Jamaica’s Cockpit Country… A paradise worth saving
BY LOVELETTE BROOKS
26 June 2014. KINGSTON, Jamaica: Jamaica’s Cockpit Country, a rugged stretch of mountains located deep in the western section of the island is a true nature lovers’ paradise. But it is in danger of losing its intrinsic value as a nature reserve and sanctuary for the survival of several important species of plants and animals.
Priority attention, according to local stakeholders, must be given to conservation and proper use and valuation of its resources.
These are “urgent matters to be addressed if the Cockpit Country is to be saved”, said environmentalist Hugh Dixon, who founded the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA) 18 years ago.
Richly endowed with endemic plants and animals, the Cockpit Country’s natural attributes are surpassed by few places in the world. From the air, sun-kissed rounded hillocks resembling overturned egg boxes reach skyward. On the ground, trials hug the sides of the cockpits surrounded by a cornucopia of foliage.
The cockpits, which characterise the area, are steep-sided ridges, which form the unique karst topography, found in few places in the world. The limestone hillocks are interspersed by sinkholes — some of which are very deep — with wide-bottomed valleys enriched with terra rosa soils. These soils are some of the most fertile and productive on the island.
Still largely unspoilt, expansive areas of undisturbed, wet limestone forest, the largest in the island, have allowed a high biodiversity of flora and fauna to develop and thrive in the Cockpit Country. So rich in endemism, that it is considered by scientists to be one of the most biologically diverse regions on earth. Its primary forests are a sanctuary for rare Jamaican animals, including the Black-Billed parrot and the Giant Swallowtail butterfly. It is also home to 11 amphibians and over 40 plant species. At least 66 plants are found only in these forests, which are recognised collectively as an endangered hotspot. In addition, new species are discovered regularly, according to Dixon.
Against this background, the Cockpit’s ongoing conservation is critical. In fact, the Jamaican Government has designated a portion of the Cockpit Country a national forest reserve in an effort to help protect and preserve the large numbers of endemic flora and fauna that are indigenous to the region.
“The Cockpit Country is world recognized for its unique natural attributes – karstic landscape, lots of rare plants and endemic species. Some forty (40) per cent of Jamaica’s groundwater is sourced from one of the 13 main rivers emerging from the Cockpit Country. These include the Black River, Martha Brae, YS and the Great River, Dixon noted. Loss of biodiversity and the destruction of the ecosystems will result in a loss of water resource for a greater part of the island’s north and west coasts, he added.
Regarding the historic and cultural attributes that are at stake, the STEA boss explained that the Cockpit Country’s repository of medicinal plants is unsurpassed by anywhere else in the island. He said that Jamaica has the highest number of endemic birds and plants for any Caribbean island. Furthermore, the high plant endemicity has led to some unique floral compositions.
Among the variety of terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems are dry and wet limestone forests, rainforest, riparian woodland, wetlands, caves, rivers, seagrass beds and coral reefs. The global value of Jamaica’s biodiversity is indicated by the number five ranking of its endemic flora and fauna amongst islands worldwide, he added.
“The Cockpit Country’s rich variety of medicinal plants and herbs has been used by our ancestors for centuries, and still form a part of the islands indigenous medicine and folklore. Significant flora in the undisturbed wet limestone forest include the Madame Fate or Horse Poison, a poisonous plant, with bright green leaves and a star-shaped white flower; the Fresh Cut, which is used to relieve colds; and the Dog Tongue, whose name refers to the fact that its leaves are shaped like a dog’s tongue, and which has medicinal properties effective for healing open wounds,” he said.
“These and other species have enormous pharmaceutical potential and protecting the gnomes of these is very important”, he charged, stressing the need for a proper valuation to be done which would include the cost of destruction. Loss of biodiversity by improper use of resources within the Cockpit Country has the potential to retard the productive capacity of some 66 communities with a population of some 75,000 residents, most of whom (70%) derive their livelihood from the forest resources,” Dixon added.
According to Dixon, there are mostly small farmers who use the ‘bottoms’ or flat valley floors for cultivation.
