Rethinking Jamaica’s Development Model to work in harmony with Nature

June 10, 2021

Richard Kelly, Programmes Specialist, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Multi Country Office in Jamaica

By Richard Kelly, Programmes Specialist, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Multi Country Office in Jamaica

We are supposed to be using the Earth’s natural resources in such a way that they are regenerative for use by future generations. Instead we have taken the Earth to a dangerous tipping point of possibly no return if we do not significantly change our ways. It is this alarming rate of destruction that has resulted in the clarion call of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Antonio Guterres to declare “2021 as the year to reconcile humanity with nature”. The exponential increase in the pressures on the Earth’s resources have also motivated the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the global development network of the UN, to produce a different kind of Human Development Report in 2020, one that takes into account the planetary pressures on human development and offer cogent alternatives embodied in the title of the Report,  “The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene”.

While all countries are being affected by the wanton degradation of the natural environment, small island developing states (SIDS) are disproportionately impacted. One main reason is because they rely heavily on their natural resources for socio-economic survival. For instance, Jamaica is heavily reliant on its natural resources as the critical foundation for economic activities in tourism, mining, agriculture and fishing and many other sectors. The island boasts a rich endowment of biodiversity, partly due to its physical features. The country also has relatively high endemism of plants and animal species ranking 18th in the world in terms of the number of endemic birds and over 900 endemic plant species.

However, we are not taking adequate care of our “Garden of Eden.” Notwithstanding efforts by the Government to protect the country’s biodiversity and to encourage sustainable use of natural resources, Jamaica still grapples with environmental degradation. For example, in 2016 Jamaica ranked 54th out of 180 countries on the University of Yale’s global Environmental Performance Index (EPI) and by 2020 the country slipped 12 places to 66. The country is challenged by degradation of its marine and terrestrial ecosystems, unsustainable use of natural resources, unsustainable agriculture practices, pollution, and inadequate waste management.

As reported by the World Bank, Jamaica has made important strides in macro-economic stability and debt reduction over the last seven years and the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service (MOFPS) reported that public debt fell to 96% of GDP in fiscal year 2018/19.  However, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the country, resulting in an overall economic contraction of 10% in calendar year 2020, as stated by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, notably driven by a 70% contraction in the tourist industry. The Minister of Finance has declared that “The economic impact of the pandemic in Jamaica has led to an economic decline without parallel in Jamaica’s history”.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. COVID-19 has severely affected the country, but it also presents a turning point for new ways of doing things, underpinned by a green recovery. With the looming socio-economic challenges, the Government will have to innovatively craft policies to build forward better and accelerate recovery. With enhanced capacity, Jamaica would be well-positioned to implement policy alternatives to maximize the blue and green economies with innovative nature-based and green solutions and ensure that everyone benefits and participates fully from development gains. While there are gaps, Jamaica has relatively robust policy, legislative and institutional frameworks for management of the environment reflected in the country’s aim for sustainable management and use of natural resources outlined under in the Vision 2030 Jamaica: National Development Plan’s Goal 4: Jamaica has a healthy natural environment. .  

With Jamaica’s biodiversity and natural resources fueling its economy, the country should harness its natural capital to advance socio-economic development. However, this must be done in a sustainable way. Catalytic investments in the green and blue economy could help the country realize its economic goals and uplift persons out of poverty. It is known that every U$1 invested in conservation returns about U$4 in economic value over time from natural resource goods and services. The point is that the country should realize benefits from sustainably utilizing its natural resource without overexploitation. This requires strengthening the country’s capacity to implement nature-based solutions and facilitate ecosystems-based sustainable livelihoods. For example, achieving the full potential of tourism requires its diversification. The pandemic has shown us that we have to re-think and enhance our present tourism model. The new tourism model should be more sustainable and inclusive and embrace a shift from mass market to unique market niches characterised by smart, customised travel, higher expenditure rates by tourists, higher valued niche products and reduced impact on the environment. In capitalizing on market trends, the Government could move swiftly to expand cultural tourism, community-based tourism, eco-tourism, business and sports tourism, health and wellness tourism and remote working opportunities for long stay working tourists. The potential of health and wellness tourism remains untapped. The global health and wellness market reached US$3.3 billion in 2020 according to Globenewswire, and remote working, influenced by COVID-19, is a growing market segment. Also, with a robust policy, regulatory and institutional framework for greater access and benefit sharing of its genetic resources, Jamaica could stimulate and facilitate small industries such as the nutraceutical and medicinal industries. The global nutraceutical market was estimated at US$230.9 billion in 2018 according to BCC Research.

Agriculture is another sector that could be diversified and expanded using green solutions to not only increase food security but also generate income and employment. Buttressed by sustainable practices and enhanced value chains, the sector offers much for Jamaica. More sustainable practices such as controlled aquaculture, mariculture, permaculture, horticulture, hydroponics and aquaponics should be encouraged. Both hydroponics and aquaponics enables the soil-less growth of plants thus reducing the impact on the environment. Aquaponics combines growing plants hydroponically and raising fish. The global hydroponics market was estimated at US$9.5 billion in 2020 by Markets and Markets. Sustainable agriculture requires managing systems and landscapes; hence, landscape management and land use planning are essential.

Along Jamaica’s coastal areas additional opportunities abound and should be viewed as pivotal to socio-economic development. More than 50% of economic assets and about 70% of the population are concentrated in these areas which are highly vulnerable to natural hazards. Healthy coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs are integral to protection of the island’s physical and economic assets and should be supported as a critical component of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) to the impacts of climate change. In addition, the coastal zone offers opportunities for mariculture, diversification in fisheries and expansion in other blue economy sectors such as the marine biotechnology.

Our natural capital offers a solid avenue to economic prosperity and social well-being. However, these benefits can only be realized if we integrate biodiversity management and sustainable use of natural resources into all that we do from the policy level to ground level, from the policy-makers to the users of the resources. This is not only the responsibility of Government but is a duty that should be shared by all Jamaicans. The policy prescriptions must not be confined to paper but should be actively translated into practical solutions through diverse partnerships to transform the lives of Jamaicans. The time is now, the opportunities abound. Environmental management is a priority of the Government. Will the country move forward with a new paradigm or will it be business as usual?

Richard Kelly is Programmes Specialist for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Multi Country Office in Jamaica. He will soon take up a new appointment as Country Specialist covering six Country Offices in the Caribbean for UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. Send feedback to  or on Twitter at @Richard39829422