THE National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), joined by the Forestry Department, is moving to stymie the budding charcoal export trade, citing the dire implications for the island's forests and wildlife they help to sustain as well as the water resources.
"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," NEPA Chief Executive Officer Peter Knight told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.
His statement followed reports that containers of charcoal were being prepared in Clarendon for export. The reports have prompted NEPA to write to Commissioner of Customs Major Richard Reese requesting that the Customs Department "refuse export clearance and direct the persons involved in the export trade" to them.
"The agency will subsequently arrange a joint meeting between itself, the Forestry Department and Jamaica Customs Department — and possibly the exporters — to discuss the developing trade and the implications," the CEO said in the letter dated January 9.
Reese, for his part, has indicated he will comply with NEPA's request.
"We will immediately action this letter, pending further direction. We will refer any exporter that comes, to NEPA," he said. "We will also be getting a legal opinion. In everything you do you have to inform yourself legally, especially when you have a new or emerging situation, because you can have legal challenges as well."
Reese could not speak to the level of current charcoal exports, noting that he would have to do some investigations.
"Anything that has happened in the past, I am now going to get data to inform myself and the Ministry of Water, Land, Environment, and Climate Change. We will have an idea of what has happened so far and who the individuals are because it will require immediate regulation. And when I say regulation, I mean regulation towards prohibition," he said.
Meanwhile, the Forestry Department said it was first made aware of the emerging export trade last December when they received reports from Customs about a 40-foot container loaded with charcoal and destined for Lebanon.
"When we did some preliminary enquiries, we were told that the first shipment was out of Clarendon and Manchester," revealed Lawrence Nelson, silviculture manager at the Forestry Department.
The department, he said, is now left concerned over the sustainability of such a trade were it allowed to thrive.
"If this as an economic activity takes off in this kind of booming fashion, unregulated, we might find that the damage is irreparable," Nelson noted.
"While we know from empirical observation that the domestic market is maybe just about at equilibrium, that is, we are taking as much as we allow to grow back, the question is, can we withstand this volume of export? My suspicion, without doing the number crunching, is it is unsustainable. If we are going to be shipping out a couple container loads every month or every week, I think it might do us irreparable damage," he added.
This, Nelson said, since "in general, charcoal burning is done in a way that degrades the floristic quality, because they [burners] select particular wood species with good density and so on".
As such, he said the department's next step will be to crunch the numbers "and get objective assessments as to what volumes can be sustained and by what type of vegetation".
NEPA, in the meantime, said the risks are too great to allow the trade to go unregulated.
"It is concerning, especially if there is no replanting. For it to be sustainable, you must have fast-growing trees, because what will happen in the end is that you will have deforestation and loss of forest cover," said Andrea Donaldson, manager of the agency's Ecosystems Management Branch.
"Trees are very important for the retention of water, especially in the upper watershed areas. Also, without tree cover and covering for the soil, you would have soil erosion and all that sedimentation would impact your coastal zone. So your seagrass beds and your coral reefs would be impacted. Whatever you do in the hills, if they are good practices, you will be able to sustain whatever is in the coastal areas," she added.