Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Peter Espeut | Jamaica is a monarchy

Published:Friday | July 14, 2017 | 7:00 AM

In so many ways, Jamaica is a monarchy, and I am not talking about Queen Elizabeth. The other kings and queens who rule here have much more power than any member of the House of Windsor.

Take the recent brouhaha over sand mining in Duncans Bay, Trelawny. Someone applied for a permit to remove truckloads of sand from the dunes at Duncans Bay, and the technocrats and scientific experts at the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) examined it and turned it down on technical grounds. The aggrieved applicant appealed to the minister with portfolio responsibility for the environment, who overturned the 'no' decision of the technocrats and experts, and issued a permit to allow the sand mining to take place under certain conditions.

First of all: Why does the law (written by politicians) provide that an appeal against a technical/scientific decision be adjudicated by a politician? This is not a political issue. Or is it?

The quantity of sand on beaches builds up over a long period of time, as sand is produced by various natural processes. But large volumes of sand can be removed from beaches quite quickly by heavy equipment. (So much for the argument that poverty is the biggest threat to the environment! One rich man with a bulldozer can do more damage than a hundred poor people with shovels and spades.)

The decision to allow sand mining or not on a beach is a technical one: Will the quantity of sand removed from that particular spot affect the quality of the beach, bearing in mind the length of time it may take for the sand to be replaced by natural processes?

The technocrats and experts ruled that sand mining at that spot was unsustainable and refused the permit. The junior minister who actually heard the appeal (who also happens to be a major fundraiser for his party) overruled the technocrats and issued a permit.

 

Absolute monarch

 

The Government's position is that due process, as defined by law, was followed, and the appeal against the decision of the NRCA was successful. And the same law that defines due process as an appeal to a politician decrees that "the minister's decision shall be final" (NRCA Act Section 35). This sets up the politician as an absolute monarch whose decisions cannot be challenged in a court of law, or be subject to judicial review.

Yes, Jamaica is a monarchy, and we have more than a dozen of these absolute monarchs ruling us.

Some years ago, an application for a licence to harvest conch was refused. Now the shellfish we call conch is a high-value commodity, with a known but complicated life cycle, and a known natural rate of reproduction. Properly managed (i.e., if the rate of exploitation is less than or equal to the rate of natural increase), Jamaica can continue to harvest conch at sustained levels indefinitely. Overexploitation will lead to stock collapse.

The sustainable level of exploitation (and, therefore, the number of licences that can be issued) is determined by fisheries scientists and stock assessment experts. These technocrats turned down the application for a conch-harvesting licence in the interest of the ongoing health of Jamaica's fish stock, but the politician hearing the appeal from the aggrieved applicant (the Fisheries Act defines a similar 'due process' as the NRCA Act) allowed it, and the applicant received his licence.

Over the years, this has happened more than once, and the consensus is that conch stock in Jamaican waters is declining.

Again, the fisheries minister is a little monarch with respect to his portfolio, and his rulings cannot be challenged in a court of law, or be subject to judicial review.

Appeals against technical decisions should be adjudicated by technical experts in the field, not politicians whose expertise lie elsewhere.

When the beneficiaries of these ministerial decisions are party loyalists, we can begin to apprehend the possibilities for corruption.

When Jamaica's minister of finance announces new taxes during the Budget Debate, it usually has immediate effect (like tomorrow), even before the national Budget is voted on and accepted. Now that is a true monarch: His word is law! We did not get this from Westminster.

Most of these laws installing politicians as monarchs were promulgated after Jamaica's Independence. The same politicians, who claim to want to do away with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as Jamaica's highest court of appeal, and who want to declare Jamaica a republic, are quite happy with their status as

Most Honourable and Right Honourable and Honourable petty monarchs in their little fiefdom.

Jamaica will only cease to be a monarchy when we experience constitutional change, to put power into the hands of the appropriate people.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.