Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

In Social Context: Espeut Empowers Jamaican Fishermen to Manage Local Resources

By Cynthia Robinson

The early morning haze over Kingston, Jamaica revealed plumes of smoke rising in thin, wispy columns from the smoldering tires and burned debris that formed roadblocks around the city. As the sun rose and temperatures climbed throughout the day, gunshots were heard and the radio blared news of demonstrations turned violent.

I was anticipating several peaceful days in the Caribbean in April 1999 during a visit to tour Jamaica's newest and largest protected area -- Portland Bight -- a project initiated and shepherded by 1996 Pew Fellow Peter Espeut. What I encountered was a vivid reminder of the complex social, political, and economic forces affecting conservation efforts. I had arrived on the second day of civil protest in response to an overnight 100 percent increase in the gas tax. The last-minute government measure to meet national budget shortfalls and mounting international debts had gone awry.

Demonstrations around much of the island were more inconvenient than unruly, many even party-like. However, in Kingston and Montego Bay, tensions escalated into angry clashes with police. Armed forces took to the streets. Schools and public transportation were shut down, businesses were looted and burned, offices were forced to close, airline flights were canceled, and in some areas curfews were imposed. By the end of the week nine people had been killed.

Back to TopRealities of Life

While certainly not a common occurrence and typically not violent, civilian displays of protest have become much more prevalent in Caribbean island nations where nearly half of the citizens suffer from poverty and lack of education and have limited access to social services. Destruction of natural resources further exacerbates their plight. Government attempts to finance development through international loans burden already struggling economies, spiraling many small countries into insurmountable debt.

Espeut, a portly man with a hearty laugh and a quick wit, isn't afraid to speak his mind or to push for a cause he believes in. Peter is undaunted by the inherent challenges that come with working in an economically depressed small island nation and he maintains a purposeful perseverance. As commentary on the unrest, he stated simply, "This is part of the reality that we must address to effect successful conservation in many places in the world."

Peter is a one who practices what he preaches, and in fact, he does preach! A self-styled Renaissance man, Peter is a native Jamaican with a background in chemistry and zoology, theology and philosophy, who began his career as a high school science teacher. He has become a writer, a researcher, a newspaper columnist, a social scientist focusing on natural resource management, a non-profit director, a musician, and an ordained Roman Catholic deacon.

A staunch advocate of empowering communities through education for self-governance, with his Pew Fellowship Peter launched a community-based fisheries management effort in Portland Bight on Jamaica's south coast. Within the larger framework of the establishment of the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA), which Peter and his colleagues at the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (CCAM) spearheaded, Peter is enabling local fishers to join in co-management of the region's natural resources along with the Jamaican government and other stakeholders. In particular, Peter is training fishermen and women to better manage their own activities in order to successfully manage their natural resources.

Back to TopLocal effects

By the third day of my visit, things had calmed. I departed from Kingston with Peter at six o'clock in the morning to make our way to Portland Bight to meet with members of the fishing community. The route was slow, as we maneuvered around boulders, heaps of broken glass, tree limbs, old tires and the frames of burned-out cars that remained in the streets from the roadblocks.

Old cars, trash, and other items were used to block roads during the civil unrest in Kingston, Jamaica in April 1999. Photo by Cynthia Robinson

At Old Harbour Bay we met with CCAM's science officer, Brandon Hay, and local fishers Compton Campbell, Dahlia Ragoo, and Herbert Bartley for a tour of the Bight. The beach was strewn with old nets. Few fishers were out, most gathered under the two trees that gave shelter from the already hot early morning sun. Brightly painted boats lined the shore, but only one small fishing boat was out in the bay.

We learned that the roadblocks had hindered the sale of fish for a few days. Fishermen and vendors were resourceful, resorting to bicycles to distribute the catch, but the market was low as restaurants had closed and people kept to their homes.

We headed out into the bay in Bartley's boat and the fishers talked about declining catch and the need to find new sources of income. As we glided down narrow channels through the mangroves they pointed out areas where crocodiles are often spotted and turned my attention to heron perched high in the treetops. They were clearly proud of the natural beauty of the area and concerned about destructive environmental practices both on land and at sea that hinder not only their current livelihood, but also alternatives such as tourism.

