More on ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and Jamaica’s environment

An opinion piece by Peter Espeut from today’s Gleaner :

They’re not swamps!
published: Wednesday January 31, 2007
Peter Espeut, Contributor

The word ‘swamp’ should be excised from the dictionary of decent English words. It is a pejorative word – like ‘nigger’ – intended to convey a wholly negative connotation.

Swamps are bad, full of mosquitoes – and quicksand. Swamps should be drained, or filled in, and anyone who does so is almost a national hero. What good is a swamp? My point exactly! When you use a word like ‘swamp’, you have made your point already. Like if you call someone ‘nigger’ you don’t have to say anything else.
A more accurate and meaningful term is, of course, ‘wetlands’. In these important ecosystems the ‘web of life’ is plainly visible: birds and fish and crabs eat each other, and many other animals and plants have their habitats and existence there. Every year February 2 is celebrated across the world as World Wetlands Day, designated as such by the United Nations; and this week we celebrate wetlands and the important role they play in Jamaican life.

Wetlands important in Jamaican life? How can I say that? They’re swamps, aren’t they? We want to dump them up, don’t we?

Destroying habitat
Do you like local fresh fish? As we dump up the wetlands, we destroy an important place where fish live as juveniles, and make it harder for fish to survive to adulthood. Add to this overfishing, and the catch of fish will decline, and we will have to import more and more.

In 1962 before the big hotel boom, we caught 24.2 million lb of fish; after the widespread destruction of wetlands on the north coast to build hotels (and with advancing overfishing) by 1981 our catch had fallen to 15.9 million lb of fish, which represented only 40 per cent of our fish consumption. Overfishing and habitat destruction have led to us having to import 60 per cent of the fish we eat. Wetlands are important.

Wetlands are our second line of defence against hurricanes (after coral reefs) and tsunamis. In the Boxing Day south Asian tsunami, only those coastal communities which had intact wetlands were able to escape massive destruction. In Portland Cottage, Clarendon, eight persons died during Hurricane Ivan; if it wasn’t for the West Harbour mangrove wetlands maybe 80 or 800 persons would have died. Insurance companies should love wetlands, because they save lives and property. Wetlands are important.

Progress and development
Over the years, in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, several ‘swamps’ across Jamaica were drained and/or dumped up. Nowadays this is harder, because to drain or dump up a wetland requires a permit from the NRCA. But it still happens: a government agency – the Office of National Reconstruction (ONR) – committed an environmental crime in Portland Cottage recently when they dumped up part of the West Harbour wetland without any permit, despite being advised that they needed one.

The right hand of the government cannot be protecting wetlands while the left hand of the government is destroying them. The private sector cannot be forced to toe the line while the government breaks the line. Shame on the ONR! And on those who have declined to prosecute them.

Jamaica has three wetlands which have been declared by the United Nations to be wetlands of ‘global significance’. Last year the wetlands of the Portland Bight area of Clarendon and St. Catherine received that designation, which is international recognition for what nationally we have long known. What is not good, is that none of these wetlands have any real legal protection; the UN designation means nothing in real terms.

What is required is that the good intention which led to the designation, be translated into something meaningful. It cannot be just talk; I would like to encourage the government to get serious about the environment.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and is executive director of an environment and development NGO.


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