Sun | May 26, 2019

Editorial | Mr Shaw’s hollow argument

Published:Thursday | April 25, 2019 | 12:21 AM

Audley Shaw either misapprehends the arguments this newspaper, and others, have made against the Government’s planned new city at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, or he has feigned ignorance. Either is bad.

Speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Shaw, the minister of industry and agriculture, argued that as part of its strategy of building “a new Jamaica”, the Holness administration recognised that “housing and commercial activity must be a part of our land-utilisation strategy”.

Added Mr Shaw: “We recognise, too, that this necessitates the relocation of some of our lessee farmers to other fertile and arable lands, good for agriculture production!”

What, in effect, Mr Shaw attempted to do was to frame the Bernard Lodge issue as merely an argument about a shifting around of a handful of farmers, who, in the process, would suffer no real damage. The new lands they would farm would be as good as what they had before. Which, of course, is hardly the gravamen of people’s misgivings with the Bernard Lodge project. The larger concern is that it represents a badly flawed land-use policy.

The matter is best framed in the context of the recent observations of Lenworth Fulton, president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society. He pointed out that around 37 per cent of Jamaica’s land is sufficiently arable and possesses the other criteria that would make it suitable for agriculture. However, only around 19.5 per cent of that land is available for farming. Most of the reduction has taken place in the last half a century – the upshot of rapid urbanisation and encroachment of real estate developments on farmlands.

Bernard Lodge, on the plains of St Catherine, is among the most fertile and agriculturally accessible land in Jamaica. It also benefits from a well-developed irrigation system. Much of the area used to be planted with sugar cane, whose decline in recent decades, as Jamaica lost preferential access to global sugar markets, left large swathes idle.

As has been the case with arable land elsewhere, the developers have long been muscling on Bernard Lodge. What is now planned is of a different order of magnitude. The administration plans to carve out nearly 5,000 acres of the property for Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ city, which will accommodate 17,000 homes, industrial and agro-industrial plants, as well as other commercial and recreational facilities.

MISSED THE POINT

The project, on the face of it, would require overturning a government ban on new real estate development atop of the aquifers of the Rio Cobre Basin. Water for the city would come from diverting 17 million gallons daily, now allocated to irrigation, to the National Water Commission, for sale to domestic and commercial customers. Around 21 per cent of that water, 3.5 million gallons a day, will go to the homes of the new city. More will be used in its industrial facilities.

Mr Shaw, in his parliamentary speech, noted that part of the Bernard Lodge strategy calls for growing domestic and industrial crop in the area, and sought to assuage those with concerns about the new city with the fact that 44,000 acres of land in the area, relinquished by the Chinese-owned Pan Caribbean Sugar Company, has returned to the Government’s land bank. That is beside the point.

The real and overarching issue is that nearly 5,000 acres of the country’s most fertile land will be encased by concrete, foreclosed to agriculture, and to the possibility of ensuring national food security, or contributing to reducing a food import bill of nearly US$800 million.

There are other marginal lands, among the 63 per cent of Jamaica that isn’t suited for agriculture, where a new city would make better sense, assuming that one is really needed. Or, we might concentrate on redeveloping Jamaica’s many blighted urban communities.