Tue | Jul 23, 2019

Editorial | Draw red line at Bernard Lodge

Published:Sunday | April 28, 2019 | 12:17 AM

While the review ordered by Prime Minister Andrew Holness of his planned city at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, is welcomed, stakeholders must be clear that that ought not to be an end in itself. They must be vigilant that what happens is not an exercise in artifice, but rather a genuine and robust assessment of the (de)merits of the project.

In that regard, even as we note that Mr Holness has framed the re-evaluation largely in the context of the tension between the economics of building new communities and renewing and expanding old ones, the fundamental question with regard to Bernard Lodge is whether his Government holds agriculture as important to Jamaica and that food security, as a matter of policy, is crucial to Jamaica. If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then the idea of the city is illogical and ought to be abandoned.

Further, the preordained outcome of that review is to declare a moratorium, if not an immediate and permanent halt on real estate development on farmlands, pending the promulgation of a new and credible land-use policy. That should limit the construction of new cities, towns and other real estate to marginal lands that are not suitable for agriculture.

There is important context to any assessment of Mr Holness’ wished-for new city, not least of which is that only 37 per cent of Jamaica is deemed to have the soil-type and other variables to make it suitable for agriculture. Of that amount, the experts have pointed out that only nineteen-and-a-half per cent would now be available, given the accelerated gobbling-up, especially over the last 50 years, of the most fertile lands by real estate developers. These acreages now spout concrete-and-steel homes and hard infrastructure, rather than crops.

Arable lands

Further, the 4,600 acres, or more than seven square miles, of the proposed city is to be extracted from the 29,000-acre Bernard Lodge sugar estate on the plains of the southern parish of St Catherine. The area’s alluvial soil is perhaps Jamaica’s most arable.

Or, as the Government’s master plan for the Bernard Lodge city puts it: “These soils vary in texture from sand and loam to clay loans and are, in general, the most fertile soils in the island and regarded as Class 1 soils.”

It is a fact that much of the St Catherine plains, including Bernard Lodge, despite having a well-developed irrigation system, are unproductive, in the wake of Jamaica’s sugar industry. Other producers are more competitive in sugar.

As is the case with too many other fertile areas, real estate developers have encroached on these lands, seeking to meet Jamaica’s housing needs and to accommodate the trek from blighted urban communities. That this has been allowed to happen, putting the most fertile lands under concrete, represents a monumental policy failure of successive governments, which have been incapable of formulating ideas to entice investment to the growth crops for export as well as domestic consumption, to help offset a food-import bill of nearly US$800 million.

Proceeding with the Bernard Lodge city, foreclosing any opportunity of ever having this land available for agriculture, will only make the problem worse.

Mr Holness’ announcement of the Bernard Lodge review, ironically, was at the launch of a housing scheme at a former sugar plantation in St Catherine, at which he lamented the “sprawling nature of housing development” and its associated costs for infrastructure and service delivery. He also declared himself “sensitive” to the need to balance the need for housing and the demands of agriculture.

Those tensions are overstated.

Fertile lands should be protected. Housing developments, including new cities, should be on marginal lands. The Government should, in partnership private enterprise, and people who live in such communities, begin an overarching programme of urban renewal. Mr Holness has an opportunity to draw a red line under the failures of the past.