As Jamaican Islands Face Threat, Photographer Snaps Into Action

All photos: Robin Moore.

Once a patch of wild space is named a protected area, it's very easy to think that the place will be protected forever, that it is safe from the meddling hands of developers. But the trouble is, this is exactly the wrong thing to think, and sadly the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) is a perfect example of why. PBPA is the largest protected area in Jamaica, a 724 square-mile patch that includes limestone forests, two-thirds of Jamaica's mangroves, and sea-grass beds and coral reefs that act as nurseries for fish and shellfish species. And it is about to be plowed under.

Conservation photographer Robin Moore, a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, packed his camera gear and took a trip to the area to document the endangered species that find refuge here, and the lives of the 50,000 people who depend on the protected area for their livelihoods. Moore's hope is that his images will win the hearts of the rest of the world, who perhaps can convince the Jamaican government to end their plans for development. One photographer, a pile of camera gear, and whole lot of determination could push this issue into the public eye across the world.

goat island reptile life

"Around twenty rare or endangered animals call the area home, seven of which are found nowhere else in the world. The Jamaican iguana was brought back from near-extinction by a twenty-year recovery program that is hailed internationally as a model conservation success story," states Moore.

"The area was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, until the government of Jamaica announced last year that it was engaged in negotiations to allow the China Harbour Engineering Company - whose parent company has been disbarred by the World Bank - to build a transshipment port. In August 2013 they revealed that, despite the availability of other options, the port would be sited within the Protected Area, and would involve bulldozing two islands, called Goat Islands, a mile off the coast, building a coal-burning plant, and dredging the sea between the islands and the mainland."

goat island

Moore spoke with local people during his journey, primarily folks from a small fishing village close to Goat Islands called Old Harbour Bay. "There is general frustration within the community at the lack of information provided to them from the government about the plans for the transshipment port - which will develop the islands and dredge the sea in which they fish - and associated logistics hub, and palpable concern for the negative impacts it is going to have on their livelihoods ... Many feel the project has been rushed through to get it started before it raises too many eyebrows internationally. People who oppose the project are being accused of xenophobia, and some locals are hesitant to speak about it for fear of repercussions."

Goat Islands has its advocates. Local environmental groups such as Save Goat Islands and citizens are working hard to bring attention to the impending project, and believe that only by sparking the anger and frustration of conservation-minded people around the world is there a chance to save the vital habitats. But their work is still not in the public eye.

Perhaps, though, Moore's photographs can make the difference. We humans have a tendency to save those things we love, and we have a tendency to love those things we can see. Moore's photos could be the bridge needed between a critically important "protected" area and the world community that can protect it from poorly planned development.

goat island

Moore's experience in talking with locals and exploring the area is a familiar one: the visitor grows attaches to the people and place yet harbors the dreaded knowledge that everything is about to be forever changed. But the story and images together, perhaps, could be enough to at least make this impending project one that is visible, that cannot sneak in without the rest of the world noticing. Here is Moore's experience in his own words:

"I spent a day on the water fishing with a family - Herman, Paulette (the only woman in the area registered as a fisher, meaning she actually goes out in the boat and fishes with the men) and their six-year old son Jabari. Paulette, who went to high school, is educated and told me that, although they are being told the development will bring jobs and opportunities, she knows that the people of Old Harbour Bay will not be qualified for the jobs that will need to be done, and there is no attempt to provide any training. She said that once the area is sold to the Chinese, she does not expect they will be hiring many people from Old Harbour Bay. Paulette and Herman fish and own a small store in Old Harbour Bay to make ends meet. She is visibly concerned - and angry - about the impending destruction of Goat Islands, around which they currently fish. There is a sense among many people that the project will benefit a few greatly (i.e. politicians) whilst hurting many.

"Herman and Paulette took me onto large Goat Island - despite signs prohibiting people from setting foot on there now - where they collected Aloe Vera and rosemary, and showed me the remains of an old hospital built by the U.S. who leased the island for 90 years. They took me to two signs, side-by-side, one indicating that cutting of trees, coal burning, molesting cactus, etc is prohibited, the other indicating that the Chinese Harbour Engineering Company has applied for permits to drill in the area. They gave me a tour of the fish sanctuaries around the mangroves fringing both Goat Islands, and they asked how could these areas be developed? What will they do once they can no longer fish here?

