Courting disaster

Monday, January 14, 2013

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JAMAICANS are renowned for their capacity to "tun dem han mek fashion" in hard times.

Against that backdrop, it should come as no surprise that someone hit on the idea of exporting charcoal.

The thing, though, is that such a practice, if left unchecked, would render Jamaica unviable.

Government technocrats and spokespersons are often guilty of sugar-coating their comments and not calling a spade a spade.

But there can be no mistaking the alarm felt by NEPA's chief executive officer Mr Peter Knight.

"We could never support the export of charcoal. We are going to lose our forests, our hillsides, and the country is going to look like a neighbouring Caribbean country. We cannot sit by and allow that," he was reported as saying.

Presumably then, all concerned will be moving to nip this in the bud.

But having done so, we shouldn't get complacent and believe that the job is done. For the truth is that anyone flying over the island which Christopher Columbus so famously described as the most beautiful he had seen, or even approaching our two international airports by air, will recognise that there is already a worrying resemblance to "a neighbouring Caribbean country".

The uncontrolled removal of our trees by the charcoal burners is one thing. But then there is the alarming slash and burn practice of our hillside farmers, and, of course, the mining of bauxite, limestone and other minerals which have left ugly, gaping scars all across the landscape.

Then, too, there is the illogical practice of building mansions on erosion-prone hillsides and hill tops; and housing estates on some of our best farm lands which obviously bear serious implications for food security.

Obviously the needs of a fast-growing population mean there must be a balancing of environmental preservation with economic and infrastructural considerations.

There is a worrying perception, though, that the balancing act too often falls short in terms of protecting the natural environment.

Also, as the Government presses ahead with efforts to revive the bauxite/alumina sector and reopen plants in St Elizabeth and Manchester, NEPA, environmentalists and the media need to insist on environmental safeguards. There should also be clear, enforceable and well-publicised rules regarding the mining of limestone, gold, etc.

As to charcoal exports, the story takes us back to the decades-old Leucaena plant project which made headlines in this newspaper recently. For the project was not only about a valuable plant species that could provide firewood, timber, manure, shade, animal feed, and so forth.

Crucially, it was also intended that the fast-growing Leucaena plant would help to arrest soil erosion and forest depletion. Planners at the time felt that charcoal burners should be encouraged to turn to easily replaced trees such as Leucaena, rather than valuable hardwoods which require decades of life to mature.

As the situation now stands, the negative impact of charcoal burning, even without exports, should not be underestimated. A United Nations study in 2005 suggested that 37,000 tonnes of charcoal were produced annually in Jamaica. By any measure, that's a lot of trees.

That same study referred to a PCJ demonstration plot on fuel woods at Font Hill in south west St Elizabeth which showed Leucaena with five-year wood yields in the range of 108 to 118 tonnes per hectare.

It's unfortunate that such a useful, innovative initiative as the Leucaena project ended up shelved — reflecting perhaps our propensity to think only short term, and at best in relation to our own life span. We will have to change that mindset if we are to avoid becoming indistinguishable from "a neighbouring Caribbean country".




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