Jamaica is known more for it’s beaches and tropical climate than an island facing a serious environmental threat – deforestation. At least that’s what I thought when my boss gave me the assignment for a shoot last month.
The tropical island in the caribbean is losing forest up in the mountains at a large rate to agriculture.
“Globally we are losing about fewer than 60 acres per year, but for a small island that’s quite a lot,” said Jamaica’s Forestry Department Operations Principal Director, Keith Porter.
Porter travels up into the Blue Mountains almost everyday to monitor the forest activities. If you’ve ever traveled up into the Blue Mountains, you know it’s not for the faint of heart. Most of the drive is off road, and even that is an understatement.
(This is the video I produced for work about the project)
Marilyn Headly, CEO of the Jamaica Forestry Department, jokes with me that when she traveled to the U.S. to visit our national forest she laughed.
“You have paved roads!!!” She jokingly says with laughter.
After riding over 4 hours in a truck on an extremely bumpy dirt path only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle but handled two-way traffic, I get why she’s laughing. Did I forget to mention that there are no guardrails either?
Two hours into the drive, I see children walking on the narrow roads with backpacks. Our driver tells me that it’s the only way kids can get to school and sometimes they walk multiple hours. He goes on to say that schools in the mountains are divided into shifts to accommodate the kids who have to walk long distances or need to help their families with farming.
I started to understand why forests were being converted into farms. The mountains receive the most rainfall so soil is very fertile, making it ideal for crops like coffee. Also, there are no nearby markets to buy food and farmland is necessary for them to survive.
On the surface level of the problem, the farmers use slash and burn methods to convert the forest. More times than not, the fires get out of hand and burn down huge chunks of the forest.
On a deeper level and the bigger part of the issue, the cleared land leads to mudslides and also pollutes the water supply in Kingston and nearby areas.
“When we get heavy rains and you get whoosh and all the rains come down, the water come down pollutes the air, pollutes our sea and then we have problems,” Headly said.
Complicating the matter is limited funding from Jamaica’s government. Headly admits that while the government does the best they can, protecting the forest isn’t high the priority list of who gets funding.
“Our government never has enough funding for everyone,” said Headly. “There’s crime, hospital, education, so we are down at the bottom.”
Non-government agencies or corporate sponsors aren’t quick to open their bank books either.
“Well you are looking at about 100,000 Jamaican dollars per hectare,” said Headly. That amount includes the land, seedling and maintenance. The majority of non-government agencies and corporate sponsors are only willing to pay for the planting and not the maintenance. Not all of them though…
The Kingston Mona Lions Club sponsored and oversaw a 10-year reforestation project in the Blue Mountains targeting an area in the Wallenford section of the forest. It was the first sponsorship of it’s kind in Jamaica.
Talking with the project head, Denise Forest (yes, she’s aware of her name’s irony), you get a better sense of the project’s scope and the massive amount of organization it required.
“Reforestation is not simple but going up into the forest reserve and planting a tree,” said Forest. “The tree has to survive in what is a relatively hostile environment. This is why our project focuses not only on planting, but in fact the majority of our resources over the past ten years have been spent on maintenance, right. This is allowing the tree to grow above the competition to a point where it can survive on its own.”
Forest and the other members of her club worked together with members of the Jamaica Forestry Department and members of the community. The Lions oversaw the grant writing and organization, while the Forestry Department figured out the ideal land for planting along with the types of trees that would flourish there, and the community was trained and paid to maintain the forest. The latter was a key part of the equation.
“Our community stakeholders are very important in the scheme of things,” said Porter. “They can either make or break so to speak because sometimes they’re the ones that will maybe deforest and encroach. But if we are able to win them over and convince them of the importance and value of the forest then they’d work along with us.”
Working together, about 52 hecters have been reforested. That’s close to 100 football fields combined. While it seems like a lot of land, it’s only a small dent. However, it is the biggest dent an organization has made to date.
It’s been so successful, Headly said she often uses it as an example of what Jamaica’s Forestry Department needs in terms of financial assistance and donations from non-government agencies and corporate sponsors.
If you’d like to contribute to this project, then please hit me up in the comment section with your email. I’ll be happy to put you in touch with Denise.