This was my first full year at the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), and 2022, arguably, saw one of the most consequential environmental decisions in Jamaica’s history: the long awaited declaration of the Cockpit Country Protected Area (CCPA).
On the other hand, there were several decisions and actions resulting in negative environmental impacts. While reflecting on the year, I noticed some common themes, which are highlighted below. I hope we can use the lessons learnt in 2022 to do better in 2023 because without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy people or healthy economy.
1. Consistent public pressure is needed to get positive government action
The subject of decades of advocacy – studies, street marches, protests, public-education campaigns, petitions, workshops, and letters, Cockpit Country was finally legally declared a protected area and closed to mining in March 2022. It is the number-one biodiversity hotspot in the Caribbean, geologically and culturally significant, and the source of 40 per cent of Jamaica’s freshwater. The CCPA is now the largest terrestrial protected space in Jamaica.
It was not a complete victory, however, as the CCPA is approximately 30 per cent smaller than proposed by many stakeholder groups, including JET, the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA), the Windsor Research Centre (WRC), the Accompong Maroons, and others.
In 2018, Noranda Bauxite Partners II (now Discovery Bauxite) applied for a special mining lease (SML 173) in St Ann. This area was omitted from the CCPA, and is located in the watershed protection area of a major river, the Rio Bueno. Several community members, stakeholder groups, including JET, STEA, WRC, the Accompong Maroons, and many others objected to mining in this area at the time. Despite the objections, in January 2022, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) announced that the environmental permit would be granted for approximately 1,333 hectares, with permission to reapply again in five years for another permit. While the area granted for mining is approximately 76 per cent smaller than originally requested, it will lead to significant fragmentation of the forests, among other impacts. Cockpit Country stakeholders, including local residents, were appalled by this decision, which is now being challenged in court.
Both examples demonstrate the need for extensive and consistent public pressure to get positive action from the Government of Jamaica (GOJ).
2. Failure to respond to public concerns leads to suspicion and distrust
The non-government community and the public frequently complain about lack of response from environmental regulators. Prior to the gazetting of the CCPA, JET, STEA, WRC, and others spoke publicly and wrote to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the Office of the Prime Minister on multiple occasions about the need for a buffer zone around the protected area to prevent mining too close to the boundary. A response has not been forthcoming. When the environmental permit was granted for SML 173, NEPA announced several actions to be taken, including a health impact assessment of the bauxite-alumina industry. JET wrote requesting a status update, but to date, has had no response.
In July, JET called on the GOJ to make public the conditions of the Sponsorship Agreement with Blue Minerals Jamaica Limited, a deepsea mining company. Our concern was that as a sponsoring state, Jamaica and its taxpayers could be held liable for any damages caused by the sponsored company. No response has been received.
When complaints or concerns are ignored or remain unaddressed, it leads to suspicion, distrust, and the conviction that the regulatory bodies do not act in the public interest.
3. Poor environmental monitoring and enforcement
A major tool in Jamaica’s environmental regulatory system is an environmental impact assessment (EIA), and its use is at the discretion of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA). But an EIA and other types of environmental assessments alone cannot prevent environmental degradation. Such assessments must be supported by effective monitoring and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. This is a significant weakness in Jamaica.
For example, since the 1980s, WINDALCO, the bauxite-alumina refinery at Ewarton, St Catherine, has been responsible for at least five major toxic discharges into the Rio Cobre, a major river supplying water for thousands of people in St Catherine and St Andrew. They have received at least 15 warnings, enforcements, and breach notices for such events as well as for dust emissions or failure to comply with other environmental permit conditions. Despite being aware of these breaches, the regulatory authorities have either failed to apply effective regulatory measures or ensure that the available measures are fit- for-purpose. In July 2022, there was a massive fish kill caused by toxic discharge from WINDALCO’s effluent holding pond. the company was already in court for a similar occurrence in 2019.
Another example of regulatory failure occurred in February 2022 when residents of Great Bay, St Elizabeth contacted JET. They had lodged complaints to NEPA and the Mines and Geology Division (MGD) of the Ministry of Transport and Mining regarding the illegal mining of sand dunes as far back as November 2021. These 5,000- year-old dunes play an important role in protecting coastal properties during hurricanes, and although the MGD inspector visited the area, mining continued. JET contacted NEPA and raised the issue on social media. NEPA’s enforcement team was subsequently deployed, and a stop order was issued to the person responsible for illegally removing the sand. The person pleaded guilty, was fined under the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) Act (with fines up to J$50,000), but the material removed and sold was estimated to be worth several millions. The fines under the NRCA Act have long been inadequate.
4. Transparency promotes accountability and trust
After the Rio Cobre fish kill in July 2022, the GOJ began its investigation and made an announcement on August 5. After weeks of subsequent silence, the Rio Cobre fishers, JET, and multiple other civil-society groups made numerous requests for an update. It was not until November 9 that Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Senator Matthew Samuda, issued a statement. While some questions were answered, many more were not, for example, what were the terms and conditions of the environmental performance bond? This and other questions were included in several ATI requests made by JET that have gone unanswered or have been only partially fulfilled.
Hopeful trends as we look towards 2023 …
As part of the Forestry Department’s three million trees in three years initiative, over 2.2 million trees have been planted since 2019. We look forward to information on locations and survival rates.
On December 2, Senator Samuda announced that the NRCA Act and the Wild Life Protection Act are to be amended to increase fines and penalties for breaches of the law. He also stated that the GOJ will identify and protect certain ecologically-sensitive areas, as previously announced by the Prime Minister in his Budget speech in March. As we enter 2023, it is my hope that we put protection of lives, livelihoods, public health, and the natural environment at the centre of all our development decisions. This will also increase our resilience to the climate crisis.
Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie, PhD, is an environmental scientist and the CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.