By: Michael Siva, CERN correspondent, Jamaica.
Many times, parks and protected areas find themselves at odds with segments of the surrounding community, and that often proves to be their downfall. That’s why the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains National Park places much emphasis on interaction with the community. When the Park was set up at the turn of the decade, it established Local Advisory Committees (LAC) in several outlying communities. This was special, because succeeding governments and political parties generally forgot such communities. One such LAC was established at Mill Bank, a small village in the Rio Grande Valley with a population of just over 100 people.
Susan Otuokan of the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT) said that the Park made and early commitment to work with the community. “In order to protect and conserve our natural resources, you need to pay attention to the socio-economic needs of the communities using those natural resources. Whether they use them for wood, for charcoal, for lumber, etc. This was very clear to the management of the park and to the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust, now responsible on behalf of government for managing the park.”
Mill Bank had an old swinging bridge that fell into to disrepair. This was significant from a socio-economic point of view, because a functional bridge allows farmers from Mill Bank access to available farm lands on the other side of the Rio Grande.
According to Otuokan, the park was also interested in the bridge. “From a park and natural resources management point of view, it is important to have many possible trails available for use. When one trail becomes degraded, you can close it and start access to another area, allowing the first area to recover. You can manage the trails so that different numbers of people use each, by splitting them up along different trails”.
The people were skeptical of the park’s plans to repair the bridge because of traditional governmental inaction as well as empty political promises. But the Park and the JCDT wanted to see the bridge repaired. Mill Bank boasts lush tropical forest vegetation and access to trails that lead to waterfalls in the Rio Grande and White River. Located at the end of a road from Port Antonio, Mill Bank is a perfect ecotourism site and financial spin-offs for residents of the community should be expected.
Otuokan explained that funding was secured by efforts of both the Park and the JCDT. “The actual project cost is estimated at over 1.5 million Jamaican dollars. However, through astute management by the JCDT and tremendous support from organizations and individuals, we were able to reduce the actual expenditure. A grant of 250,000 dollars from the British High Commission and 200,400 dollars from the Canadian Green Fund, provided the necessary cash. There were also a number of in-kind contributions, including from the Jamaica Public Service Company and ALCAN Jamaica Ltd., which kindly provided over half the lumber that was needed.”
The work began in November 1996 and was completed in February 1997 with donations from a number of other small companies and professionals. Soldiers of the Jamaica Defense Force assisted community members with the physical rebuilding effort. Now Mill Bank is an accessible eco-tourism site, in particular patronized by quite a few European tourists. It offers more to the ecologically aware, then the build-up tourism resorts of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril. The Mill Bank area is home to a large number of birds, animals and plants that are unique to Jamaica. Among them is the second largest butterfly in the world, the Giant Swallowtail Butterfly.
Now, the Park and the JCDT are focusing on fixing the bad roads. Through consistent lobbying on behalf of the communities, they’ve persuaded the government to embark on a programme of road repairs in the area. Projects are going on all over the park: another LAC in Yallas is rebuilding a fording that was destroyed by hurricane Gilbert in 1988. LACs have given the communities a sense of empowerment. They now believe they can solve their problems by themselves.
In collaboration with the Caribbean Environmental Reporters Network (CERN), Panos produces a weekly 10-minutes radio series: “Island Beat – News from the environmental frontline of the Caribbean”. It documents community environmental themes, in particular highlighting community experiences in finding solutions to environmental problems, reported by journalists from across the Caribbean region. This current print feature has been derived from a radio programme which was produced in August 1997.