On Thursday of last week the incredible news broke that a massive transshipment port proposed in the heart of Jamaica’s largest Protected Area would instead be built in a less environmentally sensitive area. The seemingly simple announcement marks an unprecedented win for conservation, the culmination of three years of hard-fought battle to preserve Jamaica’s natural heritage and one of the rarest lizards in the world, the Jamaican Iguana.
I was drawn into this battle in early 2014 to bolster the work of the real conservation heroes. In light of this recent, incredible development, I wanted to share my own personal reflections on what I consider to be an incredible conservation success, in the hope that others fighting similar battles around the world may be able to learn and draw inspiration. So let’s start at the beginning.
“Can I set foot on one of the Goat Islands?” I asked local resident Paulette Coley as she and her husband Herman prepare to take me out for an early morning fish in the waters of Portland Bight Protected Area. “You are not allowed,” she replied, before adding “let’s go.”
A month earlier I had never heard of Goat Islands, let alone cared about their fate. But in March 2014 an email plopped into my inbox that made me care.
The email was from Rick Hudson, executive director of the International Iguana Foundation: “Just back from Jamaica and the news is bad. The government is preparing to sell off Jamaica’s largest protected area, where the Jamaica Iguana is found, to a company that has been blacklisted by the World Bank. A ‘world class’ logistics hub will go in where the Goat Islands use to be. All powered with a coal-burning plant! This would appear to be a done deal, though it is a contentious issue in Jamaica, with both supporters and opponents. The effort is well funded and a PR firm is staying on message about jobs and poverty alleviation. There are alternative sites available other than destroying this fragile ecosystem but they are not being considered. There is no transparency in the process.”
I called Hudson--distress was palpable in his voice, and made me feel sick to my stomach. Hudson has spent the past 25 years working with partners to bring the Jamaican Iguana back from the brink of extinction. It is a globally recognized conservation success story--but one that could go up in smoke at the whim of the administration.
The temptation for the Jamaican government was obvious: The proposed $1.5 billion port would be a major step toward establishing Jamaica as a key player in the changing global shipping chain, with expansion of the Panama Canal underway and the proposal of an entirely new and even bigger canal that would bisect Nicaragua. But the reasons for situating the port in the heart of the country’s largest protected area, pitting development against the environment and the livelihoods of local people, were less clear, and threatened to set a very dangerous precedent.
How could we help?
“The only thing that Jamaican politicians care about is negative international press,” Hudson said. The mission was clear. Tandora Grant at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research was, and still is, doing an incredible job at maintaining SaveGoatIslands.org, a one-stop-shop for all the most up-to-date information pertaining to the development, including a repository of all press releases. But getting the big news coverage in international outlets was proving difficult. I spoke with my team at Global Wildlife Conservation and we agreed that a covert expedition to Jamaica to capture photos and video was in order. And so, within a month, I was on my way to Jamaica.
Paulette, Herman, their young son Jabari and I push off from Old Harbor Bay as the first light of day spills over the horizon like liquid lava, to fish in the waters around Goat Islands. Paulette is a well-educated resident of Old Harbour Bay and the only registered fisherwoman in the community. “A lot of people don’t know what to think,” she says, when I ask her about the proposed development, “because we have not been provided with any information. The government claims it will bring jobs and opportunity to the area, but we are not qualified, and we are not being trained, for the jobs that will need to be done. They tell us what they want us to hear, but the reality is that we will be worse off. Many people will be displaced.”
As we skirt Little Goat Island on our way toward Great Goat Island, Herman and Paulette are keen to show me two signs, side-by-side. One sign informs that destroying the mangroves, burning coal and cutting trees are all prohibited, the other sign informs that the China Harbour Engineering Company has applied for a permit to do all of the above. Herman points to small markers indicating the boundaries of a fish sanctuary, and asks: “How can they say this won’t have an impact on our livelihoods?” The question is left hanging as we moor in a small cove laced with arching mangrove roots and step ashore Great Goat Island. Paulette collects a large Aloe Vera plant and some rosemary, explaining that “they are more abundant here.” I imagine how this beautiful island, with its tangle of mangroves that provide a nursery for the fish that sustain families in Old Harbour Bay, will look in five years. The Goat Islands were once home to the Jamaican Iguana, and many have dreamed of turning them into a sanctuary for the iguanas, free from introduced predators. It is a dream jeopardized by the proposed port.