Back to TopUnique Aspects

The scope of the PBPA plan is as broad and multidisciplinary as Peter's own background and as multi-dimensional as the challenges facing the protected area. The region is unique. It encompasses both terrestrial and marine area, including 200 sq. miles of land and 524 sq. miles of ocean stretching out 11 nautical miles, making it the largest land-sea protected area in the insular Caribbean region (1,876 sq. km. total). Sixteen percent of the land area is valuable wetlands, including the largest nearly continuous stands of mangroves on the island. The wetlands contain many waterfowl and healthy populations of Jamaica's national symbol, the crocodile. The marine portion also includes important nursery and spawning grounds in its sea grass beds and coral reefs.

On the terrestrial side lies the largest relatively intact dry limestone forest remaining in the entire Central American and Caribbean region. The area holds both endemic flora and fauna, and is the last known habitat for the Jamaican iguana, the island's largest land animal. Parts of the mainland shoreline as well as many of the coral cays within the Bight are major nesting areas for seabirds and endangered sea turtles, including Hawksbill and Green turtles.

Back to TopTough Challenges

On both land and sea, industrial interests and community commerce can clash with conservation plans. An active charcoal business chops and burns the dwindling forest and mangrove areas. Trees are also cut indiscriminately for fuelwood, fence posts, and yam sticks. Bauxite production leaves toxic tailings in its wake. Effluent from sugarcane agriculture and industry is polluting both groundwater and aquifers. Construction of new housing developments has altered the topography causing erosion, and poor sewage infrastructure threatens drinking water. In addition, pollution from Kingston Harbor is affecting Portland Bight.

The area is also an active shipping zone where commercial vessels transect fertile fishing grounds. With increased fishing pressure, damaging practices including dynamiting and dragnetting are affecting the marine habitat on a daily basis.

Residents from the area are largely poor and desperate for new economic opportunities, Peter explained. However, suggested options, including limestone mining, caustic soda production, shrimp farming, a steel mill, salt production, and coal-fired power generation, are all potentially destructive. He hopes that the designation of Portland Bight as a protected area will help ensure that more environmentally friendly development options are pursued. This includes alternatives that direct more of the benefits of development to residents of the area.

"Sustainable nature and cultural heritage tourism may well lead to more sustainable prosperity," said Peter.

His Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation has been delegated responsibility and authority to manage, monitor, and enforce protection of the area. The greatest challenge, Peter noted, has been developing a multi-use plan in cooperation with the many stakeholders, and establishing zoning and regulations that are rigorous enough to actually protect the area, but not so onerous that they will not be accepted by all the parties involved. The development plan calls for zoning the PBPA into 28 special management zones.

Back to TopLocal Empowerment

One of the critical factors to finding common ground and bringing stakeholders together is establishing systems of community responsibility and stewardship. "Local empowerment is key," Peter explained. "If our management system is not sustainable then our resources won't be sustainable."

Peter has started by focusing on community fisheries management structures. At the beginning of the project there were only two functioning fishers' organizations in Portland Bight. With CCAM's assistance there are now eight such groups. To provide them a collective voice in the management of the PBPA, Peter has helped unite them under a single umbrella -- the Portland Bight Fisheries Management Council (PBFMC).

With his fellowship funding, Peter and the CCAM staff have facilitated group sessions, organized field trips, produced educational videos, and coordinated exchange programs to train PBFMC participants in basic ecology, natural resource management concepts, leadership skills and participatory management practices, policy development, and enforcement schemes. In addition, fishermen have been involved in field surveys and research projects to collect essential baseline scientific data on the flora and fauna in the area.

As a result of increased awareness about the area's ecosystem and the instability of its natural resources, the PBFMC has agreed to establish eight year-round no-take fish sanctuaries to protect spawning areas. They have also established entry quotas and user fees for both fishers and boats, set minimum trap and mesh sizes, and enacted bans on scuba and hooka fishing as well as the use of dynamite or dragnets in the protected area.

