Forests in peril

no let-up in the long-running practice of cutting down trees for personal and commercial use, local stakeholders and environmentalists are pleading that due diligence be taken to preserve Jamaica’s natural resources.

Trees have historically been chopped for use as yam sticks by farmers and the burning of charcoal. However, some business operators are also utilising specific types of wood to prepare jerked meats, while fishermen use them to build fish pots.

Environmentalist Damion Whyte pointed to negative implications of those actions but stated that there must be some common ground to avoid repercussions. He told the Jamaica Observer that the cutting of the trees plays a significant role in several booming industries, but the environmental impacts cannot be ignored.

The cutting down of trees may impact climate change, leading to soil erosion and flooding. With that in mind, Whyte is calling for “balance”.

“My stance as an environmentalist is that there needs to be a balance. We [need] to find a way to be sustainable. People are saying that the yam stick and the fishing industry are having an impact on the forest, but in some of these areas the people have been doing it for years. So how come they have been doing it for years in some areas and you still have forests? On the other hand, some areas they go and everything has been chopped down, so there needs to be a balance,” Whyte said.

The trees targeted for jerking meat are referred to as aromatic trees. They include, but are not limited to pimento, and sweet wood.

Whyte suggested that a system be developed to ensure that those trees are replanted by business operators once they are cut.

“We need to find ways to encourage some of the players who are harvesting the [trees] to do something for conservation. For example, the jerk man or the big companies that are going in there to harvest the sweet wood and the pimento, they should be planting back some so it can be sustainable,” Whyte told the Sunday Observer.

The environmentalist pointed out that he is not discouraging or bashing people who cut down the trees for various purposes, but maintained that “we have to be sustainable”.

“People have to eat, so you have to find a way to supply the market so that they can get the sticks and protect the environment because they work hand in hand. If the people aren’t getting them, then they are going to go into the forests and chop it down anyway,” he said.

At the same time, Whyte raised concerns over the trees that are being cut down for yam sticks as they are generally found in forests with very thick canopies. He stated that, with Jamaica’s forest areas being home to several endemic trees, 31 species of birds, and 21 species of bats, the industries that use cut trees need to be regulated to ensure that those species are protected.

The cutting down of trees is, however, not a modern phenomenon said Roy Jones, retired director of Forestry and Soil Conservation at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department. According to Jones, he and his team of foresters were forced to think outside the box as they faced an increase in the cutting down of trees for yam sticks.

“I joined the Forestry Department in 1959 as a young forester and at that time all those forestry offences were major activities. We worked hard to prevent forest offences and, at the same time, prosecute some forest offenders too, because although the department was planting trees — pines and hardwoods like cedar, mahogany, and mahoe — we still had people cutting down the forest for burning charcoal. We even had a yam stick-growing project in the Forestry Department to produce some yam sticks,” Jones told the Sunday Observer.

Jones explained that to discourage the cutting down of trees, especially species that are endemic to the island, they would identify different species to grow yam sticks to supply to farmers. He noted that the eucalyptus tree was the perfect species to “take the pressure off the forest”, so it was their preferred choice to plant. The Gliricidia sepium, otherwise called quick stick, was also planted for the same purpose.

Jones further told the Sunday Observer that while the Forestry Department had no issues with pimento trees being chopped down, as the species is not found in forests, they had their hands full trying to protect the Canellaceae, also called wild cinnamon, from being cut down to jerk pork.

“The pimento would be on the private properties, so we didn’t have any problems with people cutting down pimentos, but one of the species that they used to use was the wild cinnamon. They would cut down the wild cinnamon and use it when they’re jerking the pork because it gives it a nice flavour. But species like those are rare and you don’t find it scattered all over the place,” he explained.

Jones said that the issues surrounding the cutting down of trees are still alive two decades after he retired from the Forestry Department. He is urging Jamaicans to consider the environmental impacts of their action.

“You would think that a yam-growing farmer would have a portion of his farm specifically for producing yam sticks, if that is what he is using on the farm. If you have 10 acres [of land] you can take out an acre or two to grow your yam sticks. A species like the eucalyptus would be good because you don’t have to replant; once it is cut, it will spring up back and it grows fast,” Jones said.

Senior manager for conservation and protection at the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) Andrea Donaldson told the Sunday Observer that the agency has always encouraged the replanting of trees.

“The cutting of trees is not the issue, it is the cutting and not replanting that is a major concern. You will find that a lot of people cut trees for charcoal and that is understandable as they need fuel for living. We did a survey regarding charcoal burning and it was found that there are a lot of people who still use charcoal, so the cutting is bad and not so bad. The bad part is that they are not replanting and it has a negative impact on the environment,” Donaldson stated.

“There are some areas that, because of the biological resources, you should not be cutting from, but if you do cut, you need to replant because you will keep cutting and there will be nothing else so you will be going further into the areas that you really should not be going, causing an even greater negative impact like soil erosion,” Donaldson added.

Reiterating that replanting should be a priority for those who cut down these trees, Donaldson said that NEPA encourages that “when you remove one tree, you plant three more”.