Skip to main content

Jamaica selling out its paradise

By Wendy Townsend
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Kenroy "Booms" Williams holds an American crocodile. Booms monitors the vulnerable crocodiles and the critically endangered Jamaican iguanas in the Portland Bight Protected Area of Jamaica. Kenroy "Booms" Williams holds an American crocodile. Booms monitors the vulnerable crocodiles and the critically endangered Jamaican iguanas in the Portland Bight Protected Area of Jamaica.
HIDE CAPTION
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
Jamaica's Portland Bight under threat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China plans huge industrial seaport in protected region of ocean and land in Jamaica
  • Wendy Townsend: Goat Island mangroves may be clear cut and coral reefs dredged
  • Townsend: Area is home to critically endangered Jamaican iguana and many rare species
  • She says Jamaica should stop the deal, invest in ecotourism, keep its vow to protect region

Editor's note: Wendy Townsend writes for children and young adults, and she and her family raise lizards as pets. Her third novel, "Blue Iguana," has just been released by namelos. The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Kenroy Williams, also known as "Booms," is "Guardian of the Reptiles" in Hellshire, located near the Goat Islands in Jamaica. The region is centered in the Portland Bight Protected Area, an area of ocean and land set apart in 1999 to protect its rich biodiversity of birds, reptiles, plants, trees and marine life.

But now, the Jamaican government is preparing to sell the Goat Islands to the China Harbour Engineering Co. to build a megafreighter seaport and industrial park. China Harbour is part of a conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its Fraud and Corruption Sanctioning Policy.

"They're destroying what should be preserved," says Booms, who has been working to protect exceedingly rare reptiles in the area for seven years, including the critically endangered Jamaican iguana.

Wendy Townsend and her rhinocerous iguana Sebastian.
Wendy Townsend and her rhinocerous iguana Sebastian.

The specifics of the development are being withheld, but Jamaica Information Service reports it involves dredging and land reclamation, and a coal-fired power plant built to service the facilities. Environmentalists expect the mangrove forest on the two Goat Islands to be clear cut and the surrounding coral reef dredged.

With the threat to Goat Islands looming, Robin Moore, a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, flew to Jamaica to record images of wildlife and people who may soon see the destruction of their beaches, mangrove forest ecosystems and their livelihoods.

In a short film by Moore, Booms talks about what's at stake: "Portland Bight Protected Area consists of a beautiful beach and things that are here in Jamaica and found nowhere else, like the iguanas ...

"When the mangroves are destroyed, the earth won't stay together and then the water will take over. And that's the problem. And we won't have any beaches, and we can't do without beaches. If we have no beaches, we have no turtles. We won't have any crocodiles ..."

Booms especially fears for the Jamaican iguanas, Cyclura collei, thought to be extinct until 1990, when Edwin Duffus found one while hunting pigs in the Hellshire Hills. The Goat Islands are right off the Hellshire coast. At the time, surveys of the area revealed fewer than 100 iguanas remaining.

Hope Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Kingston, teamed with the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas and others, set up a program to rear baby iguanas until they're big enough to be safe from predators. After release, the iguanas are tracked and observed to see how well they fare.

The number of nesting females has grown from just six in 1991 to more than 30 in 2013. About 255 head-started iguanas have been released into Hellshire, the only place on earth -- other than the Goat Islands -- that they can survive. The Jamaica Iguana Recovery Project believes the islands are the sanctuary necessary to save the animal.

During the past 24 years, millions of dollars, plus the sweat of countless biologists and research volunteers, have been invested in bringing Cyclura collei back from the brink. Although many released iguanas are breeding and nesting in the wild, the animal is still critically endangered.

Jamaican iguanas can live for 40 years or more. They distinguish between strangers and researchers who come to the forest regularly and may show themselves once they feel safe.

There is still time to help the Jamaican people save their national treasure.
Wendy Townsend

Imagine a 4-foot long, 15-pound dinosaur-like animal walking out of the bush, sitting down nearby, and making eye contact with you.

"There is indeed something special about making eye contact with a Cyclura," herpetologist Rick Hudson, of the Fort Worth Zoo, said. "Back in the 1990s, you rarely saw an iguana; you might hear one crashing through the bush but glimpses were a special sight. Now, you go out in Hellshire and see big healthy iguanas that are habituated and come and hang out with you. It's the most incredible story I have ever been a part of."

The Jamaican Constitution states that the nation's citizens have "the right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage."

Some argue the project will bring jobs, but as fisherwoman Paulette Coley told Moore: "The government claims it will bring jobs and opportunity to the area, but we are not qualified, and we are not being trained for the jobs that will need to be done. They tell us what they want us to hear, but the reality is that we will be worse off."

Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, says that in past projects with Chinese contractors, most of the employees have been Chinese. "What is the benefit to Jamaica? That's not clear."

McCaulay says developing Goat Islands extends the global crisis of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. "Jamaica is a small island," she says, "but this is happening all over the world, relentless pressure for high impact development that doesn't benefit local populations, particularly those who use the resources.

"Although global climate change is a clear danger to island nations, we are still building on the coast and taking out natural protections like mangroves. Our regulatory agencies simply cannot cope, especially with players like China who have huge financial resources and care little about the environment."

The rediscovery of the Jamaican iguana and the success of the recovery program has generated a huge conservation movement that draws international funding and ecotourism to the West Indies.

This ecotourism could be developed. In 2012, tourism contributed close to $4 billion to the economy of Jamaica and 25% of jobs in the country are tourism-based.

Tourists travel to see unspoiled beaches and native flora and fauna, and ideally, to see people living in a healthy relationship with their land. But if the Jamaican government sells out to Chinese developers, reversing its environmental protection laws and going against its own constitution, it will send the message that investing in tourism in Jamaica is unwise.

There is still time to help the Jamaican people save their national treasure. Both Jamaica and China care about international opinion. Letters expressing concern and signatures on a petition may persuade Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller to stop the proposed development.

Of his work as guardian of the reptiles ,Booms says, "My family and friends? Some of them think it's awesome. ... Some of them ask me if I really touch the lizards and some think I'm crazy when they hear about the crocodiles. But the truth of the matter is that they don't understand, and I know that. 'Cause if they were here like me, they would understand. We are at one with nature."

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT