During the 1990s, I spent many weekends with friends at an old house on a hill, overlooking the Runaway Bay coastline on Jamaica’s north coast. One of my routines was a sunset walk at a place called Pear Tree Bottom, which by then had already experienced ‘development’ – the coast road had been moved inland, groynes had been built to trap sand, and Jamaicans living on the beach had been removed. There were five small coves with white sand beaches and the waves broke on a reef offshore. Later, I learned the breaking waves marked a spectacular wall dive; that a scuba diver could simply wade into the shallow water at Pear Tree Bottom, swim out to the reef, and then descend to blue depths along a living coral wall. There was a fresh water marsh on the other side of the north coast road, an expanse of rippling reeds in flowing water, and then the land climbed to the Runaway Bay hills, where there were ordinary houses and tourist villas and a Great House called Belle Aire, which every Jamaican knew, because a long-running local soap opera, Royal Palm Estate, was filmed there. The Pear Tree River came down from the hills and meandered through the marsh to the sea. Every natural science student at the University of the West Indies (UWI) went to Pear Tree Bottom to learn about mangroves, seagrasses, rocky shores and coral reefs, because they existed together in a very small area, unique on the north coast. Pear Tree Bottom was a living university, containing remnants of what the whole north had once looked like.
This understated yet remarkable place became the subject of Jamaica’s first public interest environmental lawsuit, filed by two small Jamaican environmental NGOs – the Northern Jamaica Conservation Association (NJCA) and the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), because there was a plan to construct a large Spanish hotel on the site.
It was an unsuitable place for a big hotel – no long white sand beach, the wetlands likely to make mosquito control difficult, the sea floor covered with seagrass – tourists want a sandy bottom. In the late 1990s, Spanish investors began building hotels in Jamaica and our definition of a large hotel went from, say, 600 rooms to almost 1,500.
Sometime in 2005, I got a phone call from an NGO colleague, Wendy Lee, who still lives in Runaway Bay and then ran a non-profit group called the Northern Jamaica Conservation Association (NJCA). ‘Diana!’ she said. ‘A Spanish hotel has bought Pear Tree Bottom!’
‘Isn’t it on the list of places that are supposed to be protected?’ I asked. That list had been around since the early 1990s, but few places on it had been put under legal protection.
‘Of course it is,’ Wendy said. ‘Can you do something? Anything?’
Pear Tree Bottom. I sat back in my chair and wondered about the name – there are a lot of places called ‘bottom’ in Jamaica, but often they are in deep valleys. Perhaps once there had been a grove of pear trees – we call avocados pears – or perhaps there was one really big pear tree, maybe a pear tree with a ghost story, or a pear tree that hid an escaped slave. I knew we had an old file somewhere, sent to me by Professor Ivan Goodbody, an Irishman who had come to Jamaica in 1955 to lecture in marine biology at UWI. He had also been a member of Jamaica’s environmental regulatory board, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA).
The oldest thing on the file was a 1990 letter from J.D. Woodley, a Senior Lecturer at UWI to the precursor of the NRCA, the Natural Resources Conservation Division. Jeremy Woodley is British; he came to Jamaica in 1966, answering an advertisement from UWI. He lived in Jamaica for 33 years and his last position was Director of the Center for Marine Sciences. Dr. Woodley’s 1990 letter mentions the use of Pear Tree Bottom as a study site for UWI and then he describes the reefs: ‘The coral reefs at Peartree (sic) Bottom, with their well-developed buttresses, narrow terrace and submarine caves, are of great interest; indeed it is once proposed (sic) that the Marine Laboratory should be sited there. Tom Goreau discovered the “living fossil” sclerosponges in the caves . . . all reefs in Jamaica are under stress from various causes, notably pollution from sediments and nutrients in terrestrial run-off, and a lack of herbivorous fish and sea-urchins, and most reefs now support more algae than corals. The shallow reefs at Peartree Bottom still have quite a rich coral fauna; one of the reasons that they are a favorite site for scientists and student classes. I understand some developments are planned on the shore and in the wetland at Peartree Bottom. I do urge that, whatever happens, all possible steps are taken to protect the reef communities from further damage.’
