JLP's environmental gaffe
I was quite encouraged by what the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Manifesto had to say about the environmental portfolio. There, the JLP recommitted itself to sustainable development, defining it as being "about reconciling our development interests with our interest in protecting and respecting the environment. We must develop, but we must do so on a sustainable basis," (page 31).
This is an about-turn from the policy of the last People's National Party (PNP) Government, which believed that implementing investment projects must trump all environmental considerations.
Recall the permit given to foreign investors to remove sand from their property in Negril to their property in St Ann, quite in contravention of the Negril/Green Island Development Order. When challenged on his ministry's non-objection to the permit, environment minister Robert Pickersgill earned the ire of all well-thinking Jamaicans with this statement: "I also note the considerable and the substantial value of the project to the Jamaican economy which outweighs all other consideration".
Clearly, the environment ministry headed by minister Pickersgill was prepared to support unsustainable development. It is this kind of thinking (c.f. bauxite mining in the Cockpit Country, port facilities on the Goat Islands) that caused a breakdown in the relationship between the government and environmentalists over the past 20 years, which led to antagonism and hostility on both sides.
The JLP Manifesto also contains the following assertion about how it planned to begin their tenure as government: "Our attitude, mindset, and actions must change and in every way, reflect greater sensitivity and care for the environment which sustains us as inhabitants.
"A critical starting point is the restoration of good working relations between the Government of Jamaica and non-government organisations (NGOs). While there may be disagreements from time to time, the relationship between the Government and environmental advocates should not be characterised by antagonism and hostility" (page 31).
THE GROWTH PROCESS
The JLP has proffered an olive branch, and I, for one, have accepted it in good faith. There is much to be gained by both sides from close partnership and cooperation between environmental NGOs and the Government, and we both will have to put out effort to make the relationship work.
The first major disagreement has already emerged, and how it is resolved will be an important signal for the future.
The prime minister has subsumed the environment portfolio under the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job-Creation. This has caused disquiet among environmentalists, as there is the real possibility of a structured conflict of interest between the drive for economic growth and environmental integrity. Having a minister whose portfolio responsibility it is to bat for the environment is no guarantee of environmental protection, as we have seen over the past 20 years; but having the same minister bat for both environment and job creation is setting up a profound conflict of interest which should best be avoided.
The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) issued the following statement: "The prime minister has taken a proactive role where environmental management and climate change mitigation efforts are concerned by situating this important portfolio in his office."
We are being assured that PM Holness has assumed responsibility for the environment to ensure that it receives proper attention. To back this up, cabinet minister Dr Horace Chang is quoted in yesterday's Gleaner as saying: "The objective is to create a ministry that will drive the growth process, but also in an environmentally friendly manner, with respect for the environment".
Before a project can be said to promote sustainable development, an environmental impact assessment has to certify that negative impacts will be minimal. These assessments take time and add legitimate and necessary months to the processing of project applications. If the project is sufficiently damaging to the natural environment, the application may have to be rejected. And this is where distance between the environment portfolio and the job-creation portfolio is important, for obvious reasons. The temptation to approve environmentally damaging projects which provide thousands of jobs may be too great to resist. There could well be indecent haste to approve projects quickly, neglecting solid environmental due diligence.
Concerns about air and water pollution, protection of wildlife and their habitats, regulation of hunting (including fisheries), creation and management of national parks, marine parks, and protected areas all fall under the environment portfolio and are likely to be neglected in a ministry preoccupied with 'Economic Growth and Job-Creation'.
It is possible that the proposal to marry the environment with economic growth and job-creation is well-intentioned, even if ill-advised. It is not too late to create a separate Ministry of the Environment to avoid the in-built conflict of interest.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and natural resource manager.