Latin America & Caribbean

Charcoal trade threatens Jamaica's protected forests

A charcoal burner in Jamaica
Image caption Making charcoal provides a much-needed livelihood for many in Jamaica

Jamaica gets its name from the island's indigenous inhabitants who called it Xaymaca, meaning "land of wood and water" - but nowadays that title does not seem so apt.

Many of Jamaica's plants, animals and insects cannot be found anywhere else on earth - it is said to have the fifth highest concentration of endemic flora of all the world's islands and it is home to the endangered Jamaican rock iguana among other rare species.

But attempts to protect the environment are literally going up in smoke.

With a population of 2.7 million people and with over 17% living below the poverty line, growing numbers of people are cutting down trees to make charcoal to earn a living.

Protected area

The effects are so serious that environmentalists say Jamaica could become a new Haiti, an island suffering from severe deforestation and erosion.

In a forest near a busy road in the parish of St Mary, in the north-east of the country, George Griffiths is chopping wood and burning scrub ready to prepare a kiln.

"It's the only way I can make a little money," the unemployed builder says.

He shows me how to build a kiln, packing grass around a mound of dirt and wood. He will use it to make charcoal for local cook shops or take-away restaurants, which burn it as fuel.

It is a lucrative trade - a bag sells for around $10 (£6.50) and one kiln can produce 100 bags or more.

But it is also highly destructive. Charcoal burners often cut down a wide area of trees to get to the wood that makes the best coal.

Jamaica has different types of forest, and making charcoal is legal in most of them. But the practice is now spreading to the dry limestone forests on the coasts, which are protected by law.

With little surface water, the trees in these protected area are very slow-growing and some are upwards of 500 years old. They make excellent charcoal and are therefore particularly sought after by those selling it as fuel.

'Hostile'

The Hellshire Hills in the south of the country is, as its name implies, uncomfortably hot and inhospitable.

However, it is also close to Jamaica's capital, Kingston, and as the city grows, so does the threat by the charcoal makers.

The job of protecting the 144-sq km (56-sq miles) area lies with Jamaica's Urban Development Corporation (UDC).

The government agency sends in local enforcement officers to patrol the area. Among them is Milton Grey, who goes way up into the hills every night to look for charcoal burners.

As we approach the trail, the only giveaway that charcoal is being made in the area is a couple of donkeys tied up by the rough, pockmarked limestone path. They are used to carry supplies up into the hills and the finished product back down.

The area is nearly devoid of trees and is just bush, except for the occasional tall red birch that cannot be used for charcoal as the wood is too soft. There are tree stumps everywhere and very little shade.

Image caption A growing population in Jamaica's capital is putting the forests nearby under increasing strain

We soon come across the remains of a recent kiln. Blocks of charcoal are mixed in with red dirt, but the camp is deserted.

"We have to be calm with them," warns Milton. "They are hostile people so you need to know how to approach them, how to deal with them and how to talk to them."

With unemployment at over 14% and few job options in the area, buying, selling and, increasingly, exporting charcoal is the only opportunity for many and taking away their livelihood is not popular.

It creates such strong feelings that there are plans for security forces to help with enforcement.

"We can't allow people to be doing illegal things and making a living from it," says Dannae Vaccianna, who works for the UDC as a supervisor for the protected areas

"We appreciate they need to make money but if we need to arrest people to protect the area so be it - but as well as enforcement, we also need more monitoring and education."

'Survival'

Jamaica has been highly deforested over the years. Although around 30% of the island is covered by woodland, only 8% of that is virgin forest.

The country does have laws to stop logging and charcoal burning, especially in protected areas like the John Crow and Blue Mountain ranges, but tree cutting is still rampant.

The penalties for breaking the Forest Act and the Wildlife Protection Act are low - up to 12 months in prison or a fine of $5,000. It can be more lucrative to break the law.

"The problem isn't the small man with a little bag of coal, it's the large users like hotels and the jerk chicken restaurants," says Diana McCauley, the founder and chief executive of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET).

"We're also now getting reports of coal waiting to be exported off the island, which is a worrying new trend."

Last December, customs officials stopped a container of charcoal that they said was on its way to Lebanon.

Environmentalists say this new export business could be the final nail in the coffin for Jamaica's endangered and endemic species.

But in a deeply indebted country, many do not seem to care.

"It would be good for the economy for us to start burning more," said one older woman.

"I think that if there's a market why not sell it abroad," said a young man. "It's survival," said another. "It should be exported, we've got nothing else."

"It's utter carnage," says Dr Byron Wilson, a conservation ecologist at the University of the West Indies.

"If we don't do something we'll be on the same trajectory as Haiti.

"If we fail to protect the endemic species in the forests all our efforts will have gone up in smoke."

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