Then there was a 1993 letter to Mr. (sic) Guy Harvey, whose role is not stated, from R. Harvey Sasso of Coastal Technology Corporation, responding to concerns raised by the former on the potential siltation of the reef at Pear Tree Bay (sic) ‘associated with the proposed coastal improvements.’
Coastal improvements. That is how it happens, I thought, right at the beginning of things. Words like excavation, construction, demolition, turbidity; phrases like dumping of rocks, the building of a construction pad, armour stones, rip rap, groynes – these words and phrases are framed as coastal ‘improvements’. The groynes ‘will provide additional habitat for colonization by algae corals (sic) invertebrates and reef fishes’ wrote R. Harvey Sasso, P.E. He concluded: ‘In general, it is recognized that a potential exists for increase (sic) turbidity during the construction process. As such, extensive monitoring is required throughout the construction period to monitor these turbidity levels and to ensure that proper action is taken during construction, in the event turbidity levels exceed the acceptable limits. Provided flexibility is maintained within the construction process and provided proper turbidity monitoring is conducted, it is expected that the proposed construction can be completed in a very short time frame without impact to the coral reef.’
And that is the mindset, still ascendant, that has guided all that has occurred on Jamaica’s coastline, on coastlines everywhere. What is there must be improved and it will be improved with excavation and dumping. What we do will have no lasting impact on the natural resources which we recognize and admire, because we are for the reefs and the invertebrates and the fish, and the dredging and the dumping will protect them and they will be better off after we have dug and excavated and constructed.
Dr. Guy Harvey did the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for this first Pear Tree Bottom development. Dr. Harvey is an internationally renowned wildlife marine artist, currently resident in the Cayman Islands. He holds a marine biology undergraduate degree from Aberdeen University and a Ph.D. in Fisheries Management from the University of the West Indies. Although he himself was not born in Jamaica, he claims ten generations of Jamaican ancestry and he grew up on the island.
Dr. Harvey was Prof. Goodbody’s student. In the old file, there was a two-page critique of the EIA, signed by Prof. Goodbody, dated September 30th, 1993. The opening paragraph said: ‘I find the EIA in general to be superficial and it fails to address a number of significant points. Because the development from an economic standpoint but has considerable social and environmental implications (sic) the Technical Sub-Committee of NRCA must ensure that it sets aside adequate time in which to discuss the matter and obtains as much professional advice as possible before making any report to the NRCA Board.’ More than a decade later, when I was appointed to the same Technical Sub-Committee of the NRCA Board by the then Minister of the Environment I knew exactly what Prof. Goodbody meant – the members did not approve of a lot of pesky questions resulting in long meetings. They were there to get things done.
There were minutes of a meeting held with Dr. Woodley on Dr. Harvey’s EIA: ‘The development is all upstream from the finest reef buttresses in the area and hence any sediment released would be carried towards the buttresses and the deeper reefs and possibly deposited on them. Although there is a little data available in the literature on the level of sediment which can be tolerated by corals, in the absence of proper oceanographic data and data on sediment grain size it is not possible to predict at this time the extent of this danger and hence new data must be obtained before predictions can be made.’
At the back of these notes was an unsigned one-page sheet headed: Comments on EIA. It is reproduced below in its entirety with the original punctuation:
- First reaction: Why build resort right on coastline Maybe we should be moving away from this trend.
Totally against “modifying” the actual reef in any way. This is in no way enhancing the environment. Strictly destructive – unless flow pattern (drainage system) can remain as it is. Drainage pattern is likely to be disrupted by relocation of the road.
- What effects are dredging of the lagoon going to have on the coral reef? Report says that no loss of fine sediment will result from dredging and excavation. I don’t believe this. Heavy wave action in the sea is more likely to re suspend the fines rather than disperse them, as the report suggests. On what basis is it expected that the adjacent reefs and seagrasses will be able to tolerate temporary elevations in turbidity levels? From the photographs it is obvious that the reef is not healthy and several species are either dead or dying.
- Report incomplete – Guy Harvey has not discussed in any detail the potential effects of construction, sewage disposal, impacts of increased human traffic, effects of the alternation of the ecology etc.
