Carolyn Cooper | A lease is a licence to exploit?
I certainly regret the error in the headline of my column published last Sunday: 'J$13,000 a year to lease Puerto Seco Beach!' It's the annual licence to operate the beach that costs this pitifully low sum. The cost of the lease is, allegedly, J$3,000,000 (reported as J$2 million per year for the first three years by Coy Roache, managing director of Jamaica Bauxite Mining Limited, in a letter to The Gleaner published yesterday). But even this much higher fee is still a steal.
Naturally, I've been ridiculed for my error. I've taken the mockery like a big woman, for example, in this exchange on The Gleaner website with 'Gimmeabligh': "'The Cooper Woman' has, yet again, got her facts wrong. Properly research your topic, lady, before spouting off and rushing to stir the proverbial (sic). Rigour, none. Mout-a-massy, plenty!"
My response: "You are quite right, Gimmeabligh. I did make an error by confusing lease and licence. And the column has since been updated. But everything I say about the low cost of the licence is accurate. And, by the way, the huge difference between the cost of the lease and the licence confirms just how outdated the cost of the licence is. Why are the powers that be so reluctant to increase the price of a beach licence? I don't usually get my facts wrong, so, in this instance, I'd appreciate it if you would live up to the generosity implied by your 'name' and give me a bligh."
GETTING IN ON THE DEAL
The irony of my error is that I didn't need to raise the business of the lease at all. It's the licence that's the much more troubling matter. A licence is essential for commercial operations on a beach. Without it, a lease has no value for the intended purpose.
According to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), the long-outdated Beach Control Regulations have been revised and are awaiting approval. Who is benefiting from the failure to increase the cost of beach licences? One of my witty friends quipped that she hopes the Government will keep down the cost of beach licences a little longer so that some black people can get in on the deal.
But I suspect that most of Jamaica's prime beachfront properties are already in private hands. Perhaps, it's only underdeveloped St Thomas that has beaches up for grabs. Prospective developers need to move quickly. If and when the highway is built, the natural beauty of the parish will become much more visible. By then, it will be too late.
JAMAICA FOR SALE
In 2008, Dr Esther Figueroa released her brilliant documentary film, Jamaica For Sale. In an interview posted on the Jamaicans.com website, she stated that the film is about "the economic, environmental and social consequences of unsustainable tourism development in Jamaica".
Figueroa summarises the issues in this way: "We have enormous tourist resorts being built, walls blocking the view to the sea, beach access taken away, communities displaced, informal squatting settlements springing up, mangroves, sea grasses and other fish nurseries destroyed, corals smothered from sewage, run-off and other pollution, a rise in cost of living, rise in crime and other social problems, all in the name of jobs which are low-paying, dead-end jobs that are very temporary and vulnerable because tourism is a very volatile industry."
Attorney Danielle Andrade, then director of the Legal Division at the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), revealed in the compelling film disturbing facts provided in 2000 by the Natural Resources Conservation Agency about the distribution of beaches in Jamaica. At that time, there were 87 public beaches used for recreational bathing. Eighteen of those beaches charged the public an access fee.
By contrast, there were 275 beaches associated with guest houses and villas and 61 with hotels - a total of 336 beaches for the hotel industry! I speculate that, over the last 18 years, the number of beaches controlled by tourism interests has increased significantly. But not the public beaches! I've asked NEPA for current figures.
So is a lease a licence to exploit? One meaning of exploit is to extract a benefit from a resource. So, yes, the operators of the Puerto Seco Beach are legally entitled to monetise their licence and lease. But I think that, instead of leasing the property, the Government should have sought to establish a public-private partnership that would have ensured substantial benefits to the people of Jamaica - not just to a group of private-sector companies.
The second meaning of exploit is to take advantage of a situation in an unfair way. And, in this sense, a lease is certainly not a licence to exploit. The high entry fee to Puerto Seco Beach ought to be reconsidered. And the self-serving policy prohibiting patrons from taking their own food and drink on the property should be changed, in keeping with cultural norms in Jamaica.
Vision 2030 includes a commitment that "our children and our children's children can continue to enjoy the unique environmental and cultural treasures of our island home". Continue? Many children can't afford to go the beach now. In the present circumstances of unequal access, the prophetic language of Vision 2030 is nothing but hot air.