the site due to it being so low, vulnerable in a hurricane, and because the reefs had grown right up to sea level, making it very difficult to get even a small boat to shore unless corals were destroyed to make a channel, which he was not willing to do. Later in the 1960s Kaiser Bauxite donated the land at the western end of Discovery Bay, which was much better suited for boat diving (after Kaiser had dynamited the reef to make the channel so bauxite boats could enter.

Goreau continues: "Remember that Columbus was so disgusted to find no water at all that he named it Puerto Seco, or Dry Harbour, before nearly dying running the reef getting out and reaching the next bay, which had a river full of sweet water that he named Rio Bueno, Good River, and slaughtered the Arawaks in the huge village that stood there, which still has never been properly excavated even though it is perhaps the most important Arawak archeological site in Jamaica.

When Kaiser donated the land for the Discovery Bay Marine Lab, my father returned the entire shore of Pear Tree Bottom to Major Abbey. The site remained beautiful for a long time, containing unique blue hole springs and remarkable wetlands as well as Jamaica's best reefs, until the beaches attracted the cupidity of developers who destroyed almost everything."
Tom Goreau has an understandable, almost proprietorial interest in the area, because with his father and his mother - a self-taught marine biologist - he began diving there almost before he could walk. He last dived at Pear Tree Bottom in the 1980s when the corals were in very bad condition.

He is much more critical of the state of the corals there than many scientists who are still diving at the reef, because he knew them in their pristine glory. Professor Rena Bonem of Baylor University in Texas, who has been diving there since the 1970s and Professor Ivan Goodbody, who became Professor of Marine Sciences when Tom's father died young, speak of glorious vistas and a reef largely recovered from the die-offs or bleachings of the coral and the damage from hurricanes.

Professor Bonem told me this week that she had recently discovered on the reef, species of sclerotic sponges - very ancient life forms - which were previously unknown in this region. She said that the construction at Pear Tree Bottom has obscured the canyons between the reefs and obliterated any view of the once spectacular corals.

The reefs obviously still have the capacity to surprise, or at least they had until the Spanish hotel groups, JAMPRO and the Ministry of Development discovered that there were in Jamaica still ecological treasures requiring devastation.

The northcoast reefs from Mammee Bay, outside of Ocho Rios to Pear Tree Bottom, a few miles to the west, are now threatened as never before by two hotel developments and a golf course due to be developed, I'm told, by a well-known Jamaican politician.

Mammee Bay was one of Jacob Taylor's most intransigent problems.

Sixty years ago, the colonial government of Jamaica gave the Jamaica Public Service Company permission to destroy Jamaica's most spectacular waterfall, the Roaring River Falls outside Ocho Rios, to create a small hydroelectric plant. This waterfall, or more accurately, cataract, covered at least thirty acres (10 ha) and flowed to the sea at Laughing Water, one of Jamaica's most beautiful beaches.

This beach was reserved as a Public Bathing beach in the 1950s, but the reservation has always been challenged by successive owners of the adjoining land - to the fury of the people of Steer Town who maintain that the beach is theirs.

Thirty years ago, in an attempt to settle the question, as chairman of the Beach Control Authority and NRCA, I initiated talks with the American millionaire shopkeeper, George Farkas, to buy the property. I wanted to transform it into a place of public resort, an arboretum for the display of Jamaican orchids and bromeliads, many of which were native to the place.

The 1980 elections interrupted the negotiations, but John Issa, the incoming chairman of the Tourist Board, bought Laughing Water for the nation. During Mr Patterson's time as prime minister the house was used as a sort of protocol house where the government and the titular owners, the UDC, entertained favoured guests.

The people of Jamaica are still excluded from the beach.

Next door, at Mammee Bay, Jampro facilitated the acquisition of another disputed public beach and the land behind it, for the construction of a 900-room hotel for the Spanish Riu group.

On Wednesday on Disclosure (Hot 102) members of the Mammee Bay community related horrific tales of berserker development which has degraded the health and amenity of the area with broken sewer mains and broken promises.

The hotel has not honoured the promises made in the EIA and in meetings with the residents. There were promises to build a sophisticated sewage disposal plant, but residents report stinking kitchen waste and other sewage, running in a drain to the sea.

Repeated complaints to all the relevant authorities have not eased their pain nor abated the nuisance. They would even be content with the promised tertiary treatment plant with chlorinated effluent.

