Mon | Jul 23, 2018

Peter Espeut | Earthquakes, chocolates, pineapples, and death

Published:Friday | November 4, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Last Sunday morning, I was shaken out of my bed by the strongest earthquake I have ever felt. My room on the top floor of my hotel in Rome, Italy, swayed like a rocking chair from a 6.6 tremor centred 170km to the north. It was frightening until I realised that the structure was intact. I would have had no time to run downstairs. There would have been nothing I could do to save myself.

Italy has a history of terrifying earthquakes, and they have a strict building code. My hotel was structurally sound. It swayed and it waved, but did not crack. The Roman Colosseum, completed in 80 AD, cracked some more.

Jamaica has centuries of history with earthquakes, accompanied by liquefaction (which sank Port Royal) and tsunamis (the 1792 wave reflected at least eight times off the south coast of Cuba). But what of our building code? You would have thought that after the 1907 earthquake that levelled brick-built Kingston, the government would have been stirred into action to enact one. But it has proven hard to bind the strong man. As in other areas, successive governments have been reluctant to compel the powerful private (construction) sector to be bound by a code. Jamaica has no legally binding building code, only recommendations and guidelines.

Yet an estimated 70 per cent of Jamaica's buildings are designed without professional input, which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. But maybe we have other more important priorities to deal with.

The Italian quake did not prevent many tens of thousands from gathering later in the day at St Peter's Square to listen to the weekly angelus address of Pope Francis. He left Rome the following day for Malmo, Sweden, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with a call for church reunification. The prayer of Jesus the night before he died, "that all may be one", has not yet been fulfilled. In fact, many work hard in the opposite direction. Pope Francis asked those of us gathered in St Peter's Square last Sunday to pray and work for church unity.

Having visited Holland and Belgium over the last two weeks, I am struck by the pride these countries take in their chocolates. Dutch chocolate, Belgian chocolate (and the same would be true for Swiss chocolate) are iconic national symbols, sold everywhere, and make a significant contribution to the GDP of those countries. But what is of great interest to me is that none of these countries grow one pod of cocoa.




They buy our cocoa (and from Africa) and make a multibillion-dollar industry out of it by combining it with milk and sugar, which we also produce. I know that during colonial times, we were not allowed to add value to our primary agricultural products; that - with its resulting mega-profits - was the sole prerogative of the metropole. But why, I ask myself, since Independence, have we not developed our own successful agro-processing industries using our own lower-priced labour?

I like my food spicy, and native European cuisine is almost uniformly bland. When I ask for salsa piquante (hot sauce), I am invariably offered Tabasco, the ubiquitous US product. Why can't our hot pepper and other table sauces - which are so much better - break into the European market in a big way? Is it that we are just a nation of samples, stuck in low-production mode?

If you say 'pineapple' to the average person in the world, they are likely to say "Hawaii". I have driven for hours in Hawaii through pineapple plantations on the island of Oahu. The industry adds US billions to the state GDP. When Columbus came to Jamaica in 1494, he found pineapples, one of our few endemics. In 1905, W.H. Griffith, a large pineapple farmer in Hodges, St Elizabeth, (who also brought the first motor car to Jamaica), sold 3,000 pineapple suckers to a group in Hawaii, which was the beginning of Hawaii's pineapple industry, the largest in the world.

Why do we import pineapples from Hawaii? Why since political Independence has the Jamaican business sector not taken full advantage of our agricultural resources, instead leaving it to others to exploit? Are we - mimicking our former colonial masters - a nation of shopkeepers?

I regret the untimely passing of Nicholas Francis. He was a faithful altar server at the Church of the African Martyrs of Uganda in Bull Bay, where I served for several years. Nicholas is gone to a better place, but he had many more years to give to his church and his country.

My sympathy goes out to his family and to his church community.

- Peter Espeut is a rural development scientist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to