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Murder of Mangrove : A State‐Sponsored Contamination

Written by: Luis Sandoval

The Graeme Hall swamp was once part of a 373‐acre plantation estate partially owned by the Kirton family in the 1600s. Owen Graeme occupied a section of the land at this time, and upon his death in 1661, his portion was left to Evan Graeme. Thus the Graeme Hall came into existence. In the 1960s when the Government of Barbados became owner, the size of the park was 289 acres. In 1988 the Mangrove covered an area of 265 acres, but thanks to the Government plan, in 2009, the size reduced to 90 acres only.

Once numerous coastal swamps dotted the leeward coast of Barbados from Speightstown on the northern west coast to Chancery Lane Swamp just south of the airport. Over the years, the wetlands have been filled in for commercial development, compromising the wildlife habitat. When St. Lawrence Gap was similarly developed for tourism, this destruction included filling in the very last duck shooting swamps that were connected to the Graeme Hall Swamp. Chancery Lane is a now seasonal wetland and Graeme Hall is waiting for its last breath.

Protector or Plunderer

Let us look into Graeme Hall to find out the role of the Barbados government.

In recognition of the environmental sensitivity of the Graeme Hall wetlands, Barbados agreed to maintain the surrounding Graeme Hall green space as an agricultural area, environmental buffer and urban open space in its 1988 National Physical Development Plan.

Barbados became a party to the Biodiversity Convention on December 10, 1993, and has acknowledged that the Graeme Hall wetlands (including the Sanctuary) are a major biodiversity resource for Barbados.

In 1997 and 1998, the Barbados Government contracted ARA Consulting Group to formulate an effective management strategy for the long‐term protection, enhancement and maintenance of approximately 240 acres of green space. They prepared two reports in 1997 and 1998, titled: Graeme Hall Swamp Today; and the second report, Graeme Hall Swamp's Future. The second report included recommendations for sustaining and expanding biodiversity within the Sanctuary and the creation of an eco‐tourist educational and scientific learning center.

In 2003, Barbados designated the Sanctuary and a large area around it (approximately 300 acres in total) as a Natural Heritage Conservation Area under a 2003 Physical Development Plan. This designation was intended to protect the area by ensuring that very little development was permitted within the vicinity of the Sanctuary. In the same year, Barbados established the Graeme Hall Stewardship Committee, which served to coordinate the activities of the various government offices, agencies and stakeholders, commissioned crucial research and devised a Master Plan for the longterm protection of the Graeme Hall ecosystem.

But...

In 2005 nine (9) acres (more or less) located within the western portion of the OS‐2 Graeme Hall wetland (west of the Sanctuary) and within the 100‐year floodplain were excluded from RAMSAR site recognition.

On April 12, 2006, Barbados ratified the Convention on Wetlands and designated Graeme Hall on the List of Wetlands of International Importance. Graeme Hall became RAMSAR site No. 1591.

In 2007, over 6,000 Barbadians signed a formal petition sponsored by the Friends of Graeme Hall  in favour of creating the 240‐acre Graeme Hall National Park. 

In 2008, The Amended National Physical Development Plan, which was announced originally in 2003, revoked the previous commitments and legal framework that protected the RAMSAR site and the investment in the Sanctuary.

Almost 16 years ago, efforts and cooperation by the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary and the United Nations, the Graeme Hall Swamp gained international recognition and designation as a wetland of international importance. However, two weapons have been skilfully used by the Government of Barbados to choke the last significant mangrove and wetland on the island: a sewage treatment plant and a broken sluice gate.  

The Sluice Gate

The sea or ocean is the lifeline for a mangrove. The intimacy with a sea assures life to this unique ecosystem. But the urbanization changed the geography and ocean water now could not mingle with the mangroves in Graeme Hall. So a sluice gate was initially constructed in the 1920s, with three extensions in the following 50 years due to beach accretion. According to the record, when the gates were maintained and functioning properly through the 1960s, water quality from the mangrove was visually clear, and the gates were operated to allow for tidal flow.

The sluice gate, when raised, regulates outflow to the sea permitting the mixing of ocean saltwater and Sanctuary lake freshwater and allowing for the natural biotic interchange in a mangrove setting, via natural connections through mangroves bordering the lake, to the bisecting canal. However, the sluice gate of Graeme Hall has been inoperable by the Government of Barbados since 1994. The sluice gate was opened irregularly between 1997 and 2004, and on no more than a handful of occasions between 2005 and 2009.

The Effect

It is simple, if the gate is not opened, the saltwater from the ocean is unable to enter the wetlands. It is the perfect death sentence for any mangrove. 

A recent study conducted by noted environmental scientists from the United States confirms that the ecosystem has become primarily a freshwater system rather than a brackish estuarine system. Moreover, government‐sanctioned development has cut off other traditional sea‐to‐wetland waterways. As a result, freshwater drainage is now overwhelming the wetland, and while Barbados' most significant mangrove woodland can indeed survive in freshwater, any open area in the mangrove system caused by catastrophic hurricane, fire or disease will mean that the mangrove will not grow back.

South Coast Sewage Treatment Plant

The South Coast Sewage Treatment Plant is a close neighbour of the Graeme Hall and has taken all the responsibilities to pollute the whole mangrove. The plant is contaminating the water and land of the park for more than a decade and forced the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary to close its gate for general people on December 15, 2008. After more than ten years of the closure of the privately-owned Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, the quantity and quality of contamination by the plant has been increased more than ten times.  On November 26, 2018, Barbados Today reported "Business owners such as James Chow of Guang Dong Bar and Chinese Restaurant, commended the Government for attempting to resolve the issue.

Chow's restaurant stands opposite the Graeme Hall Swamp in Worthing, Christ Church and he has endured both the putrid smell and declining sales.

Just yards away from his business, an outfall pipe was constructed. It was expected to temporarily take the pressure off the swamp, which regulates the flow of sewage into Worthing Beach. Ann‐Marie Carter, the owner of Aqua Pharmacy, said some visitors were already seeking accommodation elsewhere because of the stench and the beach's closure."

And on November 29, 2018, the newspaper reports, "the Independence anniversary weekend will find Worthing Beach without its seaside pageant of beachgoers and bathers as the popular south coast strip is to remain closed, authorities have announced. A sluice gate at Worthing Beach has been the outlet for excess wastewater that has posed contamination risks to sea‐bathers and driven others away with its foul stench."