The raft trip down Jamaica’s Rio Grande was truly a delight. The only sounds were birdcalls, the occasional moo from a cow on the banks, water trickling off the guides’ poles, and laughter from the other rafters in the group.

All was quiet—until 5:30 when machine noise shattered the tranquility. As we floated closer, I watched a steam shovel tear out chunks of the riverbank and dump the sand—water and all—into a diesel-fume-spewing truck that drove away when it was full.

Today I wish I had taken a photo, but at the time, the sight was so appalling that I didn’t want to record this environmental travesty: sand mining. Sand is needed for the cement used in building houses, hotels, stores.

And it’s illegal in Jamaica—at least without a license.

Yet here in broad daylight a steam shovel and five dump trucks—and while I can’t be sure, I’d be willing to bet they’re breaking the law. How could they be so brash?

As it turns out, my group was rafting later in the day than most tourists. We were witness to an environmental crime simply because the sand miners did their dirty work after tourist hours. Their pillage of the river probably happens every day, and local officials turn a blind eye.

For the rest of my raft trip, I couldn’t help but shudder to think what would happen to the fragile riparian ecosystems being torn away from the Rio Grande. Soon, the legacy of this beautiful river will be gone—along with its habitat for birds, fish and freshwater shrimp.

Frankly, I hesitate to even mention this eco-horror because it might dissuade visitors from taking the raft trip in the first place—and tourism has already slowed so much lately due to hard economic times worldwide.

This woman, who sells cold beer and soft drinks to rafters, would be economically impacted by environmental degradation of the Rio Grande.

But here’s the reality: Unless people become outraged enough to speak up and urge the Jamaican government to clamp down on illegal sand mining—or any environmental problem—it will continue.

My hope is that eco-travelers will continue to pay to enjoy a lovely raft ride on a beautiful river. Tourism dollars infused into the local economy might encourage Jamaica to protect, not abuse, its natural landscapes.

In addition, visitors to Jamaica should express sadness over environmental degradation that we notice, letting hotel managers, taxi drivers, restaurateurs and others know how disturbing it is to see the island’s beauty damaged.

When those in the tourism industry get feedback from travelers, they have more to back them up if they speak against the mining to authorities. If it impacts the business of tourism, sand mining might receive the attention needed to halt its practice.

This brings up questions for me, and I’d be interested to hear thoughts from readers:

  • What should tourists do to express their concern about environmental destruction they witness in places they visit?
  • Is voicing outrage over such problems when you’re in a different country with a different culture appropriate? Or will overt anger only alienate the locals without creating change?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Jamaica:

Hopefully, motor-free rafting will continue on a lovely, undamaged river.

Showing 9 comments
  • Page Lambert

    Laurel, what a wonderful post – and what an excellent topic to broach here. How should travelers respond when they see environment abrasion?

    My first thought is that it’s much better to observe, and listen, and ask quiet, respectful questions when possible.

    To build a home should be the right of every human being. So one must be respectful of the core reason for the sand mining. Only from that viewpoint can we move forward with a dialog that might offer alternative, more sustainable and less harmful, building practices.

    I think the key is asking questions, and then listening – really listening – to the answers. And then not judging, but being willing to dig deep enough to contribute to the solution.

    • Laurel

      Nice thoughts! While it would be easy to get angry, a bellicose response could turn people away–even though they might be inclined to agree with your point of view. Different cultures have different ways of problem solving, and people from other countries might interpret a criticism aimed at a specific perceived wrong as being a criticism of the entire country or population.

      A number of people I met in Jamaica are quite aware of the importance of environmental conservation and the link between sustainable tourism and preservation of the land and water. I’m confident that Jamaicans will find good solutions to the country’s environmental challenges.

  • Priscilla

    Laurel, what an idyllic afternoon! Until you came upon the illegal activities. In places where that kind of devastation is illegal, I think it’s a good idea to call attention to it openly and voice outrage. (And voice outrage at the illegal and legal environmental devastation going on at home too.) The root causes of ecological devastation are usually poverty and greed–sometimes one, sometimes the other. I was heartened to see that sand mining is illegal, which means that a lot of people are aware of the harm. Now the issue is to get the law enforced. I think you’re right–tourist dollars make a difference, and maybe tourist opinions too. Laws are more likely to be enforced if there’s broad public support for them, which means the river industry will likely need to get behind it. And they’re more likely to do so if their customers want it.

  • Claire Wallter

    The Jamaica Tourist Board’s Facebook page has a discussion area that seems to be open to all. Is The Nature Conservancy active in Jamaica? Express your concern to them or to the Jamaica Tourist Board. With the recent riots in Kingston, they are certainly alert to image issues — or should be.

  • Jody Berman

    Laurel, I admire your sensitivity in asking how to go forward with what you witnessed. If I had seen the mining, I would have been sick, though I do appreciate the core reasons behind it. Because I believe we all share a responsibility to care for the earth and its creatures–and for each other–I’d want to talk and write about the issue to raise awareness. Perhaps merely asking questions and keeping the topic alive in the respectful way you approach things is the best you can do from Boulder. If you were in Jamaica, it would be easier to work toward solutions that benefit everyone.

  • Beth Partin

    Regarding the illegal sand mining, I think the most important thing to do is get as much information as possible about the situation. Much of what we might consider illegal activity may be survival activity on the part of the people doing it. They may have no other way to earn money. Of course, they may also be opportunists who don’t care about the damage they do. Perhaps there is a Department of Environment in Jamaica at the national or local level that could provide information?

    I highly recommend an article in the Spring 2010 issue of Cultural Survival, “Conservation Refugees.” The first line reads, “The only thing that has displaced more people around the world than war is wildlife conservation.” It’s an eye opener, especially if you’re an environmentalist like me. (Cultural Survival recently merged with Global Response, a local nonprofit.)

    If you want to report the mining, one place to start may be the World Wildlife Fund. That organization sponsors anti-poaching patrols and may very well monitor other types of eco-destruction. Also, the Nature Conservancy has many country offices; I think it has an office in Jamaica.

    • Laurel Kallenbach

      Thanks, Beth, for mentioning the “Conservation Refugees” article. It is indeed thought-provoking and eye-opening, and it illustrates how point of view changes from one culture to the next, especially as it regards how people should act on their own lands. I found the article on Orion Magazine’s website:

  • Kathy Kaiser

    Laurel, thanks for raising this issue. I remember being on Vancouver Island a few years ago and witnessing the horrendous clear-cutting, which partially ruined my trip. I wanted to write a letter to the Vancouver tourism board letting them know that this would dissuade me from coming again, but never found a contact.
    I think it’s important to let our concerns be known; it doesn’t have to be critical. Otherwise, how will anything change?

  • Neola

    This isn’t just Rio Grande, It happens most likely everywhere. I used to live right next to Rio Minho in Clarendon Jamaica. I found the river so strange because at certain intervals in the year, like the rainy season, the river would come down and overflow it’s banks. But then after a time it would dry right back up, and for months it would remain so, however, while it was still dry or in the process of it, tractors and trucks would come and dig the river up. Over the years living there that river had always been like that, always drying up and then overflowing…. it never had a continuous flow and now I’m wondering if the constant mining is throwing the river out of whack.

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