People power and the Ironwood Forest

| 12/05/2008

By Wendy Ledger (Posted Monday, 12 May 2008)

There were favourable indications this past week that the Minister for
Communications and Works may be giving up on plans to build a road
through George Town’s remaining ancient Ironwood Forest. Speaking at a
recent Finance Committee hearing, Arden McLean said he was not
prepared to take anyone’s land and the government was looking at
alternate routes around the northern boundary of the forest. Following
that statement on Thursday, 8 May, his ministry invited all interested
parties to a public meeting this week Wednesday.

From the outset there has been persistent and strong opposition to the
road from concerned citizens across the islands, as well as the
private landowners. There has been a significant amount of
correspondence with the local press, calls to talk shows, and a
turnout of more than 200 people at a recent rally outside the Glass
House last month, where a number of people pledged tolay before the
bulldozers if necessary, in addition to adding their names to a
growing petition to save the forest. An information website
established to inform people about the campaign received literally
hundreds of comments from Caymanians, residents and overseas visitors
in support of this unique environment.

The crown owns a considerable amount of the land in the forest but a
large percentage remains in private hands – but untouched. From the
outset, the private landowners have stated their position and desire
to protect the forest and have pledged not to develop land they own
which lies within its boundaries. However, confusion and
misinformation has surrounded this proposed road development. The
actual definition of the forest boundary and its delicate eco-systems
versus what some consider inconsequential land, the government’s
desire to create a heritage forest, its plans to build the road and
develop the University College of the Cayman Islands (UCCI) site, and
the long term intentions of the private landowners have been part of
accusations and counter accusations. 

The Minister has even suggested that many of the protestors had hidden
agendas because of their own desire to develop parts of the forest,
though these accusations appear to be unfounded. At the weekly
televised press briefing on 1 May, McLean said the real forest needed
to be protected from other development in the future, since at present
there were no guarantees that the owners would not build. 

Andrew McGregor Yates the largest private landowner affected by the
proposed road has said neither he nor any of the other landowners in
the forest have any intentions of building on the land. “This land is
ours to preserve. We don’t want to build on it and we don’t want the
road. The forest has already suffered from encroachment. There are
incredible species in this forest found nowhere else in the world and
I want to preserve it,” Yates said. “Only God knows why these
beautiful things are growing in this forest and we should not disturb

One very well qualified localexpert told CNS that the reason why the
forest had evolved this way was because it is part of a mosaic of eco-
systems. While he said that some of the land in question was indeed
swamp, that very swampland gave rise to the diversity of life in the
forest itself. “You can’t have one without the other, the systems are
a mosaic and it is the moisture and humidity levels from the swamp
that have given rise to the diverse species in the forest,” he said.

Although the area in question is very small in the grand scheme of
conservation, this tiny patchwork of dry wood forest and swamp is the
end result of millions of years of evolution and the expert described
some of the unique elements.

“There are more than 70 different species there and about twenty are
critically endangered, with another 25 endangered. We also have some
endemic species, not just to Cayman but to the forest itself. Old
George (Hohenbergia caymanensis) is a type of bromeliad that
grows naturally only in the forest.” He also noted that much of the
flora, such as the Ghost Orchid, is there for a reason and attempts to
move them have generally failed.

“Nature chooses places for good reasons, and we can’t replicate those
reasons as we don’t always know what they are. We are not even sure
exactly what pollinates a Ghost Orchid,” he added.

This uncertainty about the orchid applies to numerous other species.
While experts in the public and private sector are making it their
life’s work to study the islands’ flora and fauna, they don’t know
everything, and unless they can continue to observe species in their
natural habitats they will continually be hampered in their
understanding of our bio-diversity.

Around the world the drive to preserve the planet’s bio-diversity is
being fuelled by myriad reasons. Many species on earth are sources of
food, medicines, cosmetics and other things we need and want. Around
90 percent of our food was domesticated and crossbred from wild stock,
found by trial and error. Again, about 50% of the drugs and other
pharmaceuticals that we depend upon were developed in some way from
the genetic resources of wild plants. However, almost 90% of the
plants we know about have never even been chemically evaluated.