It was hard to understand how this 1993 development went ahead. At the time, Professor Goodbody was the Chairman of the Technical Review Committee of the NRCA Board. You would think if the senior marine scientists in Jamaica advised against it, it would not have been done, although apart from the unsigned single sheet of paper, the senior scientists did not, strictly speaking, advise against the development. Certainly, they proposed great caution. I needed to see Guy Harvey’s EIA, surely one of the first that was ever done in Jamaica. I went to the library at the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).
Dr. Harvey’s EIA was bound in hard copy, black cover, 106 pages, with full colour photographs, some aerial, some underwater, some taken standing on the land. There was no electronic version. I ran my fingers over the thick paper. I missed documents like this, they seemed so much weightier, truer, than PDF electronic files. Guy’s EIA felt like a history book to me, a story about a place, now all but obliterated.
The title of the EIA was Pear Tree Bay: An Environmental Impact Assessment for TW Development Ltd. It was dated June 1993. At the time of the EIA, the alignment for the road had already been cleared. Then, as now, the developer assumed he would be able to go ahead with his plans although regulatory approval had not yet been obtained. Jamaican developers know no one will stop them, all they need to do is say one word – jobs – and the regulators will crumble. The EIA described the area proposed for development as being 198 acres of coastal land, 1.3 km long by 2.3 km wide, with two bays, one deep and one shallow. The site had a closely linked fresh water ecosystem and wetland and a well-developed living reef system with ‘unequalled underwater topography’ including one of the most famous dive sites in Jamaica. There were indications that the inshore coast was a fish nursery, perhaps even containing commercial species of crustaceans. The seagrasses contained calcareous algae – ‘. . . three times faster at creating beaches than reef building corals . . .’ and that more than one third of the northern margin of the property was composed of continuous, ‘biologically generated’ white sand beach. The EIA described blue holes, lakes, seeps and rivers –
a ‘. . . fresh water marsh developed around a complex of streams and groundwater
upwellings . . .’ – the groundwater producing 24.8 million imperial gallons per day.
Here was a relatively small place containing the full complexity of a tropical coastal ecosystem, a place of interconnections between land and sea, between fresh and salt water. Of course it should have been protected. Of course it was unsuitable for a hotel and villas.
But it was not perfect. The reef crest had been composed largely of branching corals destroyed by Hurricanes Allen (1980) and Gilbert (1988). The wetland was ‘not entirely natural and certainly not pristine’; much modified by attempted reclamation for agriculture, alteration of channel patterns and secondary colonization of species. Dr. Harvey found the coastline in poor condition aesthetically, ‘seriously degraded by squatters’, sand mining, construction, cutting of beach vegetation, impacts from fishers, waste water from a crushing plant, removal of seagrasses (both by natural and human processes) and parking on the beach. The swimming was poor: ‘The beaches have been abused, eroded and dumped upon over a period of years and are cluttered with garbage and coral debris.’ This took him to the conclusion that resort development would mean improvement – the groynes would result in more beaches, dredging would create swimming areas, the affected seagrass areas would regenerate naturally and all would result in upgrading of the aesthetics of the shoreline.
Dr. Harvey took a common position – resort development is better than the chaos of informal settlement occurring in a management vacuum. Tourism will bring order. Eight canoes were registered to the fishing beach and Dr. Harvey described the fishing at Pear Tree Bay as ‘barely subsistence level artisanal fishing’.
I skimmed over the details of what was proposed – I can only take so much breaching, dredging, and construction. The construction impacts were disposed of without a hint of irony: ‘The impacts will be largely temporary in their effects except for the permanent alteration of the shoreline.’ The effects on human beings were brief: ‘There will be a number of displaced local persons, fishermen and otherwise, who were in the habit of using the beach both for a living and recreationally.’
During the 2008 filming of our feature-length documentary Jamaica for Sale regarding the coming of the Spanish hotels, independent filmmaker Esther Figueroa and I climbed a rocky hill behind the coast at Pear Tree Bottom to interview one of the displaced people in the category of the otherwise. By then, the hotel at Pear Tree Bottom had been built. Being part of the Belle Aire sugar plantation, the land near to Pear Tree Bottom had been settled by the former slaves after emancipation. Some planted their own grounds, others went to work in the cane fields as they always had. The plantation owners were compensated for their economic losses at emancipation; the slaves, of course, received nothing.
