Save Rare Iguana and Ancient Forest in Jamaica’s Hellshire Hills

  • by: Jamaica Environment Trust
  • recipient: Hon Robert Pickersgill, Minister of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change of Jamaica

An environmental and extinction crisis is well under way in Jamaica's remnant ancient dry forests. This crisis is due almost entirely to the illegal harvesting of hardwood trees in designated Forest Reserves – primarily to feed the charcoal industry. The most intact of the forest remnants, the Hellshire Hills in St. Catherine, is home to the Jamaican iguana, an animal found nowhere else in the world. Jamaica’s endemic iguana was highlighted last year as one of the 100 most endangered species in a book titled “Priceless or Worthless? The world's most threatened species”. The primary basis for that unfortunate designation was the continuing destruction of the iguana’s last refuge in the Hellshire Hills.

The destruction of the Hellshire Hills’ forest due to illegal tree cutting and unsustainable development has been progressing steadily for many decades, but now the situation has reached a tipping point. The domestic demand for dry forest products has always been unsustainable, but a recent export market in tree-based charcoal appears to have precipitated an all-out attack on the island’s forests – including those in Forest Reserves and in other “protected” areas. The notion of exporting charcoal should not even be considered; the destruction of the island’s forests for domestic consumption is already an environmental crisis.

Jamaica’s remaining dry forest habitat important for biodiversity is now restricted to the Hellshire Hills and small sections of Portland Ridge. The island’s other dry forests have been ravaged to the point of becoming ecological wastelands. According to published research conducted out of the University of the West Indies, the forests found in the Hellshire Hills are extremely slow-growing, and the undisturbed sectors boast trees that are 400 years old, or older. Hellshire may well represent the best remaining example of dry tropical forest in the insular Caribbean.

Jamaica's remaining forests are national assets that help provide clean air and water, present opportunities for ecotourism, reduce climate change vulnerabilities and preserve quality of life. Their destruction is an assault on national security and deserves urgent attention, lest the “Land of Wood and Water” become another Haiti – a country that has lost nearly all of its natural forests and is now the scene of an impending environmental catastrophe. Is Jamaica next?

Dear Hon Robert Pickersgill,

With great concern for Jamaica's people, biodiversity, and natural resources, we respectfully request the following:

1. We call upon you to ensure the enforcement of the laws protecting the Hellshire Hills, as per the Forest Act and the Wild Life Protection Act, and in accordance with the Government’s designation of the Portland Bight Protected Area in 1999, and most of Hellshire as a designated Forest Reserve.

2. In light of the catastrophic potential of an export market for tree-based charcoal, we urge the your office of the Government of Jamaica to place an immediate and permanent ban on the exportation of charcoal.

3. We also request that the government of Jamaica promote affordable alternative energy solutions (e.g., subsidizing cooking fuel, and removing taxes on propane cooking devices), alternative livelihoods to redirect charcoal burners and other extractors of forest products and regulation of the use of charcoal in the tourism and food industries.

4. Finally, we ask that economic valuations of Jamaica's forests be conducted so that their use can be guided by sound economic and environmental principles.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Jamaica Environment Trust

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