Preserving species requires the preservation of their ecosystems, and
experts say that this is also good for our general human health in the
long term. Aesthetics play an important part, too, in the argument for
preserving bio-diversity. The vision of an earth with only a few very
similar plants and flowers on it is at best an ugly thought, but could
even be dangerous. Other reasons reach into moral, philosophical and
religious realms. It is, after all, arrogant of us as humans to assume
the role of judge and jury over what is worth preserving and what
isn’t. Moreover, according to the scriptures of most religions, Man
was given guardianship of the earth by God.

However, as many as 50-200 species are lost every day and it
takes between 2,000-100,000 generations for higher species to evolve.
Across the world, scientists admit they lack knowledge about species
in the most bio-diverse and at-risk areas, so preserving even the
tiniest area could prove crucial in years to come.

When CNS contacted the Department of Environment to talk about the
species diversity in the Ironwood Forest, we were informed that the
Department had been specifically instructed by the Ministry not to
make any public comment on this subject until further notice is given.
In the wake of the shocking tragedy at the Botanic Park, where seven
Blue Iguanas were murdered in a brutal attack, the Minister in
question, Charles Clifford, said that the pending National
Conservation Law had been drafted to help safeguard Cayman’s endemic
and endangered plant and animal species.

“As united as we are in our grief, Caymanians stand together in our
resolve to protect our endangered and endemic fauna and flora,” the
Minister said on Friday 9 May. We can hope, if this is how he feels,
the restriction he has placed on staff speaking out about the species
in the forest will be lifted before next Wednesday’s meeting so the
public will not be deprived of a valuable source of expertise with
respect to the ecological value of the forest and its endangered and
endemic fauna and flora.

Meanwhile, as silent as the DoE staff has been instructed to be, its
website is very informative and explains that the Cayman Islands
enjoys a rich and varied natural heritage and all three islands are
unique. In addition to spectacular marine resources, Grand Cayman,
Little Cayman and Cayman Brac all boast plants and animals that are
found nowhere else in the world. “Protection of our local natural
resources is part of our global responsibility towards maintaining a
healthy and diverse planet, both now and for benefit of future
generations,” the site says.

Under the Darwin initiative, one where countries that are rich in
biodiversity can receive funding and assistance from the UK to help
implement the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the DoE is now
carrying out an assessment of the key biodiversity elements of Cayman
with a view to learning how the country can conserve the environment
and raise awareness. The Ironwood Forest is one just place where the
project is working to preserveand understand what is left of Cayman’s
natural habitat so that we can all begin to appreciate a little more
what we have – before it’s too late.

There is no doubt that the forest is a place of exceptional peace and
beauty in the heart of the country’s busy capital, and well worth
preserving for that alone, never mind all of the other sound and
sensible reasons. Those wishing to preserve the forest are also in
favour of creating a small limited boardwalk or hanging bridge, which
would enable more people to enjoy a small piece of this forest without
causing damage because, they say, its unique nature needs to be
promoted and that it would form an excellent educational exhibit.
Anyone brave enough to venture in will be rewarded with nature’s
bounty very quickly, as both Old George and the Ghost Orchid are
growing close to the forest’s edge. There is, however, plenty of
Maiden Plum and Lady Hair, neither of which are quite as friendly as
some of the other species, making it a little dangerous for those who
are not familiar with these plants – hence the need to find a way for
people to enjoy the forest safely.

At present, the future of this unique forest, which is clearly very
special to many people, as demonstrated by the outpouring of support
to conserve it, hangs on the decision of the government to build or
not to build a road. According to Minister McLean, to alter the route
would require taking out four or five homes and not taking the Linford
Peirson Highway through to Walkers Road and could amount to more
traffic woes for drivers coming in from the eastern districts. “If we
were to do it without taking out houses, it would mean sharp 70 degree
corners. If you’re going to do it that way you’re going to have to
take out at leastfour or five homes,” he said recently.

Some, however, would and have said that this is a very small price to
pay to preserve George Town’s Ironwood Forest. The environment is no
longer something people in Cayman want to take for granted, and the
issue of conservation is beginning to take precedence over development
at any cost. While we may not yet be able to collectively call
ourselves real “Friends of the Earth”, we are, at least, trying hard
to get to know her a bit better.

For more details on the campaign to preserve the ironwood forest visit
. The public meeting will take place at 7:00 pm on
Wednesday 14 May at the Sir Vassell Johnson Multipurpose Hall on the
UCCI campus.

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