"Back at their home, Herman proudly fried our catch of the day and served it to me garnished with carrots, onion and salad. Warmer and more hospitable hosts I could not have imagined. They were proud of their home and their heritage, and rightly so. I left them with a pit in my stomach about what is going to happen to them once the port and hub come.

fish served for dinner

"I really warmed to Herman, Paulette and Jabari, and I couldn't help but emphasize with them; their way of life was about to be ruptured, and they were completely powerless. Their pleas and protests were falling on deaf ears. But I was in awe of their strength and character, for they were not afraid to speak out against the governments plans and demand more transparency and engagement.

"Over the past couple of days I have been in the Hellshire Hills, one of the most remote parts of Jamaica and home to many of the endemic and threatened species within the Portland Bight Protected Area. Relatively inaccessible by land, we took a boat to Manatee Bay, where we set up camp before hiking on a jagged limestone trail up an escarpment to a small research station from where the Jamaican iguana recovery program has been run. I was excited to see the iguana, one of the rarest lizards in the world, and the subject of one of the most successful "model" recovery programs for a species. The expedition was led by Byron Wilson, a biologist from the U.S. who has devoted years of his life to the iguana, and who is one of the few academics in Jamaica who has been outspoken about the development despite being told to keep quiet. Diana McCaulay, founder and CEO of the Jamaica Environmental Trust, tells me that most academics will shake their head and tut tut about the issue, but few have been as bold as Byron in vocally opposing it and, in doing so, becoming an enemy of the state and jeopardizing his academic position at the University of the West Indies.

goat island plants

"Two Jamaican field workers, who have been working full time on the program for seven years, joined us, Booms and Dennis. Both Booms and Dennis came from humble beginnings in a poor area of Kingston and came to the Port Royal area as an escape. Here they learned about the project and were hired full time. Working on this project has been life-changing for them. 'I love being here. I hate not being here,' Booms told me. 'People don't understand unless they have been here. But I know. It enhances my brain.'

"From the research station we were treated to a stunning view of the limestone forest habitat and the coast, including larger Goat Island. 'I can't imagine coming here when you can hear dynamite coming from over there,' Byron told me 'and seeing the smoke from the coal-burning plant. I probably won't come here anymore.' For the past few decades the plan has been to make Goat Islands a haven for endemic and threatened species - to eradicate introduced creatures and return the iguana to their rightful home, for it was on Goat Islands that the species was rediscovered for the first time in the 1940s. The development has crushed these plans and will really jeopardize the success of this program to save the iguana.

"A large iguana - brown with bluish hind legs, like a living dinosaur with ruby red eyes, lumbered out of the forest and belly-flopped onto the floor of the station some six feet away from me. I sat still and for several moments felt privileged that it has chosen to spend these few minutes in our company.


"That night we went out looking for American crocodiles, another threatened species in the area. Booms is not afraid to handle a young individual and seems to enjoy the connection with the animal. I ask him why, when most Jamaicans revile these animals, he wants to protect them. 'We need to protect all life,' He replied. 'If you respect them, they will respect you. It's all about respect.'

"There is something very special about Portland Bight Protected Area. It is a unique area in Jamaica and indeed the whole Caribbean. As we sat on Manatee Bay on our last night in Hellshire - heads back, looking up at the star-filled sky, the forest rising magnificently behind us, and breathing the cool night air - I felt that wave of contentment that only comes with being truly immersed in nature, far from the scars of industrial development. I felt incredibly lucky to have been able to experience this while it was still possible, and to spend time in the company of a species brought back from the clutches of extinction, but deeply saddened by the prospect that, a year from now, this experience will not exist.

"With the selling of parts of PBPA, both for the transshipment port and for the logistics hub (which will be built on the mainland), a fragile ecosystem home to many unique species will be damaged irreparably. I feel saddened for the people who will be displaced, saddened for the unique and beautiful species whose homes will be destroyed, and angered that something as sacrosanct as a Nationally-declared Protected Area can simply be sold off for a quick profit. If this is allowed to proceed - and without significant international intervention it will - it represents to me an erosion of our moral values as a society. If we do nothing, we are condoning this, and this in my mind is a tragic indictment of our dysfunctional relationship with, and estrangement from, our natural world."

goat island iguanas