Photo above: Jamaica’s Negril beach in the vicinity of the Tree House Hotel bar after rough seas on Good Friday 2013 and prior to the fire that destroyed the Country Country Hotel restaurant in the foreground. Photo credit: Mary Veira/IPS.
By Zadie Neufville
IPS Caribbean Correspondent
KINGSTON, Jamaica (IPS) – A plan that government says will slow the rate of erosion on Jamaica’s world-famous Negril beach is being opposed by the people whose livelihoods it is meant to protect.
Work is set to begin in March, but some in the tourist town continue to resist the planned construction of two breakwaters, which experts say is one of a series of actions aimed at protecting the beach and slowing persistent erosion. Those opposing the plan say the structures will do more damage than good.
“Building breakwaters is not what stakeholders here want. These hard structures cause more erosion than they prevent,” Couples Resort’s Mary Veira told IPS.
There is fear, Veira explained, that the structures will hinder the natural regeneration of the beach that currently occurs after each extreme weather event.
Government targeted the ‘Seven Mile’ stretch of Negril’s coast as its climate change adaptation project after several studies indicated that more than 55 metres of beach had been eroded in the last 40 plus years. The tourist Mecca is said to account for 25 per cent of the earnings of an industry that is responsible for about half of Jamaica’s GDP.
Veira is one of a group of hoteliers calling for a halt to the breakwater project, fearing its construction will irreparably damage Negril’s tourism industry. The environmental activist also pointed out that the structure is significantly different to that proposed by Smith Warner International (SWI) in 2008, in a consultation paid for by the community.
In addition she said, “The engineers who have been awarded the job are not coastal engineers.”
In a newspaper article dated May 2014, Veira noted: “Also of concern to stakeholders is the fact that the Environmental Engineer of National Works Agency, Dr. Mark Richards, admits such a major project of sea defense has really never been done.”
Business owners expressed concerns that boulders from the two “large rubble mound breakwaters” could break loose and destroy properties during rough weather. They also worry that it will create an eyesore as well as cause further damage to the fragile marine ecosystem, effectively killing snorkeling beds.
Both the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), which overseas environment and planning on the island, and the National Works Agency (NWA), the entity overseeing the project, are adamant that the fears are unwarranted. Many hoteliers, however, continue to dig in.
The government has accused Veira and others of conducting a misinformation campaign to undermine the project’s credibility and the issue has divided the community.
The construction of the two breakwaters 1.2 kilometres off shore follows on previous work to strengthen the natural ecosystem protection of the coastal communities by replanting sea grass beds and mangroves in several vulnerable communities, including Negril. The structures are expected to break wave action and allow other remedial work to take place.
Government has said the beach nurturing option is out of the question. In May 2014, director of environment in the project’s implementing agency the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) Clare Bernard told Negril’s business community in a meeting that the 5.4 million dollars earmarked for construction of the breakwaters could not be used for beach nourishment.
With the start date fast approaching, Sandals Resorts International (SRI) has thrown its weight behind the government’s plan. The popular hotel chain’s position was made clear in a Jan. 13 letter to the Jamaica Observer newspaper by SRI director of business processes and administration Wayne Cummings and reiterated at Friday’s meeting.
“It would be irresponsible of the agency to use government-guaranteed funds to reseed the beach for short-term gain, without treating with the known problems of wave action, only to see the beach retreat once again,” Cummings said in his statement.
Sandals operates three properties along what is said to be the most impacted section of the coastline – the Long Bay Beach also known as the Seven-Mile-Beach, as well as a ‘yet-to-be-developed’ property on the Bloody Bay Beach. The company has over the years invested in its own solutions to protect its properties.
“Let’s get this corrective phase done and commit to working with the Government to initiate a phase two for reseeding and maintaining the beach to bring Negril back to its world-class conditions,” Cummings continued.
On Jan. 23, those for and against faced off in a meeting that authorities hoped would have settled the matter once and for all. But both sides dug in and the meeting ended in a stalemate.
In addition to the fear of property damage from boulders, opponents contend that the current project bears no resemblance to that in a 2008 proposal by Smith Warner International (SWI).
In fact even more recent plans for the beach’s restoration included a comprehensive ecosystem upgrade to include sediment trend analysis, hydrological studies, artificial reefs and other “soft engineering approaches to build disaster resilience”, NEPA’s Manager of Strategic Planning and Policies Anthony McKenzie told IPS in 2012.
But authorities say the plans changed, in part because of the community’s advocacy. And the PIOJ and other government organisations have also expressed shock at the community’s apparent about-face. They have been in constant dialogue since the start, they said.
On Jan. 7, in a statement to the Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee, NEPA’s CEO Peter Knight blamed the ongoing row on the lack of “institutional memory”, and a changing of the guard at the helm of various interest groups, such as the Negril Chamber of Commerce.
Knight told the house that as a precautionary measure, an experienced disaster mitigation expert had been contracted to review the plans, pushing the project six-months behind its original schedule.
A onetime head of the Negril Chamber of Commerce and the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, Cummings implored the Negril community to remain focused. He pointed out that the solutions now being presented by government came from its own ‘cause and effect study’ that highlighted the loss of the reef due to natural and man-made issues.
Cummings accepted the community’s arguments that businesses will be negatively affected during the construction phase of the project and called on government to help them by providing “economic breathing room” in the form of tax breaks to keep companies afloat.
But marine biologist Andrew Ross understands why the community is upset.
“The engineering reports to which these proposed groynes are modelled only look at the current state and make no reference to the ecosystem services that accumulated sands for the grass meadows, beach and dunes over the previous thousands of years, namely the coral reef ticket,” he noted.
Ross, who specialises in the restoration of coral reefs, added that, “Any sand-targeted engineered solution can only be a band-aid, at best.”
In fact, the sea grass beds replanted two years ago in a multi-sector project funded by the European Union is all but gone, washed out by storms after only a few months. And the introduction of Shorelock, a so-called ‘sand-magnet’ chemical being used on the beach, has not rested well with folks.
Both Cummings and Ross agree on one thing: with all efforts combined, “Negril’s ecosystem can be fixed.” But as Cummings puts it, “As long as the finished product ‘plugs the holes’ identified as being the main causes of the aggressive wave actions.”