Esther and I went to meet one of Belle Aire’s descendants, Miss Ivy. And that is how I have come to think of it – Miss Ivy is a descendant of the land, because her ancestors were taken from their families, their language and the land of their birth and she does not have even a family name to claim. The Atlantic Ocean stood between the Belle Aire descendants and their history, and for Miss Ivy and her family, it has never been crossed.
She lived in a board house among ackee and noni trees she had planted and she talked about the day the bulldozers came in the 1990s. She said she had been in court at Brown’s Town, fighting for her right to remain on the beach at Pear Tree Bottom, where she had a cook shop. When she returned home, her home and her cook shop was a pile of rubble. ‘Losing?’ she said, when we asked her what she had lost. ‘All my furniture.’ She stopped and shook her head. ‘Too many things,’ she said. Esther filmed her as she looked out to the coastline below and said these small words, describing something so enormous. People like me, I thought then, we will never be bulldozed. We will never be deemed squatters. Esther and I wept and the camera she held shook a little, which you can see in the film, if you look closely.
Miss Ivy did not remember living anywhere else, she was born on Belle Aire, and her mother and grandmother had lived on the land too. She regarded the land at Belle Aire as hers and I could find no reason at all why it was not her land, why she did not have a far greater claim to the coves of Pear Tree Bottom, no matter how degraded, or to any hill or valley she chose to settle on, than any developer. She and her family had already paid a thousand times over for the right to the land at Belle Aire.
Miss Ivy’s tiny home had a spectacular view of the coast, a view that many would pay large sums of money for, had it not been so close to and downwind of the sewage plant for the Spanish hotel built at Pear Tree Bottom. Miss Ivy did not appear to see her view. She knew the location of every stone on the path to her front door and ran up it while Esther and I stumbled behind her. When we stopped at the door to her house, we looked out at the coast below but she did not. The view was an irrelevance to her. If you are regarded as a squatter on the land, how can you value it? How can you even see it? You are the least of all the occupants, all the tenants, down to the insects, down to the rat bats, you have no claim to anything, the beauty is not yours, the soil is not yours, even the fruit of the trees you planted might not be yours at any time. In the 1993 EIA, Miss Ivy’s story was disposed of in one sentence: ‘The squatters were removed by legal means.’
Dr. Harvey’s EIA did not disparage the natural resources of Pear Tree Bottom – he did not present them as entirely worthy of sacrifice. He saw them, and he wrote about them; the blue holes and the shivering reeds, the whorls of the periwinkles on the rocky shore, the chitons which have always looked to me like upturned cockroaches and are high on my list of sea creatures that are hard to love. He saw the reefs too, with their underwater coral caves, the canyons and buttresses and plate corals which were built at just the right angle to shed the sediment churned up by the high energy waves. He saw the schools of jack, and all the degradation that had already taken place by overfishing, sand mining and tree cutting, by untreated wastewater and for him, the ramshackle buildings of the people who lived and worked on Pear Tree Bay.
Sitting in NEPA’s library, I tried to unravel how I felt about resort development versus the unplanned dwellings and workplaces of local people. They each have their impacts, their destructions, but the impacts are not equal as to scale and permanence. Perhaps this is what it comes down to: the dwellings of local people are flimsy and that makes them easy to bulldoze, but it is also easier for the land and the sea to accommodate them and, if necessary, to reclaim what was once all theirs. For the extensive reinforced concrete of a resort, the time frames of reclamation are evolutionary. And there is an authenticity about the small structures of local people, a lively celebration of Jamaican-ness, in their clashing colours and funny signs. Future Wal-Mart. Dutty Car Wash. Yes, there is nowhere to put the waste of the human beings who occupy these modest buildings, but the waste of the large hotels, all that soapy laundry water, all that shit, all of it has to go somewhere too and sometimes, often, even the best maintained sewage plants break down.
