An overseas media report reignites Jamaica's longstanding concern regarding limited beach access

Feature image via Canva Pro.

There are fences, gates, and security guards. It’s an issue that has been resonating for years in the Jamaican media — but when a report on Al Jazeera Plus was widely shared on social media recently, it sparked a new round of debate on a topic dear to Jamaicans’ hearts — their limited access to the island’s beaches:

According to the report, there are 74 public beaches in Jamaica, but many are difficult to access, in disrepair, or charge an entrance fee. The government ministry responsible, however, said:

While not all remaining public beaches are in great shape (the government has promised to upgrade them), going to the beach is, for Jamaicans, the ultimate relaxation. Whether it's for a social event, a family outing, a celebration with friends, or even a private party, it is often a chance to quietly “chill out” on the weekend or on a day off.

The beach is a precious space, where children can run about freely and adults can take a deep breath of fresh air and eat fried fish and bammy, a seaside favourite. Public holidays are big beach days for Jamaicans; members of church congregations and community groups, both young and old, pile into buses and head for the coast — but beaches also provide more than just good healthy fun. They are a source of income for many, fisherfolk in particular.

“Where they don’t have fences, they’ve got mountains of concrete wall,” said one fisherman during the Al Jazeera video, which focused on the north coast, where large all-inclusive resorts have proliferated since the 1990s. “This colonial system is coming right back at us,” he added. One Jamaican blogger called the situation “apartheid-like.”

Not all Jamaicans, however, agreed with some of the claims made in the video — including the allegation that only one percent of beaches are accessible to locals:

This comment sparked further discussion, with some questioning whether there were, in fact, so many undiscovered, accessible beaches along the south-east coast. Reacting to the video, economist Damien King suggested that the issue is whether to pay for beach access or not, while some cases are the result of “poor land tenure” over the years:

A number of Jamaican beaches that were once free of charge are still open to the public — but at a cost — like Puerto Seco Beach on the north coast, which the government has leased to a private company that renovated and reopened the beach in 2018.

The Al Jazeera piece highlighted the advocacy work of the Jamaica Beach Birthright Environmental Movement JaBBEM, a lobby group formed in 2022 that has been steadily gaining support. “We want the decolonisation of this land,” says its founder, Devon Taylor. The group’s website points to the cultural and historical aspects of Jamaica’s beaches:

Our pristine and rustic beaches are themselves living entities and are part of the soul of our island nation. They are limited and fragile environmental entities that need to be cherished. Some of our fondest holiday memories, spiritual awakening and inspiration happen on our beaches. Our fisherfolks help feed this nation from the sea. Part of our darkest history can be told on the beaches of Jamaica on which our enslaved ancestors landed and were dehumanized by slavery.

A petition has been launched that, among other things, calls for the colonial-era Beach Control Act of 1956 to be “repealed and replaced immediately.” The petition page stresses:

This law was the product of a colonial mindset that has remained on the books unchanged, and allows for discrimination against the Jamaican people. This law is arguably racist and should have no place in the body of laws of Jamaica…

In essence, the 1956 law does not give Jamaicans any inherent right to beach access.

The issue is making headlines in Jamaica, sparking both surprise and dismay when news broke that a “luxury resort” was planned adjoining Bob Marley Beach on the island’s relatively undeveloped south coast. The beach used to be frequented by the reggae star, his friends, and fellow musicians during the 1970s. The development is part of the thrust to expand tourism, housing and other opportunities in Jamaica's south-east corner, as a result of the ongoing construction of the South Coast Highway a few miles inland.

While the development is intended to lend significant credibility to the southern coast and attract other ultra-luxury brands with the multibillion-dollar Southern Coastal Highway Improvement Project opening up the area to investments, it would also reportedly displace Rastafarian families who have been living there for decades — a ripple effect the development company denied last year.

Marley’s son Ziggy, joined by his siblings Cedella and Stephen, has been advocating strongly for Jamaicans to have access to all beaches, islandwide. “This is no way to honor [Marley’s] legacy,” JaBBEM noted in an Open Letter dated October 2022.

Meanwhile, the Jamaican government is drafting a Beach Access and Management Policy, for which it sought the public’s input and held stakeholder consultations in early 2021. Lobbyists assert that the policy, outlined by Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Parliament in March 2023, will only give limited rights to Jamaicans, although Holness stated, “All Jamaicans must have access to our beautiful beaches.”

In a speech at the ground-breaking for another major all-inclusive hotel on the north coast, the prime minister said that Jamaicans should not be deprived of the island's natural assets, including beaches.

JaBBEM currently has three active cases in court, including Bob Marley Beach, where affected residents unsuccessfully sued developers. The second case involves Little Dunn’s River in Ocho Rios, a popular public beach near the tourist town that was closed in August 2022 — apparently for security reasons — and has not yet reopened. JaBBEM is suing the government’s Urban Development Corporation, which has not provided further updates on the matter.

The third beach is in Mammee Bay, also near Ocho Rios, where residents of adjoining communities have launched a petition. As the Al Jazeera video points out, they have been deprived of their livelihoods — not only from fishing, but also from selling souvenirs, jet ski rides and other beach attractions — because they are unable to access the beach where large-scale hotel development has taken place.

Jamaica is not the only island that does not guarantee its people general rights of access to its beaches, largely as a result of the type of tourist development that shuts locals out. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, peaceful protests took place earlier this year on the island of Canouan, over an entrance to a resort — and ever since a 2017 hurricane ravaged the island of Barbuda, elite luxury developments have appeared, with concerns being expressed on social media. While the government says that all beaches in Antigua and Barbuda are still accessible to citizens by law, a preliminary Beach Access Report is being prepared.

Meanwhile, one Jamaican posted a beautiful sunset from Bob Marley Beach…

…wile another says she's enjoying Bob Marley Beach while she still can:

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