Mon | Aug 20, 2018

Editorial | Why CHEC should be transparent

Published:Wednesday | August 17, 2016 | 12:08 AM

Their attitude perhaps reflects a cultural gap, but it is past time that Chinese companies operating in Jamaica learn that effective public communication, nearly as much as the outcome of their activities here, will influence a big part of how they are perceived in the island. But that is true almost anywhere.

This message is particularly relevant to China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), the largest of Beijing's firms doing business in Jamaica. They are the developers and operators of the North-South Highway, the toll road that is at the centre of significant attention and the cause of some of criticism of CHEC, which has several other major projects, including northshore hotels, in the pipeline.

Lest there be doubt, this newspaper asserts that the 67-kilometre highway, which cost more than US$600 million, is among the profound infrastructural developments in Jamaica for 300 years. Jamaica has two major economic regions: the heavily populated, commercial/industrial south, where the capital, Kingston, is located, and the north, the centre for tourism and signficant levels of mining.

Until the completion of the North-South Highway, the connection of these two centres came down to a single-lane stone bridge, hardly seven feet wide, that spans an often dangerous river that runs alongside a perilous gorge that sustains a road that requires a treacherous climb over mountains. By this route, the 52-mile journey from Kingston to Ocho Rios was a nerve-wracking two-hour drive. Elevated terrain hasn't gone, but it is now a relatively leisurely 45-minute travel.

But this development hasn't been without problems, such as those that have been highlighted by owners of property at Old Fort Bay, at the end of the highway at Mammee Bay, near Ocho Rios. During heavy or prolonged rain, eroded sediment associated with the construction and operation of the highway washes down from the highway via natural and other water courses, on to the Old Fort Bay beach and into the sea.




Indeed, the Natural Resources and Conservation Authority, warning CHEC that this sediment poses the danger of smothering coral and sea grass, ordered the company to remedy the situation. The public defender has also got involved.

Clearly, CHEC's environmental mitigation efforts - during and post-construction - were insufficient, and according to its critics, poorly designed. But some of the problems were probably unforeseeable and have been exacerbated by the externalities, including the behaviour of people over whom CHEC has no control.

CHEC, we believe, is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Old Fort Bay residents and agencies of government with which it is bound to interface on these issues. It perhaps has promised to find short-term mitigations and long-term permanent solutions to the issues, though apparently not yet to the satisfaction of the Old Fort Bay owners. But it hasn't publicly said what these are.

CHEC should appreciate that the Old Fort Bay owners aren't the only stakeholders in this matter. The entire Jamaica is - all of who want to enjoy the economic, recreational and other value of the use of the North-South Highway and the beaches of Mammee Bay. So, CHEC has a responsibility to communicate with us, too - about this as well as the landslide on the highway between Unity Valley and Treadways, a problem which, to be fair, it inherited when it acquired the unfinished first leg of the road. In the absence of transparency, facts may be distorted.