Are these two binaries the only ways we can find a way to live on an island, which, by definition, is in close relationship with the sea? Is it really resorts or informal settlements and we must choose? Guy Harvey wrote, ‘In light of the environmental disasters of Montego Bay and particularly Ocho Rios and Negril, developers must seriously address the potential environmental disaster that could result from squatting in the vicinity of resorts on the Runaway Bay strip.’ For him, the squatting is the environmental disaster, but it was the resorts that caused informal settlement to swell. It is the unfulfilled promises of tourism that still cause people to flock to places like Ocho Rios and Negril. And it is the resorts that put bulldozers on the land and clear it without restraint.
I thought about the common assertion that high-end tourism development does not want to ‘mash up’ a place. Certainly that may not be the objective, but tourism sells a subversive fantasy of what a tropical paradise should look like and the creation and maintenance of that fantasy is harmful in the long run. Rooms should have a view of the sea, so beach vegetation is removed and replaced with landscaping. Wetlands are taken out because of the mosquitoes. Seagrasses are not tolerated because tourists don’t like to step on them and they may hide sea urchins. Swimming areas of a certain depth with sandy bottoms are created. Jetties are needed for boats. Beaches are raked and the sand dunes are removed. All these ‘improvements’ slowly compromise the functions that birthed the tropical paradise that brought the visitors.
In the final pages of Dr. Harvey’s EIA of the Pear Tree Bottom development, I suddenly felt the man behind the scientist. He made his recommendations for management – a marine park stretching all the way to Salem on the other side of Runaway Bay, protection of the wetlands, no consumption zones on the reefs, permanent mooring buoys for dive boats, boardwalks for viewing, the designation of a wildlife wetland park and the establishment of a properly managed public beach with universal free access. ‘Here is a great incentive for action to be taken by both the developer and the NRCA,’ her wrote. He frankly confessed to frustration because his 1991 letters to the Commissioner of Lands, Ministry of Construction (Works), Ministry of Development, Planning and Production and the NRCA went unanswered. ‘No response or decisions were ever made by NRCA and this consultant considers this very viable option to be slipping away, which would have greatly benefited the local community.’
Sitting in the NEPA library, I understood for the first time what had happened to Pear Tree Bottom and how it had happened. What we think of as development, as progress, is an unstoppable juggernaut. Every wave of destruction is used to justify all subsequent waves. If a place is pristine, it is deemed able to stand some degradation. If it is already degraded, then there is no point in protecting it. Part of the old plantation of Belle Aire grew the devastating crop of sugar cane – all over the tropical world, whole ecosystems fell to sugar. Forests fed plantation furnaces and constructed great houses, rivers turned water wheels. Other parts of Belle Aire grew coconuts – now, there is hardly a tall coconut tree to be seen, there or anywhere in Jamaica, they nearly all succumbed to lethal yellowing disease in the 1970s and 1980s. To the decision makers, the land at Pear Tree Bottom had been cleared for agriculture and therefore it stood at a crossroads which few appreciated, because it was still land, soil, rocks, fresh and salt water. As Dr. Harvey wrote, the connections of fresh water and seawater should have been maintained, the habitat for waterbirds protected, and people should have been invited to see this wondrous inheritance, these features that define what it means to live on a tropical island. There was a moment when a different future was possible for Pear Tree Bottom, a future that could have looked back to a time before the plantations began their particular wave of destruction, a moment to imagine redemption and recovery, but it was a road we did not choose to take. The only future we seem to want for our land is to complete its obliteration with concrete, to settle its future forever. As environmentalist Robert Cutler once noted, ‘Asphalt is the land’s last crop.’
Afterword: In 2006, NJCA and JET sought Judicial Review from Jamaica’s Supreme Court of the NRCA’s decision to build a Spanish Hotel at Pear Tree Bottom. The judge ruled the public consultation inadequate and quashed the permit, although the hotel was by then well under construction. On appeal, the hotel was allowed to go ahead, due to the hardship cessation would have posed to investors. There are now 1,610 hotel rooms at Pear Tree Bottom. In 2017, I received a proposal of work from coastal engineers Smith Warner International for more dredging, more removal of seagrasses, more groynes, seawalls and breakwaters. ‘What are your concerns, Diana?’ David Smith of Smith Warner asked me on the phone.
Where to start? I thought, but said: ‘You are making it into a manmade place!’
‘Well, that is true,’ he said.