by Susan Otuokon, Director of Programmes, JCDT

Collaboration Protects a National Treasure in Jamaica

Sipping hot, fragrant coffee on the veranda of a log cabin surrounded by swirling mists and the sweet scent of pine and cedar. This is the image conjured up when one mentions the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. The Blue Mountains of Jamaica include the highest point in the island, the Blue Mountain Peak (2,256 metres) and where the forest has not been cleared for pine, coffee, banana and other crops, the natural rain forest is rich with over 500 species of flowering plants. The Blue Mountains often look blue as one views them from the plains, because of the mist which almost constantly surrounds the higher ranges. The adjoining John Crow Mountains do not share this hue nor the same soil, topography or vegetation. The reason behind the name is obscure and may or may not have anything to do with the common vulture found in Jamaica which shares the same name. It has been said that these mountains are so rugged that only the high soaring John Crow can venture there.

The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park was established in 1993 as part of a USAID - Government of Jamaica funded project called PARC - Protected Areas Resource Conservation. This project which began in 1989 was aimed at linking the conservation of natural resources in with sustainable economic development in rural areas through the establishment of National Parks. Importantly, this government project included amongst the major players a non-government organisation, the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT). The JCDT was formed in 1987 by a group of environment and development professionals who saw the need for a non-profit organisation which could implement projects for the promotion of sustainable development, such as the PARC project. The project was managed by a special unit of the Planning Institute of Jamaica and the agencies involved - Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), Forestry Department and the JCDT worked cooperatively to achieve the various goals. In addition to the establishment of a terrestrial national park, the PARC project accomplished the establishment of a marine park in Montego Bay in 1991, the establishment of a Conservation Data Centre at the University of the West Indies, the preparation by the JCDT of “A Plan for a System of Protected Areas for Jamaica” submitted to government in 1992, the preparation and passing of legislation for the National Parks and the establishment and capitalization of the Jamaica National Parks Trust Fund managed by the JCDT.

The Blue and John Crow Mountains dominate the eastern portion of the island of Jamaica. The island is the third largest in the Caribbean with a total land area of 10,938 square kilometers (4,411 square miles). Coral reefs, beaches, mangroves and an extensive coastal plain surround a plateau and backbone of peaks across the island. Jamaica emerged as an island 10 to 15 million years ago and has never been connected to any other land mass. This has resulted in the development of a unique flora and fauna with a high percentage of endemic species. Of the approximately 3,000 flowering species known to occur on the island, almost 28% are endemic. Twenty five per cent of the breeding bird species are endemic and this includes the second smallest bird in the world the Vervain or Bee Hummingbird. There are four endemic mammalian species - three bats and the Jamaican Hutia or Coney; twenty seven reptiles including the Jamaican Boa and twenty amphibians. Much of the wildlife in Jamaica is to be found in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park and in other remote tropical rain or dry limestone forest in the island.

The importance of the Blue and John Crow Mountains for its watershed and forestry purposes was recognised in 1944 with the protection of much of the area as a Forest Reserve. This status made it illegal to cut trees without written permission from the Forestry Department. Unfortunately with the structural adjustment processes of the seventies the island’s economy began to crumble resulting in decreased funding to the natural resource conservation agencies including the Forestry Department. At the same time that the human and financial resources of these agencies were declining, rural communities were forced to become even more dependant on the forest to eke out a living. A combination of big business - removing natural forest for large pine and coffee plantations - and small farmers - clearing land for lumber, housing and growing cash crops like carrots, escallion and thyme - has resulted in major deforestation of some parts of the Blue Mountains, particularly on the southern slopes. This deforestation has been a major cause of massive soil erosion, landslides, siltation of the major rivers and reservoirs, flooding and low groundwater levels. In addition, farmers either have to use large amounts of fertilizers or keep moving their plots in order to maintain crop productivity. There are therefore numerous problems faced by rural farmers which make farming an unattractive occupation for the youth. In addition to the environmental problems there are socio-economic difficulties such as lack of land tenure, poor water supply, weak infrastructure e.g. public transportation, roads, public health care.

