Jamaica: A Land of Imperiled Nature: Threats to Jamaica’s Coastal Ecosystems Due to Proposed Development of the Goat Islands


Anolis grahami in the Hellshire Hills

Today, the genus Anolis represents the most common of Jamaica’s reptiles. Indeed, most Jamaican anoles are quite ubiquitous throughout the island, but the abundance of these and other small lizards  is misleading. Many of Jamaica’s reptiles, several of which are endemic to the island, are in immediate danger of extinction. Indeed the Jamaican herpetofauna is one of the most threatened in the entire Caribbean and several species have already been lost; Many more are now under threat under threat due to  development in Jamaica’s  protected habitats.

Map showing the major protected areas and nature reserves of Jamaica including the Portland Bight Protected Area, inclusive of the Goat Islands source:http://inweh.unu.edu/jamaica-mpa/

Map showing the major protected areas and  reserves of Jamaica
source: http://inweh.unu.edu/jamaica-mpa/

Over the years  numerous protected areas have been established across Jamaica  with the intent of preserving its endemic biodiversity, particularly birds, mammals and reptiles. Two of these areas, the Black River Morass and Portland Bight Protected Area,  are significant refuges for a large number of Jamaica’s threatened endemic reptiles.



Juvenile American crocodile Crocodylus acutus

Juvenile American crocodile.Crocodylus acutus. A large population of this threatened species currently inhabits the Black River Morass
Crocodylus acutus. Photo by author

By far the most important nature reserve in Jamaica is the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) created by the Jamaican government in 1999. It is the largest protected area in Jamaica and spans approximately 1,880 square kilometers of wetlands, coastal mangroves and coastal dry forests, all three of which are important threatened ecosystems. Although the first priority in forming the protected area was to protect the coral reefs found within, it also serves to protect vulnerable and endemic species. The PBPA encompasses the Hellshire Hills and Portland ridge in the parishes of St. Catherine  and Clarendon respectively; these are the two largest areas of dry forests remaining on Jamaica and form one of the largest areas of relatively intact tropical limestone forests in entire Caribbean.

The coastal dry forests of the Hellshire Hills, part of the Portland Bight Protected Area source:http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyclura/3267735122/

The coastal dry forests of the Hellshire Hills, part of the Portland Bight Protected Area.
Source: Joe Burgess’s Flickr page

The PBPA  is a reserve for several threatened species of plants and animals and serves as the last refuge for several of Jamaica’s rarest reptiles including the Jamaican iguana, Cyclura collei, which with a global population of 150 lizards is one of the rarest reptiles in the world. The area is also home to the Jamaican skink,  Mabuya fulgida, and the small recently rediscovered blue-tailed galliwasp, Celestus duquesneyi,  both of which have extremely limited distributions outside of the Hellshire Hills, as well as the endangered Jamaican  boa, Chilabothrus subflavus,  which is patchily distributed throughout the Island. The PBPA also encompasses several offshore cays including Little Goat island and Great Goat Island; The  Jamaican government had plans to eradicate the mongoose as well as the feral goats from the Goat islands after which suitable organisms from the mainland dry forests would be transplanted onto the islands in an effort to preserve the endemic dry forest biodiversity. This plan however seems to have hit a a monumental roadblock.


Blue tailed galliwasp Celestus duquesneyi.
Photo from http://savegoatislands.org

The China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) has proposed the construction of a trans shipping port  and logistics hub in Jamaica to take advantage of the expansion of the Panama Canal, and has selected the Goat islands as its suitable location, even going so far as to decline several alternatives which were offered for development  due to  land area restraints as well  as the optimal location of the islands in relation to Kingston Harbour. Should the project receive the go ahead from the Jamaican parliament,  it is likely that the entire PBPA will be affected. With an estimated budget of US$1.5 billion (so far I do not believe the government has explicitly stated the exact amount) invested by CHEC, this is a construction project on a grand scale. The  size of the port would greatly exceed the combined area of the Goat Islands, which in all likelihood would be bulldozed and dredged in the process as the water around the islands is only 11 feet deep, and would extend onto the coastal mainland. The  construction of the port as well as the resulting  economic activities that it would open the way for would have a devastating impact on the coastal dry forest ecosystems  of the PBPA as a result of pollution as well as environmental degradation seeing as the Goat Islands and their surrounding reefs serve as natural buffers to effect of waves on the coastline. Should the port be built, it is very likely that many of the endemic plant and animal species of the PBPA , which represent a large chunk of the endemic biodiversity of the Caribbean, would be lost.