These are significant steps, however, success hasn't been easy. Dahlia Ragoo, a boat owner and fish vendor who chairs the Barmouth Fishers Association, finds it a constant effort. "Getting people to share their opinion is not difficult, reaching consensus is the challenge. There is continuous regrouping and awareness-building," she explained. "Our members are not always consistent in their attendance or with their views. New members can sway previous agreements and we must start over again." She identified lack of understanding and fear of competition as two impediments to community involvement in the fisheries management councils.

To ease the burden on local fishermen and offer incentive to follow the new regulations, a portion of Peter's fellowship funding will be used to buy-back, at market rates, fishing gear and equipment that is no longer approved under the new guidelines adopted by the PBFMC.

Herbert Bartley, who has been a fisherman in the region for nearly 30 years believes the issue is more one of experiencing results. "People are hesitant to comply and join conservation efforts until they actually see the benefits," he explained. "Talking and laws aren't enough if there are no viable economic alternatives."

Back to TopSocial Approach

Peter agrees. "Numerous conservation efforts around the world have failed because they employed only a biological perspective and ignored the larger social, political, and economic factors that influence natural resource management schemes," he said. "The key is using a social science approach for conservation and addressing the management of human activity.

"We need to work with fishers," Peter stressed as he continued. "Fishers have been treated as the problem and not the solution, but they are often the greatest conservation supporters. In Portland Bight, we have armed fishermen with an understanding of sustainable management practices and with the needed vocabulary to work with other stakeholders."

Peter's approach is a departure from the norm and such approaches may be slow to trickle out over the entire island. Andre Kong, director of the Jamaican Fisheries Division noted that an emphasis on fisheries management and conservation is a very recent trend on the island, and a new direction for the department; something he clearly finds ironic for a nation surrounded by ocean with a heavy dependence on fish for both food and export.

We found Kong still in his office one evening at about seven o'clock. "It's a slow process in government," he said with a sigh, without looking up from the pile of documents he was signing and stamping in triplicate. "What CCAM is doing is far more advanced than where the agency is. It's the way we must go to have a good model on which to base assessment of co-management," he explained. "Jamaica needs this effort, and the field data is essential to support increased focus on protected areas and habitat."

Back to TopPeer Leadership

Many of the men and women involved in the Portland Bight Fisheries Management Council are impressive natural leaders and organizers who already understand the problems well. They simply needed awareness of the ecosystem specifics to set in place appropriate management mechanisms, and the right organizational structure to push their own agenda, Peter explained. "Now we are following their lead as they establish local policies, implement them, and enforce them. Fishermen are the best advertisers of practices to protect their own resources. The peer approach is critical, as fishers understand and respect each other."

Fishers and Honorary Game Wardens Herbert Bartley (left), Compton Campbell, and Dahlia Ragoo (front) patrol the waterways of the Portland Bight Protected Area. Photo by Cynthia Robinson

Part of Peter's fellowship effort has addressed the peer leadership and enforcement issue in particular. Funds have been used to train more than 40 fishers as Honorary Game Wardens, an official designation of the Jamaican government under the Wildlife Protection Act (which includes marine life). The fishers have been trained in national fisheries law, appropriate arrest procedures, how to take statements from witnesses, strategies for preservation of evidence, and court testimony procedures. While the Honorary Game Warden title bestows recognition and authority, it does not include compensation.

To date, the game wardens have primarily issued warnings for violations, including the use of dynamite for fishing, catching lobster and conch out of season, and killing sea turtles. However, one case brought by a fisher game warden went to court and resulted in a conviction.

It's not always a smooth process, however. Herbert Bartley who is a warden explained that some of his peers believe he is getting paid to police his fellow fishers and they can be antagonistic. "It's an issue of awareness," he explained. "Ongoing dialog is helping to change this perception. There have been some arrests and it's helping to stop bad practices. Our continuous presence and peer-to-peer discussions helps fishermen realize we are serious and why."