The problem is that chlorinated effluent, while harmless to the human community, are lethal to the coral reefs just offshore and would probably damage the fresh groundwater. The constructors of Riu committed another ecological crime and an offence against the laws of Jamaica: they illegally removed more than 700 tons of sand from the Whitehouse property in Westmoreland to 'enhance the Riu beach and smother the corals just offshore.

Developers generally, the UDC specifically and Jampro, do not understand that beaches are moveable feasts. Beaches are created and maintained by the so-called 'littoral drift' of sand along the coastline and does not stay in one place like tethered goats. In Negril, my predecessor in the chair of the NRCA told the UDC that they should not build their hotel (then Negril Beach Village, now Hedonism II) so near to the beach.

I told them that they should not try to build a beach by creating a groyne, a stone structure which was meant to trap sand for the beach. The groyne hasn't worked and is probably responsible for the massive erosion to the leeward side of the beach. Added to that, the UDC did not believe our scientists when we told them that they should not dump sewage into the Negril Morass (wetlands) and the South Negril River because that would kill off many life forms, including the argillaceous seaweeds which secrete flakes of calcium carbonate.

These plants make the powdery sand which made the Negril beach so attractive. These days the Negril seven-mile stretch is in many places, more mud than sand and is considerably narrower than it used to be.

And at Bloody Bay, which would have made a great public recreational beach and park, the UDC allowed another massive Riu hotel.

'Short pass bring blood'

There is a Jamaican saying "Short pass bring blood" whih means that short cuts often lead to disaster.

This saying exemplifies much of what Jamaican politicians deem to be development. I have often remarked that Jamaica has given a unique twist to the Precautionary Principle: whenever we discover some natural phenomenon of great intrinsic value, we take immediate steps to destroy or degrade it.

The precautionary principle in its strictest form says that whenever the outcome of any action is uncertain, we should refrain from taking that action.

Article 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." In other words, if damage is likely but not certain, the lack of absolute certainty is no excuse for failing to mitigate the damage.

In 1992, Mr Patterson signed that Declaration and all the other components of Agenda 21, the Treaty of Rio. He then came back to Jamaica to act in ways which repudiated every commitment he had made to sustainable development.

Sustainable development is, briefly, development which while enriching us, will not impoverish or degrade the prospects of our children. The fable of the Golden Goose is a metaphor for the precautionary principle. We are not content to wait for the goose to lay its golden eggs; we kill the goose to get rich quick.

A large part of Jamaica's beauty is due to its riotous vegetation, its green and pleasant face. To protect the island's face, Norman Manley decreed that hotels along the seaside should never be higher than a coconut tree. The development should blend into the landscape, not overpower it. Jampro and its Spanish clients, among others, believe in making statements which disfigure the face of Jamaica, imposing concrete cataracts in place of the natural landscape.

These hotels claim to contribute to Jamaica's development, but they have as much connection to the country as cruise ships. They employ half as many Jamaicans as most Jamaican hotels. They are in my view, the hospitality industry's version of a human car wash, where visitors are inserted at one end and emerge at the other, tanned, tired, hungover and broke.

In the process, they have seen nothing of our country or its culture, have met few Jamaicans outside of the hotel, buy very little of the handicraft or art of the country before going home with souvenirs made in Taiwan, three-packs of Mexican tequila or Spanish brandy and perhaps, a Japanese camera. But they claim to have been to Jamaica.

Greedy Jamaicans tell us that we will scare away investors by blocking the construction of monstrosities such as the Pear Tree Bottom Development. We will be cutting into their agency fees, preventing them from selling imported goodies to imported people. I say: Right On!

Pear Tree Bottom is not development, and is not sustainable, and whatever it is, it is not in the public interest of the people of Jamaica.

In his email to me this week, Tom Goreau said: Pear Tree Bottom was one of the most remarkable properties in Jamaica from a natural history standpoint, both on land and in the sea. Jamaica was one of the most beautiful islands I have seen in my travels through most of the small island nations around the world, but it is one of the worst destroyed by human greed. Sadly, the horse has long run out of the gate, and to close the gate now will not bring the horse back."

I think that if Tom still lived in Jamaica, he would agree with me and most Jamaicans that if the horse is not dead, we should still try to find him and entice him back.


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