01 October 2006

The Land of Look Behind

Common Sense
John Maxwell

There are some places which should be left untouched, some wild places, some serene and tranquil places, some mountains, some forests, some lakes, woods, some ruins.

In the Treaty of Rio Agenda 21, all the countries of the world agreed that there were, in effect, sacred places which should be preserved for the sake of the human spirit so that we can wonder at them, meditate in them, lose ourselves in their spaces and reconnect with the world of nature, of life outside of ourselves, a world from which we are so desperately trying to isolate ourselves in the name of progress.

The United Nations has a programme which designates such sites for protection. They are so special that they are part of the heritage of mankind, not simply of the people living next door. These places are places of refuge from the clamant world outside, the rat race, perhaps even the cell phone.

One such place is the Cockpit Country, or more poetically, The Land of Look Behind. The story is that when the British were trying to subdue the Maroons their soldiers were mounted two to a mule, one facing forward, the other riding shotgun as they used to say in the Wild West.

It is like nowhere else on Earth. The geologists say it is the type or paradigm, the perfect example of its kind, the nec plus ultra. It is a place of wild unearthly shrieks, strange subterranean rumbles and the most numbing silences. It is a place of purple, blue and pink rock, of rugged tortured peaks and the most placid, green and peaceful pasture at the bottom of a precipice miles below you, it seems; a place of echoes and of ghosts, of valiant struggle, of lying and treachery and death. It is a place where you might come upon a plant or animal previously unknown to science or a prehistoric rock carving. It is magic.

It is a place I've been in love with all my life since my father told me stories of our ancestors who fought and died here and of how he, himself, had hidden out from the bailiffs up here, until he could find a way to get to Kingston to be sworn in as a member of the Legislative Council (1935) and therefore immune to the claws of the debt collector.

Nobody has ever asked me where I'd like to be buried, but I believe if I had my druthers, I'd rather like to have my ashes scattered on the Burnt Hill Road, over Barbecue Bottom, so my voice can join the echoes there and my spirit the ghosts of some of my forefathers.

Apart from its magic, the Land of Look Behind is one of the wonders of the world, except that most people do not yet know of it.

The Cockpit Country/Land of Look Behind plays a starring role in Jamaican history. It was one of the last places where the few surviving Arawaks (Tainos) sought refuge from the Spaniards and where the Africans seeking freedom joined them and took shelter from the English and intermarried with them. It was the strategic base from whence they sallied forth to meet and defeat the British from time to time.

Our ancestors thought they were dealing with an honourable foe when they signed treaties with the British. The army might have been honourable, but the governor and the Jamaican elites were certainly not. The land the Maroons thought was theirs by treaty was unceremoniously recaptured by the British in the High Court somewhere about 1957.

The Cockpit Country is not only a historical treasure, it is a geological and biological treasure as well. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has, for years, been classifying crucial resources of the world for their intrinsic value to humanity. It considers the Land of Look Behind one such place.

Here in Jamaica, the Land of Look Behind is set for a modern makeover, if the technocrats of the Bauxite Institute have their way. They will be destroying a 15 million-year-old landscape of surpassing beauty and utility so that Airbus and Boeing can build more planes to cause more global warming.

The problem is simple. Some people have a one-dimensional view of development. To them, development means bulldozers, steel, concrete and no mosquitos.

Aluminium and Jamaica

I was a very young reporter at The Gleaner in 1952 when the first shipment of Jamaican bauxite left for the United States aboard the SS Carl Schmedeman, an ore carrier built for Reynolds Jamaica Mines. Since that time, we have exported hundreds of millions of tons of bauxite and alumina, we have lost mountains, valleys, churches , graveyards, houses, and schools to the inexorable bite of the bauxite draglines and we've sacrificed children's lungs and the roofs of houses to the pollution from alumina refining.

We don't have much to show for it except some suspect foreign exchange earnings figures and a small class of specially privileged people who are supported by the industry.

One would have thought that in 50 years an industry as profitable as this might have clubbed together to donate a trade school to one of the communities they ravage. Only Kaiser, under Don Tretzel, ever seemed conscious of its community responsibility. The others have simply gone their merry way rejoicing at the fools who let them have their bauxite cheap and do not insist on the proper restoration of mined-out lands as specified in agreements and licences since 1944.

The aluminium industry is one of the worst polluters on earth, and in Jamaica their record is dismal. Alcan, the Canadian twin separated from Alcoa when Alcoa became too big even for the USA, has bequeathed to us two environmental time bombs in the form of red mud lakes at Mount Rosser and Mandeville. There is evidence that the St Catherine groundwater has, for some years, been polluted by Mount Rosser.

In Manchester, bauxite mining has changed the course of underground water supplies and Porus now, from time to time, is the site of a brand new lake.

The problem is that Jamaica, west of the Wag Water River, is either limestone or bauxite and the character of the landscape is determined by these two substances.

I believe, without one shred of scientific backing, that Jamaica was created by the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. I think that masses of the sea-bottom were pushed up against a small volcanic island (now the Blue Mountain Range) and that over another 40 million years or so, the limestone gradually rose to the surface to become western Jamaica.

The impact of the asteroid had deformed the limestone to produce a feature that puzzles geologists to this day: how come in Jamaica we find older rocks on top of younger rocks? Nothing but an enormous impact could have so distorted the geology, producing the effect of a layer cake thrown against a wall.

This limestone island was relatively level, but some parts were made of denser material than others, and the rain dissolved the softer parts, leaving the harder parts to form what we now see as the characteristic hillocks of the Cockpit Country rising out of terra rossa, red earth bauxite, to which the limestone had degraded.

