A recent report had me thinking. The wonderful area of Jamaica called Negril was experiencing beach erosion. I read and shook my head. My observations were correct. I asked myself..Is Negril doomed?
I am a child of the 60s, the generation of pot smoking adults and peace showing signage on cars and clothing, with big hair and big googled glasses and everybody chanting..’one love” and peace. The 60s were euphoric and Jamaica had a particular spot where these pot smokers congregated like bees over a pollen sack. It was Negril, tucked away over 7 miles of pristine sand and jacuzzi tempered waters. Hippies, as they were called, were not looking for luxury or fine hotels. They just needed a spot, any spot of land to pitch their tent and if the land offered a beach, the better.
Negril was perfect for this free smoking crowd. The traditional tourist went East, the hippies went west. They were not accepted at the time as ‘normal’ people by their peers and neither were the Rastafarians in Jamaica at the time. The 2 social derelicts formed an enchanting union where rastafarians with long flowing locks were seen with blond looking females strolling along the beach, romancing at liberty, sometimes with little or no clothing. Negril offered a Woodstock atmosphere and the little fishing spot became popular, attracting every type of crowd, crowds that were not only residents of the area , but also sharks, commonly known as ‘investors’, who were willing to feed on this open buffet of potential earnings.
When I got older to visit and go to places with my friends Negril was the spot of choice. In the 80s when the area was experiencing an economic boom it was the place to go and see all the weird things in life. We did not have a US Visa at the time so the closest to anything foreign was Negril. Every day seemed like a big party. I was enjoying the area, the beach, seeing the unusual pairings with ‘reggae’ babies in tow. Cabins and hotels were building at a rapid pace. Hedonism was the most popular Hotel and they catered to the sexaully liberated clientelle. The beach was a 7 mile orgy of hidden places, where sex was the norm. Negril was addictive. Negril was regarded as a place not in Jamaica.
I must admit i did not pay attention to the hotel boom but as I grew older I realised that Negril did not have the same effect it once had , not only for myself but my friends. It became sterile, crowded, urbanized, chock-a-block with hotels all along the beach.The atmosphere was not as open as in the 80s. The sharks claimed every inch of the beach, limiting access to the public. Large groups of people especially, from Kingston, would go and spend the entire day on the beach no charge. But slowly the personality was changing accompanied with bureaucratic jargon and power wielding owners declaring their spot of the beach, driving the people away. Negril was no longer owned by the people of Jamaica. It was now owned by capitalists, hungry loving, politically joined at the hips, we couldn’t care less sharks who were hell bent on squeezing every little bit they could out of the area.
My initial observations were not unusual but factual. When I visited my place of employment at the time, the beach shorelines were literally non existent. As seen in the picture above, guests were actually walking not on the beach but on Hotel’s property . Walking the beach was still legal, thank God, and sentries were posted for every Hotel to prevent any intruders from sneaking in, an attempt that often proved futile.
My second observation was there were times when overnight Hotel managers would wake up to tons of seaweed strewn all over the beach. At the Hotel where I worked it took 3 trucks 20 trips to clear the weed.
My third observation was hurricane had its usual devastating effect but you can be assured damages of untold cost would be experienced by most if not all the hotels on the beach and those across the highway. The little patch of beach left for public use was also now a garbage haven, plastic bottles and sundry were strewn , some floating in the water, green areas were literally patches of shrubbery, the decline was slowly dripping like a leaking faucet. The shore water levels have risen several feet in the past decade as well as grey water activities that have contributed to the dilemma. See report conducted by UWI.
These observations were the early 2000’s. I have not been to Negril since so to see this report brings home the message to me that Capitalism and the excessive urbanization of Negril , not climate changes, are the direct cause of the erosion of the finest piece of real estate in Jamaica added to the fact that under successive governments and political bribery the sharks managed to circumvent every law tabled in Jamaica for their excessive development under the disguise of providing ‘jobs’ , a fallacy that will cost the taxpayers of this country Billions of dollars.
None of this is surprising. Politicians like to use the masks of providing jobs as a political tool to cover the face of the ignorant. Their friends get the permits , often going over regulatory bodies heads and are allowed to drill, dig, scrape, erect 400 odd rooms on the patch of beach at will. Why not? A room in Negril is a fantastic hideaway for a politician and his side piece. Our country unfortunately is not adept at science and even when science is shouting at us to change our modus operandi, the sharks put on their luxury shades and look towards the East. Its none of their business. Hotels are full , We are making money.
