Goat Islands, Jamaica

I’m standing on Pigeon Island’s expansive, white sand beach looking across blue waters at a forested mountainside. It’s beautiful. But instead of feeling serene, I’m angry and disgusted.

“This island will undoubtedly be devastated too.” Long-time Jamaica resident and environmental activist Ann Sutton lets out a pained sigh before continuing, “They’ve been vague about the details, no doubt so we can’t properly organize a rebuttal, but they’re going to have to dredge right along here to bring in the post-Panamax vessels. And you see those islands just off-shore?”

I nod.

“Those are the Goat Islands. Just about the only thing we know for sure is that they will literally be demolished. The more mountainous one is to be flattened and it’s lovely terrain used to fill in the mangrove swamp between the two islands, all to become part of the new transshipment port. According to the Jamaican government’s environmental assessment, there’s nothing of value here. Their environmental consultants clearly got a cut of the deal though because that couldn’t be further from the truth!”

Jamaican Iguana (Cyclura collei)

Jamaican Iguana (Cyclura collei)

That much I already knew. The Goat Islands and Hellshire Hills beyond were actually the reason I was in Jamaica at all. Once considered extinct, the Jamaican Iguana (Cyclura collei) was rediscovered alive in the Hellshire Hills in 1990. With less than a hundred individuals in the wild, and likely less than 50, it was considered the rarest lizard in the world and was the impetus for forming the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group. Twenty years later, the group was reconvening in Kingston to celebrate successes in population recovery efforts. It was meant to be a joyous occasion but only a few months before the gathering, news had leaked about a potential port development deal with China that would decimate the Goat Islands and surrounding areas. Not only would this impact the bolstered population in the Hellshire Hills, but it also deprived the species of islands that had held the last known individuals prior to the extinction scare and had always been part of the recovery plan. Once the Hellshire Hills population was sufficiently large, the Goat Islands were to be cleared of non-native predators and the islands returned to the iguanas. Or so it was hoped before the Chinese port plan was sprung upon the nation.

China has been endearing itself to the Caribbean over the last several years, apparently Africa as well, through aid grants and by building fancy new sport stadiums on even the smallest islands. Allegedly China’s condition-free gift to fill-in-the-blank nation, the balance is certainly tilted toward China. The promise, of course, is economic benefits to the host country with no political meddling nor human rights strings attached. But data shows that while exports of raw materials to China remain steady, imports of manufactured goods from China to the Caribbean has increased exponentially with tightened relations. Furthermore, China brings it’s own companies and workers for the promised infrastructure. In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, nearly 3,000 construction jobs that could easily have been filled by nationals were filled by Chinese permit holders between 2008-2011. And along with the economic losses to the host country of imported workers, these workers bring with them a culture of environmental disregard that is also less than beneficial. Having lived in northern China for several months, I can attest to the fact that wildlife doesn’t fare well around the average Chinese community. The only wildlife I saw in my entire residency, beyond what was displayed in restaurant aquaria and pharmacy shelving, was a single wasp that was instantly smashed and a small mouse that only barely escaped being speared by my friend’s stiletto heel. Transplanting Chinese workers translates into new populations of animals to be consumed. In Barbados, Chinese workers were caught red-handed, decimating one of only two known nesting colonies of Little Egrets in the entire western hemisphere for a cheap meal. Already in Jamaica, before the influx of Chinese workers that will accompany the port development, Chinese residents have created a market for poached crocodile meat, an animal listed under Jamaica’s Wildlife Protection Act. And despite the Jamaican government’s claims that the Goat Islands and surrounding areas are essentially wasteland, it happens to be the only remaining habitat for any number of endemic plant and animal species that certainly wouldn’t survive occupancy by Chinese workers.

Magnificent Frigatebird at a breeding colony in Portland Bight Protected Area

Magnificent Frigatebird at a breeding colony in Portland Bight Protected Area

Unfortunately, money talks and it appears that cash passed hands long before news of the proposal leaked beyond bribe beneficiaries. Local environmentalists, like Ann, suspect the Jamaican government genuinely may not have realized the biological wealth of the area when they agreed to the development plan since the area had been a U.S. naval base at one time. Now though, the Portland Bight Protected Area, including the Goat Islands and Hellshire Hills, has more local and international protections than almost anywhere else in Jamaica. It turns out this nearly 1,300 mi² land and sea reserve protects remaining dry limestone forest, sea turtle nesting beaches and essential fisheries in it’s mangroves, estuaries and seagrass beds. The lands house roughly 380 species of plants, over 50 of which are endemic to the area, and nearly 20 rare or endangered animals, seven of which are found only in the Portland Bight area. Not only was the Jamaican Iguana rediscovered in the protected Hellshire Hills here, but so was the Jamaican coney, an endemic mammal also thought to be extinct for some time. Since monies likely had already been collected though, the Jamaican government immediately began downplaying the virtues of the area with a bogus environmental report that claimed the area devoid of biodiversity. Devoid of any value in fact, and their PR seemed to be working. The bellboy at my hotel appeared shocked and appalled when I said I was heading to the Hellshire Hills for the day.

“By the Goat Islands?” He’d baffled, “But there’s nothing there! Why not visit one of our waterfalls instead?”

Something worthwhile, in other words. But the fact of the matter is, the Portland Bight area is among the best Jamaica has to offer in way of pristine nature. So much so, that it’s under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Or was under consideration. The Jamaican government recently deferred the application, no doubt because it would be yet more proof that this area deserves environmental protection, or at least not to be handed over to the Chinese to be raped and pillaged.

Beach at Manatee Bay, at the base of the Hellshire Hills

Beach at Manatee Bay, at the base of the Hellshire Hills

I stand on the makeshift patio overlook of the Jamaican iguana research camp atop the Hellshire Hills. A headstarted iguana basks in the sun not far away and the view down the hill, across the Goat Islands and the life-giving bay beyond is stunning. But once again, I find myself angry and disgusted. And sad. Twenty years of relentless labor – tough fieldwork, fundraising, cage building for the headstart program, veterinary efforts, education, battles with illegal charcoal collectors, removal of destructive non-native species… all for what? For the Chinese to topple a mountainous island, fill in the mangroves, dredge the seagrasses, and return these hard won iguanas to their former extinction status? The thought is literally heart-wrenching, particularly knowing that Jamaica as a country won’t even attain the economic benefits that these hefty sacrifices are being made for. Is it really too much to ask for a corrupt few to return their pay-offs to protect a national jewel? A global treasure even? Or less extreme, just move the operation to the already working-port off Kingston. Given all that is at stake, is that really too much to ask?

Unfortunately, the answer to that seems to be yes. Even as I was writing this, the Port Authority of Jamaica confirmed that the Chinese seaport will claim 600 acres around the Goat Islands. I for one, shed a tear.

2016 Update:   I’m pleased to report that after a long and ugly battle, this was a successful campaign. Congratulations to all those who fought hard to save the Goat Islands!!!

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