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The changing face of Negril

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor - features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com
Wednesday, June 04, 2014


THEY tell of an idyllic village some 60 years ago: a time when thick vegetation lined the beach; a time when continuous stretches of coral reef jutted so far out of the water that people could walk on them; a time when the Great Morass was vibrant and healthy.

It was a time before hotels, before Norman Manley Boulevard, before North Negril River.

But a lot has changed since then and people like Ray Arthur, Nehru Caolsingh, Sophie Grizzle-Roumel and Mary Veira, who either grew up in Negril or have lived there for at least 50 years, have watched as the skyline and shoreline have changed with the rate of rapid human development, often with very little consideration for the natural environment.

Take for example, the distance between some beachfront properties and the shore. Or that on the right side of the boulevard towards Hanover, there are buildings, businesses and car parks on lands that were once part of the morass - a large swamp that is home to, among other things, the endemic Royal Palm.

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"It is undeniable that a number of people who have been involved in development on the beach have violated some of the rules and regulations set down and as a result have been impacted from beach erosion today more than others, but also the authorities are to be blamed," said Caolsingh.

He was speaking at a recent meeting of Negril stakeholders convened to discuss their position on government's plan to build two breakwaters 1.5 km offshore west of Negril beach. They are adamant that the project will cause more harm than good and propose that a series of activities to include beach nourishment, enforcement of the development regulations, observation of the marine park rules, and restoration of the morass would be more sustainable, more long-lasting and more beneficial to the entire stretch of the famous beach, as opposed to the small area where the breakwaters are to be constructed.

On the subject of government regulation, Caolsingh added that the original setback which indicated how far from the high water mark developers could build was 150 feet.

"As time went by, some developers wanted to add more rooms per acre and they adjusted the setback to 100 feet. Following on that, the Negril planning authority has not always been functioning. There are times when there is a board, there are times when there isn't a board... and we have found people coming in totally violating the building regulations, have built so close to shore that even if you were to walk on the beach today you will see that some are more impacted than others and that is from their own doing," he said.

Caolsingh also spoke of the dredging of the South Negril River which shifted the course of where it entered the bay.

"In the original days that's not what it looked like. There was no North Negril River. That canal was dug through rocks to drain the morass. It has turned out now to be a tragic mistake which we're now partly paying the price for...(because) those people who came in to do the development back then did not fully understand the relationship between the morass and the beach."

Like other wetlands, the Negril Morass plays a vital role in flood protection and removal of nutrients from water sources before they deposit into the sea. It is also high in productivity, species diversity, and is well known for its reserves of peat, a potential fuel source.

The Negril stakeholders pointed out that their intervention was a major reason government backed off plans to mine the morass for peat back in the '80s.

Apart from the environmental issues and the concern for the effect on the tourism business, the stakeholders take offence from what they say is the disrespect of the project implementers. They say they were not consulted as a community before the decision was taken.

"It's not just the hotels that are fighting. It's also regular citizens because we live here. They cannot sit in Kingston around a table and decide our fate. We live here. We work here," Elaine Bradley fired.

"We must be heard in our own backyard," added Arthurs, who said the 150 years of practical experience he and his neighbours have collectively gathered from living in Negril should count for something.

According to the hoteliers' statistics, Negril is the second largest employer in the island, accounting for around 80,000 jobs, accounting for 26 per cent of visitor arrivals to Jamaica, and raking in some US$550 million every year.

But they are worried that they could lose as much as a third of that as a result of the breakwater project, which will involve trucking boulders into the small town and dumping up the part of the sea where the river enters the bay.

"Losing 30 per cent is a best-case scenario. I think we'll be at about half," said Ariel Absera whose family owns property in Negril. "We're already losing bookings and they haven't lifted a boulder yet."

"I don't think Jamaica can afford to lose the income we're going to lose and it won't just affect Negril. There will be a trickle-down effect to farmers, workers, fishermen and it's going to be massive," reasoned Grizzle-Roumel of Charela Inn.

That job loss, they added, will mean an increase in crime in the small town.

Absera reiterated that the groups' opposition is based on the scientific opinion.

"Negril experiences long shore drift. It moves the sand from one end of the beach to the other. Breakwaters are known to not be an effective means of preventing erosion due to long-shore drift. All it will do is make matters worse.

"There is a variety of experts who unanimously agree that the project is not a good idea. Not only is it not a good idea, it won't be effective. They say it will cause an overproduction of algae, which will cause the water to become darker and less swimmable. They say that it will also destroy marine life and will make the shoreline much less attractive."

Many breakwater projects have been implemented around the globe in various tourist and seaside destinations and nearly all of them have regretted it because it did not accomplish the objectives. It does not effectively protect beaches," he said.

Whether or not Government will give them ear is yet to be seen. The Observer has learnt that the Ministry of Tourism is planning to meet with the stakeholders but no date has yet been confirmed. In the interim, the stakeholders have vowed not to let up and have planned another community meeting for next Tuesday, June 10.

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