Maziki Thame | Beach access and black unworthiness
It is important that Carolyn Cooper has used her weekly column to bring us into conversation on the vexing issue of beach access in Jamaica. I would hope that the people of Discovery Bay and all Jamaica keep up the fight.
The matter highlights the everyday nature of inequality in Jamaica and the levels of acceptance of such inequality. It begs the question: To whom does the nation belong? Though we live on an island, for the majority, there is no escape to the beach. Instead the coastline is a place where black bodies (as against white tourists) are not considered to belong.
Indeed, the view of black bodies as good for labour, but not leisure, impacts understanding of what is due to the black majority, and in relation to the beach, whether leisure should factor in how we organise the nation.
Beach policies have not only allowed for privatisation of beaches and prevention of public access, but the State has been involved in expanding that effort as part of what it sees as the development of tourism. We are content to allow for the exploitation of black bodies in the tourism sector, offering cheap labour to investors and the beach and possibly sex to (preferably white) tourists, free of other contact with the real (black) locals.
To Jamaicans, we offer low wages in contract employment at hotels with little or no protection, such as access to health insurance or security of tenure, guaranteed slum housing, while sprawling and luxurious hotels block their view and access to the beach.
We know that, as in the past, when whites could leave their homes and come to the Caribbean to enjoy the productive and sexual labour of blacks on sugar plantations, they can now do so through tourism. What do we desire for ourselves? Why do we believe the beach should be a commodity with a price tag attached, out of the reach of the majority of Jamaicans?
If the price of going to Doctor's Cave Beach in Montego Bay is J$750 or US$6 for adults, we know who does not belong. We can offer the people of Montego Bay states of emergency, but not the beach. Why would we, in the absence of prioritising their social and emotional well-being, not expect them to be at war?
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the people understand that the beach is for them, as shown in the letter from Derrick Nicholas, 'Beach access a fundamental right'. They understand that it must be a priority of the State to maintain access and the beach itself.
Jamaicans argue that we are not cultured for free access. We believe we don't know how to behave for freeness. We believe the beach must have a cost. We believe we do not belong there.
I would offer the well-kept and free Winnifred Beach in Portland as an alternative to those ideas. The beach is managed through community governance under the stewardship of the Free Winnifred Benevolent Society. At the non-existent gate, you are asked for a contribution and there is no indication that you will be prevented access if you have none.
Unfortunately, the people of Portland had to fight to maintain access to the beach. Though the community had used the beach for generations, they were keenly aware that when the Urban Development Corporation announced its intention to take control of the beach, it would mean they would no longer have access. Members of the Free Winnifred Benevolent Society noted that it is the only beach left for poor people.
Phyllis Miller Lodge, vice-president of the society, told me it had been left to the people. "It's poor people's beach." Yet, Miller-Lodge reports that the community took a negative attitude to their attempt to maintain access to the beach, that they did not come on-board until the court case was won. They believed privatisation of the beach was to their benefit. It would allow "development", even if only a few would get low-paid jobs in whatever venture was set up there and they would "lose the beach forever". These are errors we must contend with as a nation.
The effort to maintain Winnifred in community hands depended on the effort of a small core of neighbourhood members and persons from outside, such as now-deceased journalist John Maxwell and others from the Jamaica Environment Trust.
Even if those who will most benefit are not convinced to struggle for the right to the beach, all Jamaicans should be concerned not to perpetuate ownership practices that tell us that the beach, or any free space, is to be tagged and sold to the highest bidder. And when they occupy lands that are wanted by those with the power of the purse, such as Puerto Seco Beach, they are deemed squatters, or the land is seen as "left for waste", such as was expressed in Edward Chin's letter to the editor, 'Tourism attractions don't come cheap'.
Essentially, the problem of unequal access to space emerges from the view that justified our exploitation on slave plantations in the Caribbean, and maintained in the present that black bodies belong in the field, at back-breaking work, in the chaos and filth of downtown, in homes with no electricity or running water, undeserving of rest or dignity.