But who am I--a foreigner who has spent just hours on Jamaican soil--to judge? In a bid to gain a better idea of local perspectives toward the proposed development, I spend the next few days accompanying Diana McCaulay, founder and CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) and born-and-bred Jamaican, to learn more about the impacts--both positive and negative--on local people and local ecosystems. It is clear that opinions vary widely, but it is also clear that these are based largely on hear-say and spin, with solid information on the proposed development lacking. “We are not outright against development,” McCaulay explains, as much as the media likes to paint it that way, “we just want transparency from the government on plans for the port and associated logistics hub. We don’t even know exactly where the hub would go.”
My last few days in Jamaica are spent visiting the only wild population of the Jamaican Iguana. The Hellshire Hills, where the iguanas reside, are difficult to reach by land, and so I bundle into a boat with Dr. Byron Wilson, iguana program field technicians, and enough food and drink for a few days to make our way to Manatee Bay for a glimpse of the creature in its native habitat. From the bay, we hike up through dry forest sprouting from sharp limestone to a field station. From the station we are treated to a view of the forest spilling toward mangroves and islands such as Goat Islands fringed by cobalt waters, safeguarded in Jamaica’s largest natural reserve.
The view is of Portland Bight, a 187,515-hectare protected area containing one of the largest dry limestone forests in the Caribbean and the largest intact mangrove forest in the country, with some 20 globally threatened species. The area was protected in 1999 by the government of Jamaica after being recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a place of “international importance for the conservation of biodiversity through protected areas and other governance mechanisms.” The area was deemed so special that it was under consideration as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Until, that is, the prospect of a $1.5 billion investment came along.
As we sit in the field station trying different methods of cooling down, a large male Jamaican Iguana sidles toward us and flumps down onto the floor by our feet. I study the incredible dinosaur-like creature and try to image all that this species has seen. I soak in the experience--my first Jamaican Iguana, the astonishing view-- and try to imagine how this might all look if the development goes ahead. “I won’t be coming back here once that’s a logistics hub,” Wilson says as he looks out towards Goat Islands. The idea of razing such natural beauty to create a mega-port and coal-burning plant feels to me like burning the Mona Lisa to heat your dinner.
On our final morning in Hellshire, after a night of searching with spotlights for American Crocodiles in the mangroves around our camp, I contemplate how best to tell the story of what is happening here through a local voice that would have resonance with an international audience. I decide to capture a video interview with one of the iguana program field technicians with us called Kenroy Williams, aka “Booms.” Booms proves to be an eloquent and relatable spokesperson, and the footage will prove key to getting the word out and in putting a local face on my coverage of the issue.
My main goal in Jamaica was to tell the story of what was happening in a way that would connect with an international audience. During my expedition, National Geographic Creative agreed to an Instagram takeover so that I could post directly to their 80,000-plus followers. I uploaded several images a day, ensuring at least a 24-hour lag to avoid alerting the authorities to my exact location. It proved an effective way to start getting the message out to an international audience and word began to spread within Jamaica that a “National Geographic photographer” was on the loose. It was my first validation of the real power of Instagram for raising awareness around an issue.
Upon my return from Jamaica I published an article in National Geographic Voices through the International League of Conservation Photographers, and produced a short video of Booms called Guardian of the Reptiles, below. The video was played more than 25,000 times in the first weeks, thanks in large part to a share from Ziggy Marley on social media, and Booms became the face of the battle to save the iguana.
Articles followed in the Guardian, the Huffington Post and Take Part, and Wendy Townsend wrote a powerful Op-ed for CNN. We got creative in our efforts to get the message in front of our target audience, projecting the film and messages to #SaveGoatIslands onto the facade of the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D.C. (see below).
In September 2014 the Conservation Strategy Fund published a report on the environmental and economic impacts of building a port on Jamaica’s Goat Islands. The findings were positive: building an equivalent facility at a place called Macarry Bay, to the west of Goat Islands, would cost an estimated $200 million less to build, and with a far smaller environmental cost.
The costs of developing a port on Goat Islands were starting to look far greater than the benefits, and JET continued to lobby for more transparency from the government on the location and environmental damage incurred by the development, attempting unsuccessfully to bring them to court to answer for the laws they would be breaking. But the government continued to be evasive on the issue, and the media continued to publish articles indicating that the port project was alive and well despite the protests of “screeching environmentalists” like Diana McCaulay (The Jamaican Gleaner actually published a column on March 2, 2014, titled ‘That screeching environmentalist’ in reference to McCaulay).