I have a friend who happens to be an ex employee of the regulatory body of beaches in Jamaica . I sent him the report and I asked him why has this happened? Give me an explanation why the regulatory body did nothing to curb this tsunami heading our way? Here is his response..
…”Interesting article about erosion of the ‘famed’ Negril beach. Apparently we are just waking, and being half-asleep, are about to panic because the reality to which we are awakening is slightly unfocused and not entirely soothing.
When I joined the Natural Resources Conservation Division (precursor to the NRCA and NEPA) in 1982, a beach monitoring programme was already in place. Places such as Sunset Beach (Kent Avenue, Montego Bay), Black River, and Negril were areas of concern, displaying significant rates of erosion. Many areas along the coastline had groynes and breakwaters, notably areas of St. Thomas.
Developers in Negril knew from that time that there were significant rates of beach erosion, because the lot sizes shown on titles for beach lots did not match the reality on the ground. The Government of Jamaica knew, because, if for no other reason, various agencies involved in the planning and development control processes had to address issues of beach erosion and the consistent refrain from landowners to reclaim their ‘lost’ beach frontage. There was consistent and fierce opposition from the private sector and the public to any attempt by the public sector to reduce the building footprint on the beach side of the highway. In fact, a number of the conservation zones established in the first development plan for Negril were subsequently removed. Room density was shifted from the eastern (swamp) side of the highway to the beach side. Hoteliers raked the sand each morning, against all advice. Poor land management practices were embraced by all.
Now the rush to put in place breakwaters in Negril. I hope the government and other parties know what they are doing. The Kent Avenue erosion studies suggested that sand movement on Jamaica’s north coast had two overlapping cycles, one annual, and the other a 5-7-year cycle. Place breakwaters of groynes at the wrong time during the cycle, and the sand (that builds up off the beach) never returns. Hopefully any hard engineering intervention will be preceded by rigorous technical analysis.
I also hope this knee-jerk reaction will not be the sum of the intervention. Most people knew in the mid-1980s and 1990s that no hotels should be build along the beach. Hazard maps alerted all to the threats, public sector technocrats attempted to ‘manage’ the land use processes, and the private sector (often with the aid of their political allies) pushed for increased use of the most vulnerable areas of the coastline. This is not about saying ‘I told you so’, but a reminder that we are still ignoring facts and warnings. Climate change damage assessments indicate that most coastal areas in the Caribbean will be severely impacted by sea level rise and other threats. In some countries, it is estimated that up to 90% of the tourism infrastructure will be negatively impacted. Projections of replacement cost for hotels run into the billions (US$).
The statement attributed to the vendor that tourism will be lost if the beach erosion continues reflects much of the thinking regarding Caribbean tourism. However, the projected damages to coastal resources and infrastructure will not be adequately addressed by tossing a few million dollars at the problem. All countries need to become serious about land use/physical planning. We also need to start re-thinking the tourism product development and marketing strategies.
You all know this already. Wonder when the public will start taking this seriously. Wonder when the media will become serious about informing the public about the gravity of the looming challenges..”
So here we are at the cross -roads of I told you so. We knew of the inherent problems. To have sharks aided by their political cronies, having little regard for the environment and its effects on the country and the people of Westmoreland is a special kind of madness. All this was eminently avoidable if we only took our country’s well being first and listened to those scientists who advised otherwise. A learned economist Joseph Stiglitz said , “Should you let a group of foolish lawyers, who put together something before they understood these issues, interfere with saving the planet?” I think not!
So the question now confronts us, at what cost? At what cost are we prepared to ‘fix’ the problem. Estimates now stand at 77 million dollars, 77 million dollars of taxpayers money that hoteliers want the government to shore up. I say no way. Why must we allow these sharks to hop off the plunging train scotch free? I am not against development but the end does not justify the means. Development is encouraged but not without planning and taking into consideration why we are improving and even more importantly whom it serves.
We have some choices to make. I say let the sharks, not the government pay the 77 million for the fixing of the erosion of Negril and the government pay the pending escalating cost that will definitely be associated with the project. Our lack of planning and economic jigsaw is at war with life in Jamaica and by extension the world. We cannot change nature. The beach will do what it has to do. What we can change is our callous approach and disregard for the environment and our broken system of government. It takes you. It takes me. It takes us demanding from our politicians their position on climate change.
Change or be changed. Make no mistake this changes everything. Climate change is not about the climate changing naturally, it is about us and the way we interact with the climate. We MUST change. Until we understand this simple fact and look ahead to better not only our immediate lives but the lives of our future generation Jamaica, like Negril, is DOOMED.
Written by Paul Tomlinson