Jamaica Considers Developing Goat Islands Despite Environmental Protests

Savegoatislands.org screen capture.

Savegoatislands.org screen capture.

Jamaica's environmental activists are leveraging social media as best they can in a struggle against plans to build a seaport on protected land. The proposed development puts Jamaica's government in a difficult position, caught between a civic push to preserve the environment, and large financial gains that would help service recent loans from the IMF.

When the second annual Jamaica Blog Day took place in May, earlier this year, bloggers rallied around a theme of “Environment vs. Development”. The event's organisers explained:

The issue of our environment and development is a live one: from the near yearlong vigorous debate about the use of Goat Islands and the Portland Bight Protected Area for a Logistics Hub, to […] drought that yet again grips the island. Economists, politicians, environmentalists, businesspeople, the media, and ‘ordinary’ Jamaicans on The Rock or in the Diaspora are all debating how Jamaica…should manage the environment in the quest for development.

Since May, concerns about Goat Islands have not abated. Now, Richard Conniff at The Jamaican Blogs suggests the “secretive deal to let a Chinese company build a mega-freighter seaport in the nation's largest natural protected area” could jeopardise the island's lucrative tourism industry and damage Jamaica's international reputation:

The new port would compromise an area known for extensive sea‐grass beds, coral reefs, wetlands, and Jamaica’s largest mangrove forests. The protected area is also home to the Jamaican iguana, a species believed extinct until its dramatic rediscovery in 1990. Since then, the international conservation community has spent millions of dollars rebuilding the iguana population in a protected forest in the Hellshire Hills, part of the reserve adjacent to the proposed port. Much of that investment hinged on the government’s promise, now apparently discarded, that the Goat Islands would become a permanent home for the iguanas, which are Jamaica’s largest vertebrate species.

Conniff accuses the government of doing an about-face: just last year, Conniff contends, “the same government officials were petitioning UNESCO to designate a Global Biosphere Reserve”, but perhaps “the lure of a $1.5 billion investment” was too tempting to ignore. Economically, Jamaica is not in a strong position, partly because it is shackled to the International Monetary Fund, from which it accepted a $932 million loan in 2013. Just this week, the Jamaica Observer reported that the IMF will release another $68.8 million.

Environmentalists like Diana McCaulay, who heads the Jamaica Environment Trust, along with several other civil society groups, have been raising awareness of the issue through educational outreach and public service announcements, as well as mainstream and social media. There is a website dedicated to saving the islands and an online petition aimed at getting Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller to stop plans to turn the area into a trans-shipment port.

On August 14, McCaulay tweeted:

There is obviously a disconnect between environmentalists, who are considering the long-term benefits to the country, and big business, which is focusing on the bottom line of short-term gains. The question remains—whose voice will sway the Jamaican government?

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