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Peter Espeut | Is Government hostage to investors?

Published:Friday | May 13, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Ignoring environmental laws and building regulations is not a good practice; Jamaican lives are put at risk when contractors begin to build without the necessary approvals (which, among other things, stipulate health and safety measures) and cut corners on building sites. A whole floor caving in on workers below should have resulted in multiple deaths; maybe it was the chicken blood and white rum that saved them!

We environmentalists are dismissed as Luddites and anti-development tree-huggers when we demand that laws be enforced strictly, but it really is a matter of life and death. Over the last decade, there have been at least five building collapses on north coast hotel building sites, all supervised by foreign construction firms. Only five workers were injured last Tuesday, for which we must be thankful. But in the other four accidents, at least three Jamaicans lost their lives, and about 20 were hospitalised. Jamaican lives matter!

Jamaica's environmental laws and building regulations must be strictly enforced, and those who breach or ignore them must be sanctioned.

The practice has been for developers to ignore the approval process and begin construction. When their malfeasance is discovered, stop orders are issued, which are usually ignored. They apologise profusely and apply for regularisation, which is usually readily granted without sanction or penalty. The illegally constructed buildings are not demolished. This is an incentive for lawbreaking. Certainly, the previous Government is guilty of promoting environmental lawbreaking, and they have Jamaican blood on their hands. Let us see of what stuff the present government is made.

Nobody can disagree that we need foreign investment and economic growth, but only a fool would argue that what we seek is development at any cost.

In a moment of weakness leading to a refreshing frankness, the former environment minister, Robert Pickersgill, famously said: "I also note the considerable and the substantial value of the project to the Jamaican economy, which outweighs all other consideration."

It is this kind of thinking (e.g., bauxite mining in the Cockpit Country, port facilities on the Goat Islands) that has caused a breakdown in the relationship between the Government and environmentalists over the past 20 years and which has led to antagonism on both sides.

I was very encouraged by what the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) 2016 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)


Assertions of change


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)


Olive branch


The JLP 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.

But I was discouraged when the new Government subsumed the environment portfolio under the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. This creates the real possibility of a structured conflict of interest between the drive for economic growth, and the integrity of the natural environment.

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 that could result in an indecent haste to build hotels or factories.

The Royalton Hotel, which suffered a building collapse on Tuesday, is the first four-storey building in Negril. Was it a good decision to allow taller buildings in Negril? The original application and approval was for 200 rooms, but the developers increased the scale to more than 700 rooms without permission.

This exceeds the allowed room density, which threatens the fragile natural environment which is Negril basically a beach fronting a large mangrove wetland vulnerable to sewage and water-quality issues.

This accident has exposed the corrupt underbelly of the building-approval process as it has been applied in practice to foreign investors. This will be a test of the seriousness of the environmental resolve of the new Government.

• Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist.

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