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Ja on the verge of a major environmental catastrophe

BY DR KURT MCLAREN

Tuesday, January 15, 2013    

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I am writing in response to an article published in the Jamaica Observer regarding the exportation of charcoal and an editorial printed in response to this disclosure.

I will support, to some extent, what the Observer's editor stated. The country cannot afford to support charcoal production of any kind. We will pay dearly if this activity takes root. The trees that are used in the production of charcoal are obtained almost exclusively from our remaining dry forests, and there are currently no efforts of any kind to replant dry forest trees in Jamaica.

Dry forests are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world; in other words, there are hardly any dry forests left in most countries in the world due to centuries of exploitation. Surprisingly, Jamaica still has some of the best-known examples of this unique forest type left, and again, surprisingly, some of it is still in a fairly pristine state (the Hellshire Hills, which is the last remaining near-pristine dry forest in the Caribbean and Central and South America).

Dry forests are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world; in other words, there are hardly any dry forests left in most countries in the world due to centuries of exploitation. Surprisingly, Jamaica still has some of the best-known examples of this unique forest type left, and again, surprisingly, some of it is still in a fairly pristine state (the Hellshire Hills, which is the last remaining near-pristine dry forest in the Caribbean and Central and South America).

But, unsurprisingly, they are under near constant assault, like most of Jamaica's remaining forests. Chainsaws can be heard blaring at various hours of the day in the Hellshire Hills, and the northern and eastern sections have been decimated due to decades of unchecked cutting.

The country is already grappling with other potential environmental disasters, such as the carnage now unfolding in places like the Cockpit Country and the Black River Lower Morass. We recently recorded the highest rate of deforestation in the Cockpit in the last 60 years.

Also, the harvesting of juvenile trees for yam sticks has continued unabated in the Cockpit Country over the past 30 to 40 years. The Black River Lower Morass will be completely degraded within the next 50 years due to the impact of alien invasive species, habitat encroachment, pervasive burning, and other nefarious activities.

Efforts to stymie the impending tide of habit and species loss in Jamaica are compounded by the fact that Jamaicans have generally shown a lack of regard for our natural environment. Poverty, high levels of unemployment, and our "man muss eat a food" mentality are driving the country to the brink.

So it is not surprising -- although this does seem at bit farfetched -- that we are exporting charcoal. We will indeed look like our neighbours from overhead within the next 50 years, because there is very little or no effective management of our natural resources and almost no enforcement of existing environmental laws.

Our trees, forests, and wetlands are key in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide -- the gas that is linked to global climate change. So maintaining our forests, and reforesting degraded sites will be very important in the coming decades and can possibly be a source of income, through payment for preserving ecosystem services (services provided by the environment such as water, removing carbon dioxide, fishing, etc).

Guyana, albeit a much larger country than Jamaica, has secured over US$250 million to preserve her forests to absorb carbon dioxide, so income from preservation is possible. But if the potential impact of global climate change seems a bit too abstract for us to grasp, let us not forget a very important fact; we obtain 80 per cent of our drinking from these forested ecosystems.

So sooner or later we will find out just how valuable they are. We will be left with a land sans wood, and certainly with very little running water. So enjoy it while you can.

I, however, cannot support the suggestion made by the editor to establish plantations of Leucaena. Leucaena is what is considered as a plant invasive. An invasive is a non-native species that has either been deliberately or accidentally introduced to a specific site or country.

This species is then able to establish a viable breeding population and eventually supplants or reduces the population of native plants or animals or both (often resulting in the extinction of plants and animals only found in those countries) -- the mongoose, lionfish, red claw crayfish, and the sucker mouth catfish (or Taliban) are popular examples of animal invasives (and humans).

Leucaena fixes (makes) nitrogen -- an element that is usually available in low quantities in impoverished soils -- and can therefore survive at degraded or recently cleared sites. Other examples of plant invasives wreaking havoc in Jamaica include Pittosporum and Hedychium (Khali ginger) in the Blue Mountains, Melaleuca (or the paper bark tree) and Alpinia (wild ginger) in the Black River Morass, and many others that have established viable populations across the island (such as water hyacinth).

What we need to do is to plant native tree species. However, research is needed, because very little is known about most of our native trees and we need to determine how and why some trees survive in some places and others do not.

It is certainly possible to establish fuel-wood/charcoal plantations with a mixture of native and non-invasive, non-native trees. We have enough fallow land available to do this. However, to date, in Jamaica we have mostly opted to plant, in an ad-hoc manner, a few native and non-native trees (such as mahogany, cedar, pine, and other commercial species) that are not suited for the sites where they are being planted.

Most recently, there was an article in the Observer touting the potential of another non-native (Teak), which in my view should not even be considered. We have been and are conducting research aimed at addressing this and other environmental needs at the 'intellectual ghetto' (UWI).

For example, we have already identified the impacts of cutting on the forest of the Hellshire Hills, and we have identified trees that can be used for dry forest reforestation or for fuel wood plantations. We are also in the process of identifying trees with the highest potential for reforestation for other sites across the island.

Also, a colleague has successfully undertaken the replanting of mangroves at degraded coastal sites. But unfortunately, the results of our research have not been utilised and funding agencies are often reluctant to fund the continuation or expansion of our research.

Dr Kurt McLaren is forest ecologist at the Department of Life Sciences at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica

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