For any non-Jamaicans reading this, the Palisadoes strip (more correctly called a tombolo) is a narrow strip of sand holding Kingston Harbour in loose embrace, its origins unknown. According to a 2005 paper by Prof. Edward Robinson and Deborah Ann Rowe of the Marine Geology Unit at UWI, the spit is probably about 4,000 years old. Port Royal was once an island among a group of small, sandy cays until early coastal engineers added wooden palisades to the cays to trap the sand of the longshore drift, building up the spit eventually called the Palisadoes. Always part land and part sea, Palisadoes came and went over millennia, nourished by sediment from the Hope and Cane rivers, torn away by storms, rent by earthquakes, ever in motion. In 1772 a hurricane with a five-metre storm surge made Port Royal an island again and breached the spit in five places. During the 1860s, a foolish attempt to plant 20,000 coconut trees resulted in the clearing of all the native vegetation – not a single coconut tree survived. In the 1950s, following Hurricane Charlie, the so-called groyne field was built to defend the narrowest part of the spit by an engineer called Makepeace Wood, who ended up in a mental institution after he wrote to the Queen suggesting he knew how to stop the erosion of the White Cliffs of Dover. His permeable groynes became known as Jamaica groynes and were built all over the world – you can see them on many beaches here, often in ruin.
For nearly sixty years, the groynes protected the thin part of the Palisadoes, men fished from them, the Palisadoes road was built, widened, the airport was constructed, and the road led through sand dunes and cacti and wetlands to the by then quiet fishing town of Port Royal. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, vendors sold jelly coconuts, wiry men raced along the road on bicycles, lovers went to see the sunsets and people walked along the beach, sometimes hand in hand with their children.
Palisadoes ought not to be romanticized, however. This is a piece of land which has seen rape, pillage and plunder, the wreck of ships, the hanging of pirates and the crimes of modern day gunmen, including murder, shark attacks, robberies, car accidents and every one of the upheavals of nature. It has never conformed to our image of tropical paradise – it is not green, it is not lush, it is not jewel-toned, the waves are rough and the sand is coarse and burning hot in the heat of the day. Still, I loved Palisadoes, I loved the entrance to Kingston, Big Sea on one side, the harbour on the other, and the soaring Blue Mountains above it all, bestowing on us a set of simple, superlative pleasures freely available to everyone. In 1998, the Palisadoes/Port Royal Protected Area from Harbour View to Port Royal was declared under Jamaica’s Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) Act.
In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan damaged the groyne field, eroded the sand dunes and deposited quantities of sand and rocks on the Palisadoes road – blocking access to the airport. There then was a half-hearted engineering attempt to protect the road with large rocks but in 2005, Hurricanes Emily and Dean worsened the situation and in 2007, Hurricane Gustav left the Palisadoes beaten down and torn up, the steep piles of sand which were removed from the road never regraded to help vegetation colonize the dunes, the masses of driftwood the storms threw on the beach burned. And there was still that very narrow point, where the open sea was right there, and you could see it would not take much to breach the road and maroon the airport, as Port Royal had been marooned more than once in its history.
A plan was hatched to defend the most vulnerable section of the road (in the vicinity of the old groynes), including a 300 metre stone revetment, covered in sand dredged from the sea nearby – called by the technical folks with their masterful euphemisms the “Borrow Zone” – and then revegetated and crowned with a boardwalk for recreation. The revetment was built, but there was no dune and no revegetation and no boardwalk.
As time went on and there seemed to be no more dredging and the revetment just sat there, I hoped the Palisadoes would do what is has always done – survive, wax and wane, and perhaps even send the tendrils of beach roses over the sharp-edged stones standing guard against the sea.
But, no. In 2010, there was an announcement from then Minister of Transport, the Hon. Mike Henry – we were going to have a four-lane highway along the Palisadoes. jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20100504/cleisure/cleisure1.html
There were murmurs of protest. Folks asked for the rationale, since no one could remember a traffic problem along the strip. There were concerns about adding to our already crippling level of debt. We were fed a pie-in-the-sky list – new cruise ship pier, much greater traffic at the airport, the road needed to be expanded before it was needed. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), the small non profit I then led, insisted there should be an updated Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a new public meeting, but we were ignored and road construction began. The road was widened, raised, a sea wall built on the harbour side, along with four kilometres of stone revetment on the sea side. Virtually every living thing on the strip was destroyed.
On the first day of 2018, patrons attending a party called Sandz blocked the only road to the airport for some six hours. The Hon. Mike Henry, once more the Minister of Transport and Works, reminded us with the tone of an injured visionary, that he had wanted a four-lane highway on the Palisadoes. www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/henry-wants-to-take-palisadoes_121822?profile=1373
Minister Henry’s memory is selective. In 2010, JET filed a Judicial Review case in the Supreme Court to review the permits and public process for the Palisadoes four-lane road works. The new scope of works had a beach license and a permit for wetland modification but no environmental permit. Under the NRCA Act, an environmental permit would have been needed for a four-lane highway. By the time the case was heard, the work was well underway. Despite various statements in the media referring to a four-lane highway, the Judge accepted the evidence of the National Environment and Planning Agency’s CEO, Mr. Peter Knight, that these announcements were “erroneous” and the new road would have only two lanes. And so that is what was built. The court judgment can be read here: www.jamentrust.org/publications/law-advocacy-publications/?&SingleProduct=165
Despite its protected area designation, the appropriate use and management of the Palisadoes strip, Port Royal and the Port Royal cays remains contested. Mitigation measures for the new road were either not done, done late, or done but paid for by taxpayers and now struggling. No successful dune rehabilitation or revegetation was ever done. The few endangered cacti removed to the Port Royal Marine Lab died. The work site for the road works on the Palisadoes backshore was never rehabilitated. A reasonable attempt was made to replant mangroves on the harbour side by the University of the West Indies, but maintenance has not been adequately funded and mortality rates are high, due mostly to the garbage that washes into the harbor from the gullies. The NRCA/NEPA has given permission for a large entertainment venue at Seventh Harbour, adjacent to Gun Boat Beach, without, apparently sufficient attention paid to the likelihood of traffic obstruction on the airport road, as happened so egregiously on New Year’s Day. An Entertainment Zone was declared at Fort Rocky, near to Port Royal, in a part of the strip were the marine resources are in reasonable shape and where turtles nest. I predict a lot of garbage in the sea if parties are held there. Lime Cay remains in some limbo state – supposedly “closed” due to public health concerns, but folks still visit. And we have been talking about cruise ships and a Disney-type project at Port Royal for more than 20 years, also in the news in early 2018. jamaica-gleaner.com/article/lead-stories/20180107/wasting-wealth-wickedest-city-investors-blame-state-agencies-stalled
Our decision-making processes are crippled. We are unable to decide and unable to act. We are unwilling to say no: not there, not like that. We want everything to go anywhere and everywhere – we want houses in flood plains, hotels on eroding beaches, cruise ship channels through coral reefs, markets on sidewalks and in the middle of roads, and party venues in protected areas.
We have already lost much. But even if the sacrifice seems worthwhile, you know, jobs vs access to the airport, this approach is simply never going to deliver the standard of living that we admire and aspire to in other places where everything cannot go everywhere!