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Unsustainable Paradise Understanding Sustainability within the Island Context of Jamaica

Written by Ryan Walker


The ultimate vacation in paradise is sitting with the toes in the sand on a Caribbean or South Pacific island with the hotel room just a few yards away from the beach. The sun is warm, the water is even warmer, and the ocean is a painting of deep blues mixed with light blue crystal waves and the white frothy foams from the tide. The beach is beautiful and, depending on the hotel you stay at, you can interact with some locals while walking down the perfect sand.

Sustainability has become an ambiguous term describing matters of environmental conservation, social equality, environmental restoration, green technology, green infrastructure, and many other topics. There are many different definitions and frameworks for sustainability that one can choose from depending on their area of expertise or interests in the environment. One such framework is The Natural Step Framework, developed in 1989 by Swedish scientist Karl-Henrik Róbert that takes the issue of sustainability within the lens of systems thinking.

As I took in my first Caribbean experience the first day in Jamaica, I met a Jamaican man named Scooby, while walking down the beach. We stopped and talked and the conversation took a somewhat personal tone even for a first meeting. “Mon, in Jamaica, we have little things, so what we do is we boast. One man have fancy car, he boast, you come here to fancy hotel and id make you think you better den me,” he said with a smile. “Di only ting that is for certain is you live one day, the next you die. You may have the fancy hotel, but I have the beach because it is Jamaica. We same flesh, same blood, and what happen to di man who have a million bucks who die? He gone, but I still here. Same flesh, same blood, no different between you and me.” I smiled and

Systems thinking looks at the problem as a part of a larger connected system. The systems thinking idea can be compared to a watershed. The impacts on the water that takes place at the very top of the watershed will have impacts all the way at the bottom of the watershed. The Natural Step Framework provides a simple definition of sustainability: “The ability of nature’s cycles to run forever.” This definition is simple at its base, but The Natural Step Framework continues further to explain how those cycles interact with sustainability. Róbert created four different principles of sustainability that interact with one another and explain society’s relationship to the environment. These four principles are extraction, pollution, degradation, and barriers.

we gave the Jamaican farewell to one another, touching fists with the thumbs up, touching each other pointing upward, and then flicking your thumb in the opposite direction while bidding, “Respect,” to one another. The conversation serves as an interesting preamble for an exploration of understanding sustainability for an island country like Jamaica.

The first, extraction, simply put is digging up resources too fast from the earth before they are replenished. For a society that wants to be sustainable in this principle, it must not subject nature to continued systematic extraction of substances from Earth’s crust. Jamaica has been a country that has a history of strong mining for bauxite that eventually


produces aluminum-based products. Although the

pollution, a “poisoning” of the natural system.

industry has slowed in recent years, there is still

When pollution occurs, nature is subjected to

evidence of the rate at which Jamaica mined for this

increasing concentrations of synthetic substances

resource. The deep-red clay soil in areas around

being released into nature. Fossil fuel burning has

Jamaica, most notably the famous Cockpit Country

been the historic scapegoat for pollution by today’s

in west-central and northwest Jamaica, is extracted

society, but pollution can include plastics, synthetic

from the ground, then processed prior to exportation

chemicals like fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides,

from the country. Bauxite mining has put a large

and biochemicals like pharmaceuticals. The problem

stress on the ecological systems that have been mined

with pollution extends farther than the accumulation

in order to support this industry. The extraction of

of trash or increasing greenhouse gases; the problem

bauxite, in many cases, has been in conflict with

is the increasing inability for nature to be able to

many rural communities that depend on the same

breakdown these foreign compounds that are not

land for agriculture. Bauxite mining influences the

found in nature. As a result, these synthetic chemicals

nutrients available in the soil and contributes to soil

can build up in the soil or in rivers and other

degradation.

waterways that service urban center’s drinking water and other water needs.

Róbert’s second principle of sustainability is

Mud Lake was formed as a result of bauxite mining and the dumping of waste soil back on site. Some mangroves have recolonized the water, adapting to the unique soil features.


The crystal blue water and colorful beachfront hotels dot the Ocho Rios coastline. The overdevelopment of the coastline has degraded coastal and aquatic biomes with alarming effects to coral health and fish populations.