Whether my fanciful speculations make sense or not, the fact is that the largely karstic landscape of western Jamaica was formed by the dissolution of limestone by rainwater, and this process took place not only above ground but also below it. The result is that Jamaica has an internal plumbing system, with underground rivers and lakes storing and distributing water in a way that is now predictable and dependable. When one of these subsurface conduits becomes blocked we get sudden lakes, such as at Exeter and Chigwell and Newmarket in 1979 and Moneague.

But the Cockpit Country is special; it captures rain from St Ann, Trelawny and St James and this water, cubic miles of it, is stored underground and released through numberless underground caves or conduits. Some of this water goes to the west to the Queen of Spain Valley and provides the water for some of the rivers there, but most of it goes apparently to the Martha Brae, which runs north to Falmouth, and the Black River, which runs south. Some of the water also goes to the Dunn's River and Roaring River in St Ann.

The most noticeable characteristic of all of these rivers is that their volumes are nearly constant all year round, regardless of how much rain falls during the year. The reason is that the Cockpit Country is a huge reservoir with possibly a volume of water greater than Kingston Harbour, and while the level of the aquifer may vary, because of its huge size, the volume of outflow hardly varies at all.

When these conduits become blocked you get lakes such as at Moneague, Chigwell, Exeter, Newmarket and other places. And it seems that the lake in embryo at Porus may have something to do with the operations of the bauxite mining companies. They, of course, are denying all liability and they will continue to deny liability even if Porus disappears with a giant sucking sound.

Porus would be bad enough, but the aquifer underneath the Cockpit Country is vital to the entire North Coast, and not least, to the tourism industry. All the experts on karstic geography agree that it is very dangerous to interfere with karstic landscapes. There are many reasons.

Mining, for instance, brings with it the threat of severe pollution from the activity itself. The red earth, which has stabilised over millions of years, acts as a filter for the water. But when the red earth is disturbed, as it has been in a river in the southern Cockpit Country, you may find the water turning blood red. If bauxite mining were to produce this result, in even one river there would be, as my grandmother used to say, Hell to pay!

Imagine, if you will, the cruise ships being told that our water is perfectly drinkable. It just happens to be red today. Imagine the tourists in the hotels come to Jamaica for an instant tan and imagine the Jamaicans in their homes, washing their clothes in red water. This eventuality may be unlikely, but it is possible. The point is that no one can say for sure. And then, of course, there is hydrogen sulphide, which gives rotten eggs their characteristic aroma. That's sequestered down there too.

There is, of course, much more to the karst topography. The isolated hillocks are in themselves, little islands of biodiversity where the less mobile life forms may mutate to their hearts' content untroubled by any considerations of incest or endogamy. Much the same is true of the caves and sinkholes which are not all connected to each other. Because of this, the Cockpit is a riot of biodiversity for small creatures, and because of its relative inaccessibility, for larger creatures as well.

According to cockpitcountry.com, the place is a rugged, inaccessible area of inland Jamaica:
These very characteristics have given it special importance and it is proposed that it be designated a World Heritage Site. It is an island-within-an-island of specially adapted biodiversity found nowhere else in the world and is a last refuge for some species driven from the rest of Jamaica by humans.

Jamaica's size and diverse physical features presented a wide range of micro-habitats that facilitated within-island radiation and speciation. The present composition of species, both floral and faunal, represents some of the highest rates of endemism in the world, recognised particularly for ferns, birds, reptiles, frogs and land snails. cockpitcountry.com
Snails may not grab your attention or excite your admiration, but apart from those who simply cannot resist them, there are others who understand that the more diverse life is, the more likely we - humans - are to survive.

In a field with 15 crop varieties, an epidemic may kill one or two, it won't kill all because bacteria have their preferred hosts. Similarly in human society, diversity may actually save lives, as in 1724 when an epidemic of smallpox in Boston was defeated by the fact that African slaves understood the rudiments of vaccination before Lister, and saved dozens of those who were crazy enough to trust themselves to the tender mercies of the slaves.

In this connection, remember when I wrote a few years ago about an insignificant little animal known to its friends as Ectinascidia turbinata? This tunicate species produces a class of chemicals called secondary metabolites which have been shown to be effective anti-tumour agents. This squirt is likely to play a starring role in the fight against cancers, having been found to inhibit the growth and even kill certain tumours.

It was seriously threatened by the dredging of Kingston Harbour. If scientists do not succeed in synsthesising the active compounds, we could probably make millions from allowing Ectinascidia turbinata some lebensraum. And who knows whether one of the 500 species of snails found in Jamaica may not have the answer to AIDS or cancer?

Information on the plant species composition and distribution of the Cockpit Country is incomplete and many years of concentrated work will be needed to begin to approach a comprehensive evaluation of the flora. At present, 106 species of vascular plants from 43 families have been found only in the Cockpit Country. This includes 101 Cockpit Country endemics. The remaining five species are not endemic, but in Jamaica occur only in the Cockpit Country.

Scientists say that the features of a karst landscape depend on the interaction between the components of this system: water, air, soil, rock, life, energy and time. The integrity of karst systems depends on the preservation of this interaction. If the balance is upset by sudden changes in one or more components, the whole system may be disrupted.

One of the principles agreed to by the whole world at Rio in 1992 was the Precautionary Principle. It means that in any development, nothing that appears dangerous should be done simply because there is no direct scientific evidence that it is dangerous.

We know that mining the Land of Look Behind is dangerous. The scientific evidence exists. But the geniuses of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute and the Natural Resources Conservation Authority are going to do it anyway if we let them.

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