jamaica-blue-lagoon_web.jpgPORT ANTONIO — In a lush corner of Jamaica, a skirmish is under way over a spring-fed lagoon where the changing light of day turns water from shimmering jade to brilliant cobalt. Tree-fringed Blue Lagoon is a dazzling 400-foot long teardrop of water that meets the Caribbean along a coast that was once a hideaway for the rich and famous and a setting for a film starring Brooke Shields.

The little lagoon's shore already is marred by an abandoned, hurricane-damaged restaurant and a crumbling helicopter pad and a new development is alarming conservationists who are trying to save one of Jamaica's most gorgeous natural attractions. The owner of a small hilltop hotel overlooking the lagoon has carved away a pocket of forest and mangroves to create a private white-sand beach that activists fear could spoil the unique environment.

In most places on the tourism-dependent island, where politicians mostly view the conservation lobby as a hindrance to economic development, a small beach cut out of mangroves would hardly merit notice. But the Blue Lagoon isn't just any place.

Mineral springs

It's a rare environment where the warm waters of the sea mix with fresh water from cold mineral springs in a 186-foot-deep sinkhole. Yellow-billed parrots spread their wings to dry after rain showers. Small blue fish dart around the shallows. Black-and-scarlet frigate birds swoop overhead.

The cove was first described in an 1864 journal published by photographic pioneer Adolphe Duperly. The Frenchman's pictures of Jamaica were a hit at a Paris exhibition and helped the Blue Lagoon become a destination for travelers.

The lagoon and the wider Port Antonio area were once favored destinations of European aristocrats and film stars like Errol Flynn whose widow still runs a cattle ranch nearby. But it has seen a steady decline in tourist traffic since its 1950s heyday.

Blue Lagoon still attracts bird-watchers and nature lovers who want experiences off the beaten track, though it's hardly been a priority for recent Jamaican governments due to its relative isolation and lack of foot traffic. Just outside the cove, about a dozen luxury villas line the shore.

Alternate name

It is often known as Blue Hole to locals but the alternate name came into wider use after the Brooke Shields movie The Blue Lagoon was partly filmed there, though her famed swim scene was shot elsewhere.

The Jamaica National Heritage Trust has completed historical research to potentially declare Blue Lagoon a protected national monument. But Lisa Grant, legal officer for the government body, said more rigorous evaluations are needed before any official declaration can be made.

They need to “make sure the economic activity around the site does not compromise the integrity of the area,” she said, a reference to development and boat tours around the cove. It is not clear how long their assessments might take.

During a recent visit to the cove, the chief of the local Portland Environment Protection Association, Machel Donegan, said the area is a “very special, unique place so development on it should not be allowed.”

Jobs needed

Environmental activists have been pressing politicians to save the cove, while blasting regulators. They say government approval of the beach is evidence of a broader failure of environmental protection on an island where many see jobs as more important than strict conservation.

Cy Mortluck, a 35-year-old father of four who ferries the rare visitor around the lagoon in a 16-foot wooden boat, strongly supports the resort owner who built the beach.

“What we need here is more jobs, more tourists. Getting more people to Blue Lagoon is the best deal around here, trust me,” said Mortluck, as he guided his paint-spattered boat from the mouth of the lagoon and into the choppy sea.

For some residents of coastal Portland parish, where luxurious villas mix with pockets of poverty, the dispute has aroused the bitter divisions of a predominantly black society in which whites or foreigners control much of the land and the economy.

Racist views

While many resorts on the island are owned by Jamaican whites or outsiders, Tropical Lagoon Resort is owned by a local couple, Devon and Yvonne Wilson, whose spokesman has accused environmentalists of racist and classist views. Colin Bell told the Jamaica Observer that “these people don't believe that a little black boy from Port Antonio should own that property.”

Boat guide Fitzroy White agrees. “I can tell you that when a black man tries something, the white man tries to keep him down. And that's exactly what's happening here,” said White, part of a group of locals who catch the odd red snapper to supplement wages as guides when visitors can't be found.

The Wilsons insist their project is environmentally sound and reject accusations that the sand was illegally barged in from the area's two remaining public beaches.

“The sand is washed in naturally from the sea so we just moved it over to a certain section,” Yvonne Wilson said in a phone interview. “We know what we are doing.”

Damaging project

National government Information Minister Daryl Vaz said that “there is little or no evidence” that the beach was created illegally.

Diana McCaulay, a founder of the watchdog group Jamaica Environment Trust, who has led efforts against the artificial beach, said the real problem is that the National Environment and Planning Agency, or NEPA, is dismally weak.

“The regulatory framework is completely dysfunctional and the emphasis is on development no matter how harmful. If a single job emerges from the most damaging project, that is perceived to be OK,” said McCaulay.

She said there is a perverse incentive for developers to start projects illegally because those developments are often later declared legal.

She said that regulators approved the Blue Lagoon beach proposal even though it was almost identical to one they had turned down a year earlier on grounds it would degrade the environment. The only difference was that a thatched-roof bar was removed from the application.

Lax oversight

“And even though it was for development in a place like Blue Lagoon, not once did anyone from the NEPA monitor the development until I reported the completed beach a year later,” she said.

Peter Knight, NEPA's chief, said activists need to be “more balanced and understand the dynamics at work,” instead of fostering an anti-development agenda. In recent weeks, the government agency got the Wilsons to remove a jetty and initiated prosecution against them for building a stone-and-concrete seawall, he said.

But Knight said that doesn't mean the artificial beach is illegal.

It's not just environmentalists who worry about his agency's effectiveness, however. Jamaica's auditor-general recently issued a report saying NEPA had “severe managerial weaknesses” that resulted in lax environmental oversight.

Ultimately, conservationists worry that more development of the Blue Lagoon will attract a barrage of motorized watercraft and dangerously increase silt levels, causing the small cove to lose its famed luster.

“Some say the unique color of the lagoon is protected by vegetation. So if we lose the surrounding greenery, what will be left? We may find out, because the [politicians] are only moved by what the local population wants, and that is jobs,” said Donegan.