Deforestation and urban growth are readily-identified

resorts along Jamaica’s coast, especially the North

challenges for sustainability. These issues fall

Coast, has put a huge impact on the costal and

within the principle of degradation. In a sustainable

maritime biomes. The coral reefs in many harbors

society, nature is not affected by increasing changes

have been scraped away to enable large cruise

by physical means. Practices like farming, bauxite

ships to dock, large expanses of beach have eroded

mining, and tourism development are examples of

away due to the development of beach-side hotels

degradation within Jamaica. The issue of tourism

and resorts, and fish populations have fallen, or

is perhaps the most convicting issue linked with

disappeared entirely due to coral reef destruction and

degradation. The Jamaican economy depends heavily

coastal water pollution.

upon tourism, yet the development of hundreds of The final principle of sustainability deals with barriers, the abilities for all people to meet their needs without restrictions. There are multiple barriers that can be observed in relation to sustainability: social barriers, economic barriers, or environmental barriers. Socio-economic barriers are the most relevant barriers to The Natural Step Framework’s final principle of sustainability. The Jamaican Organic Agricultural Movement has helped local farmers across Jamaica move to a more eco-friendly farming approach that reduces the use of synthetic chemicals, minimizes erosion, and manages water consumption. The organic farming industry has created a socio-economic barrier for the majority of the country despite applying a much more sustainable approach to the production of food in the country. With this understanding of the elements of sustainability, The Natural Step Framework provides a sustainable avenue for strategic-problem solving. Backcasting is the process of creating a defined goal that is to be achieved and then, with that understanding, determine the necessary Pictured top, a river at its normal state and below, the river water during periods of heavy rain. Soil sedimentation and chemical buildup occur during times of flooding and heavy rain adding to pollution problems in Jamaica’s waterways.

steps to achieve that goal. Much like the game of chess, or a boxing match, one must plan their steps according to the goal they have while thinking ahead


of the challenges that will be met on the way. In conjunction with backcasting is The ABCD Process, a series of steps that helps one achieve their goal. The process of backcasting is seen in the Jamaican Organic Agricultural Movement’s aim at reducing the amount of conventional farms and increasing organic production across the island. The first step for JOAM is the awareness of the impacts that conventional farming has had on Jamaica, both the environmental and economic impacts. JOAM also creates a unified understanding of the problem so that the organization can move forward in the backcasting process. After they have developed a strong awareness of the existing problem, JOAM uses the four sustainability principles to analyze the sustainability of conventional farming practices. Issues like chemical pollution and degradation through plot clearing and soil erosion would inform JOAM on the existing problems that need to be dealt with. Based on this analysis and application of the four principles, JOAM continues to create a vision of what organic farming will look like for Jamaica. JOAM would look at this vision in relationship to the four sustainability principles and understand which ones will be more challenging to achieve. The final step for JOAM to reach their goal of organic farming is the decisionmaking step. At this point in backcasting, JOAM creates a step-by-step process that the organization needs to take in order to achieve their goal. This process includes specific, economically feasible steps like education on organic processes, financial support

Top, locals and tourists alike visit White River Falls, a much smaller waterfall that is relatively natural compared to the highly visited Dunns River Falls, pictured below, which is perhaps the most well-known tourist attraction in Ocho Rios.

Above, the menu of an organic farm stand at the Denbigh Ag Show in Clarendon advertising organic food options. $85 Jamaican is equivalent to $1 US. Minimum wage for Jamaica is $4500 per 40 hour workweek; roughly $53 US a week.


A fisherman sails back to shore during sunset along the coast in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

when possible, and create long-term steps to continue progress for organic farming. The Natural Step Framework enables one to analyze the sustainability of a place or practice and then create an action plan based on these problems. For Jamaica, The Natural Step Framework applies to bauxite mining, organic farming, and tourism, just to mention a few areas. Although a popular, American image of Jamaica is a tropical paradise that is perfect and beautiful, an understanding of sustainability and application of The Natural Step Framework shows that Jamaica is actually an unsustainable paradise.


Island Sustainability