The project is still being reviewed and the government has not signed off on the area as the definite location of the Logistics hub yet. The area is currently being assessed by the Jamaican Port Authority  to investigate the social,  economical and environmental implications that this will have and the project is being reviewed by CHEC  in order to draft a final proposal to the Jamaican government. The government  seems intent on going through with the project and so far key members in the debate have expressed sentiments such as that ”two likkle lizaad” (two small lizards) are not enough to hinder the development of the Jamaican economy. Admittedly, some of Jamaica’s involved ministers have not given details as to whether  not  the  project is likely to  be undertaken in the PBPA.

Cyclura collei source;http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyclura/3696292550/

The Jamaican iguana represents one of Jamaica’s success stories; brought back from the brink of extinction  after its rediscovery in the Helshire Hills, this species is once again in immediate danger of being wiped  from the face of the earth.
source;Joe Burgess’s Flickr page

They have also proposed plans to relocate some of the more threatened wildlife of the PBPA, thought this seems entirely infeasible as the PBPA represents what is basically the only intact area of  dry forest in Jamaica and this is the only ecosystem in which these threatened species will survive. So far, two major obstacles seem to be the only hindrance to the realization of this project. First, it is  possible that the US will step in to defend its 99  year lease on the Goat Islands, which it acquired in 1940 when Jamaica was still a British colony. Though this could theoretically put an end to the development plans, it is very unlikely that it will ever be an issue because the Jamaican government very well might disregard it. The second, far more powerful obstacle, has been vocal opposition from environmentalist groups, particularly the  Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) which is prepared to take the government to court to stop the development if necessary, defending the  PBPA’s status as an internationally recognized protected area. There has also been opposition from other Jamaican as well as American environmentalists and activists, who have gone so far as to draft a petition to be submitted to Parliament.

A final agreement is expected to be reached by all parties involved by April of 2014, at which point a decision will be made as whether or not  construction in the proposed area should begin. It appears that Jamaica’s  wildlife is in dire peril and, personally, I  hate to think that future generations may never be able to experience  the rich biodiversity and pristine beauty that Jamaica is known for.

Admittedly, Jamaica is in a crisis situation; however, with continued efforts by environmentally conscious individuals, we just might be able to rescue Jamaica’s threatened ecosystems and avoid losing any more of the precious and invaluable wildlife that  calls  these ecosystems home.

Though I have tried my best to convey accurate information, it  is always best to have firsthand info and there are several arguments and counterarguments to the development proposal debate too lengthy to discuss here. The purpose of this post was strictly to identify what, in my opinion, the effects to PBPA area wold be. I have collected several links to articles detailing the CHEC development proposal and its implications for anyone interested (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8). Links 1, 2 6 and 8 are particularly important.


8 thoughts on “Jamaica: A Land of Imperiled Nature: Threats to Jamaica’s Coastal Ecosystems Due to Proposed Development of the Goat Islands

  1. ‘Jamaica: A Land of Imperiled Nature’

    This is certainly true. Whilst some mediocre protective legislature is in place in some parts of the country, in my experience this does not seem to translate well to conservation measures on the ground.

    See the January 2014 edition of Froglog (http://www.amphibians.org/froglog) for my article on the current conservation status of frogs in the western Cockpit Country area. We were surprised to find that these animals are not even covered under the Wildlife Protection Act!

    Hopefully the reality of the situation will be realised before its too late.

  2. Unfortunately, even with the current opposition efforts and the PBPA’s protected status it is unlikely that the plan will be abandoned. The only possibly solution I see is that CHEC will agree to another location or move on from Jamaica altogether.

    There have been opposition campaigns against development proposals in other protected areas as well as in the Hellshire hills before. These were largely unsuccessful and that is part of the reason why the Hellshire hills is in its current state. These next few months will tell, whether or not the port will be built and, if it is, what the consequences will be.

  3. Thank you: excellent description of the situation! I hope this “development” can be stopped and real conservation implemented. I began my career at Portland Bight, collecting crocodiles for the Philadelphia Zoo (and Roger Conant) in 1957. Roger got me to collect small things like anoles too, and sent these to the likes of Ernst Williams at MCZ, Harvard…. Well, things moved on from there! Happy New Year! Skip

  4. Though not, It seems, by an official statement by the Jamaican government. It seems that it is the Port Authority that is doing all the talking. In any case, this news is not entirely surprising as the JA government recently defered an application to the UN to recognize the PBPA as a biosphere reserve, even though the original application process had taken over eight years and involved jumping through a lot of hoops. It is easy to see how this could possibly have been done to help secure the Goat islands as a building site. The Port Authority had released another report (http://www.portjam.com/PortJam/documents/Environmental%20Management%20Scoping%20Project%20Second%20Draft%20Final%20Report%20Reduced%20Size. We will soon see what the actual results of this port construction will be.

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