Trees for Tomorrow: raising environmental awareness in Jamaica

Susie Latham

Susie Latham explains how the Jamaican Forestry Department has adopted a wide range of ICTs to restore the island's forests.

Participants in an agroforestry demonstration day organized by the TFT project (image text)

‘A little axe can cut down a big tree’ goes a well known Jamaican saying. It aptly describes the historical processes that have slowly eroded the island’s forest cover. Once called ‘the land of wood and water’ by its original Taino inhabitants, Jamaica’s landscape underwent a massive change after the arrival of European settlers, who felled much of the forest for agricultural production. Even forest lands on hillsides and mountain slopes were cleared for growing crops. The forestry authorities are now grappling with the consequences of centuries of improper land use, including major environmental problems such as soil erosion, destruction of wildlife, and reduced river flows. Better land management is urgently needed to prevent further damage to the island’s forest resources.

The Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture has recognized that, in order to raise awareness of the need for sustainable forest management, it will have to fight the battle on two fronts – within the government and among ordinary Jamaicans, farmers in particular. Thus, the Trees for Tomorrow (TFT) project was launched which is turning foresters into geographic information system (GIS) experts and video camera-wielding extension officers.

The TFT project, sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the government of Jamaica, is the Forestry Department’s most important effort to win the hearts and minds of Jamaicans. Initiated in 1992, one of its main concerns is to gather accurate and reliable data on the extent of forest cover and the exact location of forest boundaries, and how these have changed over time, in order to support national and local forestry plans.

One of the project’s major achievements has been the creation of a GIS database that includes an inventory of forest lands and aerial photographs of the entire island. With this database, Forestry Department members can analyze land use patterns and identify areas that are under serious environmental threat. These areas may then be nominated for inclusion on the list of protected national reserves. The GIS also contains survey data on existing forest reserve boundaries, and the extent of encroachment, recorded by staff using Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.

The TFT members’ surveying efforts have proven remarkably effective. Based on their GIS analyses the government strengthened its commitment to keep aside a significant proportion of the island as forest reserves. The island’s forest reserves occupy more than 111,000 hectares, or over 10% of the area of the island. Using TFT survey data, the Forestry Department is in the process of establishing a detailed forest protection system and a plan for patrolling these reserves.

Forest Awareness Campaign

Another component of the TFT project is the Forest Awareness Campaign, which was launched in 1998. The campaign aims to gain public support for the sustainable management of forests and watersheds, through exhibitions, information centres at agricultural shows, a website and educational broadcasts on national TV. As part of this initiative, the Department’s foresters and wardens have received training in a variety of extension techniques. Equipped with video cameras, overhead projectors and an array of informative posters, calendars and brochures, they now give talks at community meetings and organize training and work days for farmers. During these events, they provide farmers with free tree seedlings and technical advice on, for example, farm woodlots, agroforestry systems and soil conservation. A parallel schools programme aims at delivering forest protection and management messages to children of all ages.

Their talks are enlivened by a series of educational videos. One example is the ‘Forest Watch’ series, which features, in a news programme format, interviews with ‘forest heroes’ – ordinary people who are doing a good job in the forestry sector. So far, these heroes have included a hill farmer who discusses soil conservation; the coordinator of an NGO who is developing a bamboo craft centre; and a landowner who has set aside part of his land as a sustainable pine plantation.

The interest of local communities in the Forest Awareness Campaign’s agenda has led to the formation of three local forest management committees which provide the Forestry Department with feedback on its management of the forest reserves. Another measure of the success of the public awareness programme has been the positive response of the private sector to the Forestry Department’s appeal to join in the effort to restore and protect the island’s forests.

The Trees for Tomorrow project has made a significant contribution to sustainable forest management in Jamaica. It has also helped the Forestry Department to improve its performance, capacity and credibility. Its innovative application of ICTs and environmental awareness raising techniques will benefit the country for years to come.

Susie Latham is an agriculture economist and TFT project member. For further information, visit www.forestry.gov.jm

08 June 2004

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