The urgent need for the protection and conservation of the valuable resources of the Blue and John Crow Mountains had become very apparent by the 1980’s, so it was not surprising that the decision was taken to make this site Jamaica’s first National Park. Other areas highly recommended for protected area status are the Cockpit Country (wet limestone forest), Black River (wetlands), Portland Ridge and Bight and Hellshire Hills (dry limestone forest) and marine areas to the west (Negril) and east (Port Antonio), It was very clear however that National Parks in Jamaica and protected areas in general could not be established and administered with the “top-down” approach typical of many government projects. Instead there was a need for involvement of the stakeholders in the planning and management of the sites. This was part of the reasoning behind the involvement of the JCDT from the early planning stages of the PARC project. The JCDT as an NGO was able to provide a neutral community link, access to funding not available to government and encourage individuals and groups to become more interested in protected area management. In fact, before the end of the PARC Project several Environmental NGOs had expressed an interest in and begun working towards the establishment and management of a protected area in their part of the island. JCDT was able to assist and advise these organisations and included the recommendation for local ENGO management of protected areas in the “Plan for a System of Protected Areas”.

The process of developing the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park was one of experimentation, in fact it was acknowledged to be a pilot project. It was important to have a pilot exercise as part of the PARC Project as otherwise only documents would have been produced instead of a working project from which useful experience was gained (N.B. Montego Bay Marine Park was established as a pilot project also). Flexibility was therefore very important to the project as was the strong commitment of the personnel.

The initial stages involved meeting with inhabitants of the Blue and John Crow Mountains as well as with other stakeholders e.g. National Water Commission, Coffee Industrial Development Company (CIDCO) and the Forestry Industrial Development Company (FIDCO). It was in these community meetings, often very casual and lengthy, that issues affecting the local and wider community were expressed, analyzed and solutions suggested. The issues were often very broad and not directly related to biodiversity conservation. However it was obvious to the Park managers that within the context of the socio-economic realities, such issues as roads, employment and water supply needed to be dealt with in order to ensure the protection of the forests and their resources. In order to assist in the mobilising of communities and to ensure regular communications with the Park management, local advisory committees (LACs) were formed. LAC meetings were organised once a month in three areas (initially, focus in the Park is on three sectors) by the Park which invited literally everyone in the community. Eventually the LACs established executive committees and action committees to deal with administration, organisation, planning and implementation of projects. People were interested in these LAC meetings because they provided a forum for airing views and a mechanism for initiating projects determined by the community as having socio-economic and environmental benefits.

LACs not only provide an important link between communities and Park management e.g. community members can report illegal activities, make resource management suggestions and assist in park projects e.g. trail development. LACs provide human and financial resources for activities in the park and its buffer zones. This will occur either through the actions of the LAC directly or through sub-committees. The LAC can develop project ideas and implement them whilst Park management assists in proposal writing and soliciting project funding. An example of a project tackled by the Minto area LAC was the rebuilding of a fording across the Yallahs River at Mahogany Vale - this was important for safe travel in the area especially during heavy rainfall. Park management assisted with seed funds, publicity and the location of voluntary civil engineering expertise and the LAC raised funds with concerts and other events and provided labour and food on the workdays.

Another example from this area was the formation of the Top of Jamaica Tour Guide Company. This company was formed from an interested group of young adults in the area who expressed an interest in this type of employment - large numbers of foreigners and locals visit the area on their way to the Blue Mountain Peak and before this company there was no formal organisation providing guide and other services. Park management assisted in the provision of training e.g. in small business management, tour guiding, first aid, natural and cultural history of the area. The JCDT’s Peace Corps Volunteer worked with this group to develop the organisation and the JCDT assisted in locating funding for company operations and for refurbishing of the cabins and the building of an additional cabin. The JCDT continues to assist Top of Jamaica by acting as a booking agent. These activities though apparently unrelated to conservation result in goodwill towards the National Park reflected in careful use of the resources of the area for sustainable economic development.

Many difficulties remain to be overcome by the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park but the Park has made a positive difference to the lives of many Jamaicans in the remote areas of these landmark mountains. The JCDT is dedicated to continue the promotion of sustainable development through sound environmental management, education and advocacy working with local community members and with the support of the numerous interested government agencies and private sector companies.