Sand Mining Threatens Jamaica’s Rio Grande

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.