By the summer of 2015 the fate of Goat Islands had become a hot topic across Jamaica, as evidenced by the release of the bitingly satirical and incredibly catchy song “Well Done” by Kabaka Pyramid, with a slick video produced by Damian Marley, including the lyrics:
“Anything to secure your vote and then you,
rob the people to secure your boat,
To go to Goat Islands where the Chinese own,
All of Jamaica is a Chinese loan.”
Soon after the release of this video, after a year of ominous silence from the government, I returned to Jamaica to continue my quest to keep the issue in the international spotlight. I met and photographed Kabaka Pyramid with a young Jamaican Iguana at Hope Zoo in Kingston--he was a good sport, willing to handle the lizards, and eager to learn more about them and their plight. Images like the one below allowed us to further leverage the profile and popularity of artists such as Kabaka to push the issue further into the mainstream.
Filmmaker Thaddeus Matula joined me as I set off for the Hellshire Hills on a mission to film hatchling Jamaican Iguanas (we tried to time it to the week that we believed that iguana egg clutches would be hatching) and make a more in-depth piece on the threats to their survival. The resulting short documentary, below, has been played more than 50,000 times on the Facebook page of the International Iguana Foundation, thanks to support from the likes of Mark Ruffalo in pushing the word out.
Elections in early 2016 saw the government change hands to the Jamaica Labour Party, with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller making way for Andrew Holness. JET urged the new government to make the environment a priority, but the government continued the tradition of secrecy around the issue. Until, on September 22, 2016, Holness attended a Town Hall meeting in New York City and was asked directly about the proposed port on Goat Islands.
It was the evening of September 22, 2016, just two days after The Jamaican Gleaner posted the article: Holness Administration Going Ahead With Goat Islands Logistics Hub Plans, that the Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness was faced with the question about the fate of Goat Islands. He responded that the port would be going ahead, but not on Goat Islands, and followed up his statement with the tweet below, which was quickly retweeted by Diana McCaulay with the declaration #GoatIslandsSaved.
This statement from Holness is the most clarifying statement we have received from the government in two years, and the first indication from McCaulay that this battle has been won--a victory she described as the best of her 25-year career. But she has also warned against complacency, and continues to put pressure on the Holness administration to make an official announcement in Jamaica, and to reveal further details on the revised plans for the port.
Large questions still remain, and the story of the Jamaican Iguana will continue to unfold, as the long-held dream of creating a predator-free haven for the iguana on Goat Islands is once again rekindled.
I can honestly say that the Jamaican Iguana has enriched my own life by the simple act of being. I savored every minute I got to spend in the presence of this remarkable dinosaur-like creature, and feel lucky to know those working so tirelessly to protect it. Their work has become an inspirational story of prevailing against long odds--a story of passion, determination, perseverance and sheer grit. It has become far more than a story about a lizard. The iguana has become an emblem for the values of these people, who choose to fight for that which they believe to be unmeasurably valuable over short-term profit and greed. People, like Diana McCaulay, the Coley’s, Byron Wilson, Rick Hudson and Booms, who believe that when a decision has been made that something is worth protecting, that it is our duty to protect it even if it means going against the grain of society.
I feel lucky to have been able to stand behind McCaulay and her team at JET, with the unwavering support of my own organization Global Wildlife Conservation, to help shine the spotlight on their battle. Howard Zinn once said, “the problem with the World is not civil disobedience… The problem with the world is Civil obedience.” When presented with decisions like the Jamaican government’s to develop Portland Bight Protected Area we either become, through our action or inaction, activists or accomplices. McCaulay and team have show us that civil disobedience, when done intelligently and constructively, can reap incredible rewards and create a brighter future for our children.
As soon as I saw the announcement about Goat Islands I emailed McCaulay to congratulate her. Her reply, “I rarely get ‘big ups’ so I treasure every one,” only reinforced my respect and admiration for her, and reminded me that those who fight hardest for the most noble of causes do so too often without praise or recognition. And so, to Diana McCaulay, and all the unsung heroes fighting to protect our shared natural heritage--a massive big up.