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Americas? largest butterfly under threat

Cockpit Country mining begun…

The Cockpit Country, home to 27 of Jamaica’s 28 endemic bird species and the giant swallowtail, the largest butterfly in the Americas, is at risk from bauxite mining. Under licences already granted, mining companies have begun drilling for bauxite samples, the raw material for aluminium, to meet the world’s rapidly escalating demand for this valuable metal.

Protected for much of its history by its inaccessibility, Cockpit Country, a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site, has an extraordinary landscape of peaks, potholes and caves, and is the world’s type locality for cockpit karst landforms. It consists of around 450 km² of uninhabited moist tropical limestone forest—the second largest expanse of contiguous forest remaining on the island—with the 22,327 hectare Cockpit Country Forest Reserve at its heart.Conservationists in Jamaica are concerned that despite its international importance, the fate of the Cockpit Country is likely to go unnoticed by the rest of the world. During a radio phone-in, the programme host asked, does anyone outside of Jamaica care about the Cockpit Country?

Unfortunately for the birds, landscape, and many communities, Jamaica is pushing hard to extract every bit of bauxite from her soils to export for aluminium production, and we recently learned that this threat is close to reality for Cockpit Country, said Susan Koenig of the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group.[The Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group includes scientists, educators and other members of BirdLife Jamaica, BirdLife International, Bluefields Peoples’ Community Association, Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society, Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, Countrystyle Community Tourism Network, Dolphin Head Trust, International School of Jamaica, Jamaica Environment Trust, Manchester Environmental Protection Association, Negril Environmental Protection Trust, Northern Jamaica Conservation Association, the Plant Conservation Centre, Portland Environment Protection Association, Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency, the Sustainable Communities Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and Windsor Research Centre.]

Jamaica is recognised internationally for its high levels of endemism and is part of the Caribbean Biodiversity Hotspot. Jamaica’s endemics include 828 flowering plants, 505 land snails, 21 amphibians and 34 reptiles, five bats and 20 butterflies. Some of these—including two amphibians, two reptiles, and 65 plants—are found only in Cockpit Country. It is likely that the sole viable population of the endemic, globally Endangered giant swallowtail, the largest butterfly in the Americas, is confined to Cockpit Country. [The giant swallowtail also occurs in the Blue and John Crow Mountains. In the 1980s and 1990s, biologists from the University of the West Indies and the University of Florida documented rapid declines in population numbers over five decades. Egg and larval mortality approached 97%. Egg mortality caused by a parasitic wasp was significantly higher in cleared areas compared to forested habitats. The biologists recognised that the remoteness and difficult terrain of Cockpit Country makes this population less vulnerable and, indeed, recognised that the Cockpit Country population would probably remain safer for a longer period of time than the eastern Blue and John Crow Mountain population. The giant swallowtail was extirpated from the Central Mountains in the late 1920s or early 1930s because of clearing for agriculture and logging.]

Up to 95 percent of the world’s Black-billed Amazons Amazona agilis - one of two threatened endemic Jamaican parrots—live in Cockpit Country, which is also home to the Endangered Jamaican Blackbird Nesopsar nigerrimus. This bird forages mostly on bromeliads—epiphytic plants growing on the branches of trees. But bromeliads are especially vulnerable to forest fragmentation and caustic dust from mining.The ecological damage wrought by the industry is astounding for a medium-sized island, said Susan Koenig, Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group

Bauxite/aluminium is Jamaica’s principal export, and deposits underlie around one quarter of the island’s surface. But the industry has a patchy record of meeting its requirements to restore lands devastated by mining—and the government has a similarly poor record of enforcing the penalties for failure to do so. One community is currently preparing legal action on behalf of hundreds of people whose homes, lands and livelihoods were damaged by one of Jamaica’s major bauxite extraction companies.But even if the restoration work were carried out, it would not improve the prospects for Cockpit Country’s biodiversity. In a typical restored site, a thin layer of topsoil has been bulldozed back over densely-packed limestone gravel and non-native grass planted. Examples of native forest regenerating in such reclaimed pits are difficult to find, according to Koenig.

The ecological damage wrought by the industry is astounding for a medium-sized island (11,000 sq. km). If you were to overlay a map of our bauxite reserves on a map of other major producers, such as Australia, Brazil, and China, they cover a few pixel points: for Jamaica, it’s approximately 25% of the island, said Koenig.

Imagine, if you will, the cruise ships being told that our water is perfectly drinkable. It just happens to be red today… said John Maxwell, in the Jamaica Observer Jamaica Environment Trust and the other Cockpit Country Stakeholders are calling upon the Jamaican government to withhold permission for the bauxite companies to begin work, at the very least until a more stringent and realistic environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been carried out. The EIA should look not only at Cockpit Country’s biological and cultural heritage but also at the area’s role as the major aquifer for central-western Jamaica, and the part its forests play in reducing flash flooding and erosion after tropical storms and hurricanes (which seem to be increasingly frequent as a result of Global Climate Change).The Cockpit Country Stakeholders also point out that even discounting the value of ecosystem services, damaging one of the world’s most important and spectacular karst landscapes to get at the bauxite underneath makes no long-term economic sense. Tourism now generates 45 percent of Jamaica’s foreign earnings, and directly or indirectly, provides jobs for around a quarter of the working population. Mining employs far fewer people and is not sustainable.

Writing in the Jamaica Observer, veteran journalist John Maxwell commented: the aquifer underneath the Cockpit Country is vital to the entire North Coast, and not least, to the tourism industry. But when the red earth is disturbed, as it has been in a river in the southern Cockpit Country, you may find the water turning blood red…. Imagine, if you will, the cruise ships being told that our water is perfectly drinkable. It just happens to be red today…

4th July 2014