Fishermen from Old Harbor Bay in Portland Bight ply their trade. The grain mill in the background is one of many local industrial facilities that are affecting the local environment. Photo by Cynthia Robinson

Conflicts with other stakeholders are also being resolved, which is smoothing the way for comprehensive implementation of the PBPA plan. Most notable has been the agreement with the oil refinery that their tug-barges will stay within designated shipping lanes. Fishermen's equipment was damaged when the vessels were taking a short-cut outside designated channels, causing heightened tensions in an already stressed relationship between the refinery and the fishing community. Through the PBFMC, the fishermen were able not only to get an audience with the company but also response. Without admitting fault, restitution has been made for the damages and collaboration has improved. This has generated much respect for the fishermens' council and has reinforced CCAM's approach.

Back to TopTourism and Jobs

Sustainable eco-tourism is central to the PBPA plan. When finally complete, the PBPA will include a headquarters where CCAM will be located, a small marina, an interpretive center, educational facilities, two small museums, and visitor amenities. There will also be a conference facility, community education stations on each of the major beaches, and a botanical garden.

An important component of the plan is creation of a research complex. "Social science approaches to conservation and development must rely on natural science data," said Peter. "This is essential to establish and maintain proper zoning so that we can manage the resources successfully; that includes industrial, community, and cultural as well as natural resources. It's a 20 year project. It will take me into my retirement," he chuckled as he continued. "But it's ultimately a process of empowerment, and that takes patience and lots of time."

Pew funding has also supported establishment of a tourism management council that conducted a feasibility study for the area and development of appropriate strategies. These include creating eco-heritage trails (both terrestrial and marine) that will feature tours led by local guides, a local artisans merchandising program, and a community 'bed & breakfast' network.

"It's important that there be direct and quantifiable economic benefit to the local community," said Peter. "It gives not only economic incentive to support conservation of the region, but also helps stem migration to urban areas by providing more jobs." He estimates that when the PBPA tourism plan is fully complete there is potential for more than 500 new jobs.

To date the tourism management council has utilized Pew support to run local training sessions in hospitality basics, first aid and life-saving. It has also funded boat inspection preparation for fishermen like Herbert Bartley who would like to use his boat for tours. He agrees that there are significant long-term benefits for the community if they can carry out the PBPA plans. "We need to think about future jobs. If we only look to tomorrow's catch, we may be destroying our own livelihood and our children's," he said.

Back to TopPeople-Up Approach

Tarn Peralto, chairman of the CCAM board of directors, is also concerned about short-term challenges hindering long-term goals. "We need some national government support to show true credibility for the initiative," he said. "This is a huge challenge given the country's current economic situation and pressing social needs. The emphasis on eco-tourism is critical for financial sustainability. However, the approach must be community-based to succeed," he noted. "CCAM is the facilitator, not the controller. Peter's community-building approach is the right one -- to do it people-up."

1996 Pew Fellow Peter Espeut (far left) converses with a fishing family at one of the beaches in Portland Bight, Jamaica. Photo courtesy of Peter Espeut

When asked about Peter's style, Peralto used the words "sincere and dynamic." He thought for a moment and then laughed, saying, "Peter can at times charge in like a bull with his enthusiasm -- the board sometimes has to reign him in! But that kind of passion is needed in a project leader to keep things going."

Andre Kong agreed. "Peter gets on our case a lot," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "He's persistent." Yet Kong has also found Peter's approach beneficial. "CCAM, in some areas, has more resources and expertise than the Fisheries Division," Kong explained. "As a non-government entity it can also operate more flexibly, so this is a very useful collaboration to support sustainable development in Jamaica. We need this type of participation. We welcome it." he concluded.

Peter is pleased to hear the endorsement. "The demonstrations were a loud and clear call. People are crying out for social improvement, for jobs, for economic benefit," he noted. "CCAM is responding to exactly these issues in the Portland Bight Protected Area. Successful, sustainable environmental development in the region will result in greater prosperity, in employment, and in community empowerment for self-determined growth," Peter continued.

"Basically, we're working toward shaping a better social system for the region by emphasizing a healthy natural environment."

For more information on Peter Espeut's fisheries management and conservation efforts contact him at:
Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation
7 Lloyds Close Kingston, Jamaica, WI
Phone: 876.978.4050 fax: 876.978.7641
e-mail: pespeut@infochan.com

Back to Top

Published in Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation, MARITUENTAS, Vol. I, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 1999.

This article originally appeared on the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation website, and is reproduced here with permission.

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