Sun | Dec 17, 2017

Steps forward and backward

Published:Friday | November 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I was pleased to have been invited to attend Jamaica's House of Representatives last Tuesday to hear Prime Minister Andrew Holness (who is also Minister of the Environment) announce the boundaries for the proposed Cockpit Country Protected Area. More on that below.

But after the PM's speech, I stayed on in Gordon House (after my environmental colleagues departed), to watch what would happen with the controversial National Identification System (NIDS) legislation being rushed through parliament with indecent haste. From my vantage point in the Gallery I observed that, despite the recent slight increase in the JLP margin in the House, the opposition PNP members in attendance outnumbered government MPs present by five; if the NIDS bill came to a vote that day, the government would lose and be profoundly embarrassed.

So I was not surprised when the (acting) Leader of Government Business in the House (one Everald Warmington, MP) proposed that the vote on the 168 amendments made to the NIDS bill in the Senate be deferred to a later sitting. Discretion, after all, is the better part of valour.

Then, Opposition Leader, Dr. Peter Phillips, moved a motion that the NIDS bill be withdrawn and sent to a joint select committee of Parliament for further review. If that motion came to a vote, with the extant PNP majority at the time, it would have passed. And so in the best tradition of Jamaican politics, the bewigged Speaker of the House refused to put the motion to a vote.

This caused an uproar in the House, of the type I had only previously read about. Persistent loud shouts of "NO!" echoed through the chamber as the Opposition protested the Speaker's ruling, and although nothing was thrown except words, pandemonium reigned! Then the Opposition choir began a spirited rendition of the anthem We Shall Overcome, which motivated National Security Minister Bobby Montague to rise and assume the role of mock conductor, encouraging a louder chorus.

Soon the government side began to sing the erstwhile PNP anthem My Leader Born Ya, which brought the confrontation to a new level.

Before things got completely out of hand, Speaker Pearnel Charles announced a 20-minute recess, and the government side - weakened by absenteeism - went into a huddle in an adjacent room.

 

WALK-OUT PROTEST

 

Then the PNP led by The Hon. Peter Phillips staged a protest walk-out of Parliament, which left the government side with the majority it needed to pass the NIDS bill - which they quickly did! The JLP could not have asked for a better outcome.

There is some naivety here somewhere.

Whatever the merits of the NIDS bill, the indecent haste with which it is being rushed through Parliament does not do it justice; the government's actions may well end up discrediting the bill - and itself!

But the announcement of the boundaries of a proposed Cockpit Country Protected Area, within which no mining will be allowed, was to the government's credit. Taken together with the earlier decisions to leave alone the environmentally sensitive Goat Islands, and to disallow the construction of a coal-fired power plant, this may earn this Andrew Holness administration the reputation of being the most environmentally-friendly government since Independence.

Every election manifesto of every political party has committed them - once elected - to sustainable development, and many have been the politicians who have waxed lyrical on the importance of conservation of the nation's natural resources, while their actions have been in other directions. I am still not sure most know what sustainable development actually means.

In his speech on Tuesday, Prime Minister Holness said: "Mr Speaker, the goal of defining the boundary is to ensure forest conservation, protection of biodiversity, preservation and improvement of traditional livelihoods and the creation of new economic opportunities from heritage, health and wellness tourism and eco-tourism". These values drive most of us environmentalists. I look forward to future positive decisions in the area of solid waste disposal (a deposit/return system for plastic bottles), sewage disposal (more tertiary treatment sewage plants) and the creation and proper funding for national parks, marine parks and protected areas.

But after "bigging-up" the government for their announcement (and we have learnt to hold the applause until implementation), I must say that there are some inadequacies in the announced boundaries. The vast majority of the bauxite that the industry would want to mine is available to them in northern Manchester, northern St. Elizabeth, and western St. Ann - all part of the Cockpit Country, but outside the protected area declared by the Prime Minister. I don't think the bauxite lobby will be too unhappy with the announced boundaries, for the quality of the bauxite closed off to them is poor and expensive to extract.

The struggle now is to ensure that the bauxite mining and prospecting which will still take place is within the rules.

- Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and a rural development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerj.com