“Other residents harvest forest products such as wicker for the furniture industry. In addition, there is tremendous eco-tourism potential, given the unique karst scenery, the many springs, riverheads, waterfalls and caves and other subterranean features that exist. These activities and resources must be properly regulated and more importantly valued,” he noted.
Dixon cited, as an example, the logging of trees for yam sticks and timber, which necessitates forest clearance and the cutting of roadways. Forest clearance, he cautioned, depletes reserves, fragments the area and opens up the area to the spread of “alien species”. He also explained that road construction into the forests will interfere with the micro-climate of the forests, disturbing the fragile balance that has sustained the growth of endemic plants and animals over time. Roads, he added, also facilitates poaching on a wider scale.
Meanwhile, Dixon, said the valuation of all attributes, which would offer the means to complete a cost-benefit analysis for a proper development pathway and the opportunity cost of one option over another, whether we are dealing with renewable or non-renewable resources for long-term sustainability.
Of immediate concern to him and other stakeholders who mounted a campaign dubbed ‘Save Cockpit Country’, has been the renewed interest in prospecting for bauxite in a large swathe of the Cockpit. A move, he said, which threatens the entire area.
Although the mining licenses granted over the years have been revoked due to advocacy and public outcry, the Cockpit Country stakeholders are still concerned about the potential threats to the integrity of region if mining is allowed.
The Jamaica Environmental Advocacy Network (JEAN), a key stakeholder in the Cockpit Country, said the three phases of any mining operation — exploration or prospecting phase, the mining itself, and post-mining reclamation – would pose negative impacts for the area.
“Considerable damage can be done in the prospecting phase, because often roads are needed to bring drilling equipment in. Under current Jamaican law, prospecting does not require an environmental permit. The mining phase would require a more extensive road network, and all the vegetation on the surface of the land where bauxite deposits occur would be removed. Apart from the complete destruction of living resources that would result from the removal of surface vegetation and bauxite deposits, this would cause increased surface run-off and possibly impeded infiltration to the groundwater,” JEAN said.
“Because much of the hydrological connectivity is based on underground passages and fissures, water transport systems in this karst region are highly prone to damage through in-filling, siltation, and accumulation of solid waste. These changes manifest themselves as reduced flow and reduced water quality at the downstream risings, as well as flooding in the upstream catchments. Over time, mining could lead to an altered flow regime and changes in drainage patterns, as recharge of the aquifer below is reduced and overland flow becomes more dominant. The likely consequences: flooding of previously safe areas and a reduction in the volume of major rivers flowing from Cockpit Country, comprising the water supplies for the western half of Jamaica,” the entity explained.
According to JEAN, other potential risk to water resources include increased turbidity from erosion of cleared and excavated land, hydrocarbon contamination through fuel spills from vehicles and machinery, and pathogen contamination due to increased human activity in the area or through the relocation of communities into low-lying areas closer to the aquifer. All of these factors are likely to lead to increased costs of providing clear, potable water to consumers.
In addition, deforestation due to mining operations would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). According to FAO, deforestation worldwide contributes one quarter of all GHG emissions. Bauxite mining itself is energy intensive and most of the energy comes from fossil fuels, further adding to greenhouse gases. There is a growing consensus, worldwide, that reducing climate change through energy efficiency, a rapid switch away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, and forest conservation are essential steps in order to avoid the disruption of ecological systems upon which all life depends.
“It is clear that prospecting for minerals and the mining operation itself are potentially damaging to the entire Cockpit Country. The most severe impact would be the loss of biological diversity, which is irreplaceable,” Dixon cautioned, adding that some 415 square kilometers of land, about half the size of the Cockpit Country’s forest reserve, would be destroyed.
He said that all stakeholders of the Cockpit Country will continue to press the relevant authorities to enact the necessary policies to further conserve the immense resources of the area and to fast track a valuation of the resources which are vital to the sustainability of the biological diversity of the entire region.
For additional information, contact:
Mrs. Petre Williams-Raynor
Senior Programme Officer
Cockpit Country reserve cap:
A section of Jamaica’s Cockpit Country. (Photo: Petre Williams-Raynor)