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Jamaica

Fighting "Poison Fishing" in the Rio Grande

In Jamaica’s Rio Grande River valley, local communities are struggling with a man-made threat to their way of life — poison fishing, the practice of harvesting fish and shellfish by polluting the river with agrochemicals.

Poison fishing can result in severe health problems, including birth defects. But poverty and unemployment can sometimes force local residents to take long-term risks for short-term gains.

Now The Nature Conservancy is leading a campaign to stop the practice. Nature.org talked to Kimberly John, manager of the Sustainable Waters Program for The Nature Conservancy in Jamaica, about how she is working with local residents to halt poison fishing on the Rio Grande and implement sustainable fishing practices that will ensure the area's long-term economic survival.
"It is difficult to focus on environmental issues when the economic and social equity aspects of sustainability are unaddressed."

Kimberly John, manager of the Sustainable Waters Program for The Nature Conservancy in Jamaica

Nature.org:

You work on freshwater conservation in Jamaica’s Rio Grande River. What’s the biggest challenge you face?

Kimberly John:

The Rio Grande is the largest river source of freshwater in Jamaica - it’s free-flowing (i.e., undammed) and is a major inland fishery. Unfortunately, over the past 10-15 years, the fishery and the entire river ecosystem have been affected by poison fishing, and the practice is taking its toll on the river.

Nature.org:

What do you mean by poison fishing?

Kimberly John:

Local fishermen have been using readily-available agrochemicals to harvest fish, shrimp and crayfish from the river, usually for sale. This practice has deteriorated the health of the river and is a threat to the health and way of life of the people who depend on the river for survival.

National park rangers who regularly monitor the streams are reporting an increase in the use of chemicals, and many locals are completely frustrated with the spectacle of dead and dying fish and shrimp in their streams and springs. Our plan is to eliminate the use of illegal and harmful poisons in the upper Rio Grande valley by 2009.

Nature.org:

How do you plan to phase out this practice so quickly? Which strategies are you using?

Kimberly John:

First of all, the Conservancy needed to strengthen and deepen our relationship with all the parties involved. Since spring 2007, we have been carefully cultivating a partnership between several organizations, including the Jamaica Conservation Development Trust, the government's Fisheries Division and, of course, the residents of Rio Grande, especially Bowden Pen Farmers Association.

We are dealing with a multi-faceted problem, so we have adopted a multi-faceted approach focusing on education, strengthening enforcement and developing sustainable alternatives. For example, we are teaching fishermen to return to traditional fishing methods such as using fishing pots, line fishing and nets.

Many local people are not aware of how dangerous and illegal the practice is. We will educate the local communities about the toxic effects of agrochemicals - from belly aches to birth defects - not to mention substantial fines and jail time for those who practice poison-fishing.

Nature.org:

Tell us more about how you're educating the community.

Kimberly John:

We just launched the public education campaign in January with several community meetings drawing crowds of 250 people. The launch events included a lot of music, poetry and a film that brought the message to the communities in culturally relevant methods. The film, "Saving Rio Grande - The Lifeline of a People," made a huge impact on the residents who signed up for enforcement training soon after.

Nature.org:

You also mentioned strengthening enforcement. Are there laws against poison fishing in place now, and are they effective? And is the community getting involved?

Kimberly John:

We are training community members in environmental law and enforcement, river ecology and river monitoring. We will help interested persons become equipped and appoint them to function as honorary wardens and inspectors to work alongside the government officers. In addition, we’re developing sustainable alternatives to river poisoning and management options for the river’s fishery.

Nature.org:

What has been the response to your efforts from the local communities?

Kimberly John:

It would be easy for these communities to ignore the problem. We’re talking about an area with poor infrastructural development and few economic opportunities. There’s nothing romantic about poverty, unemployment or uneducated youth. These are real problems in Rio Grande, and it is difficult to focus on environmental issues when the economic and social equity aspects of sustainability are unaddressed.

In spite of these challenges, the communities’ positive response has been very encouraging. In this remote area, the residents are the stewards of their biodiversity.

Some of the community leaders already have a strong environmental vision themselves and understand the problem they are facing. They are the ones who first identified poisoning as a major threat to the river and their livelihoods, and they asked for help. For years, the Bowden Pen Farmers Association has been promoting traditional methods of harvesting and they are rallying others to help solve the problem of river poisoning. Kimberly John’s work in the Rio Grande Valley earned The Nature Conservancy an award for Sustainable Watershed Management.


About the Interviewee
Kimberly John’s work in the Rio Grande Valley earned The Nature Conservancy an award for Sustainable Watershed Management. She was recently an Alcoa Foundation Conservation & Sustainability Research fellow. She is also the manager of the Conservancy's Sustainable Waters program in Jamaica.

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