Mon | Nov 23, 2020

Editorial | Transparency in Bernard Lodge review

Published:Friday | May 31, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness must urgently clarify the scope of the review he ordered last month into the proposed new city at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine, and say who is charged with this analysis. There is need for transparency and certainty that what Mr Holness said is the same as what it was assumed he meant.

Bernard Lodge is a 29,000-acre former sugar plantation on the rich alluvial plain in the island’s south. Or, as the Government’s master plan for Mr Holness’ city puts it, the soils, especially in the Bernard Lodge area, “vary in texture from sand and loam to clay loams and are, in general, the most fertile soils in the island and regarded as Class 1 soils”.

In other words, they are very good for agriculture in an island where only 37 per cent of the land was ever worthy for farming and only 19 per cent is now available for crop production. That halving of cultivable land happened, largely, over the last 50 years, as real estate and other forms of ‘development’ encroached on fertile area.

The St Catherine plains, including Bernard Lodge, haven’t escaped this assault. Several hundred acres have already gone into housing and new projects are about to commence. Unfortunately, when these were being planned, and under way, no one, including this newspaper, paid critical attention.

Happily, the situation has changed with regard to the city proposed by Prime Minister Holness on nearly 6,000 acres of land, which will accommodate more than 17,000 homes, industrial and commercial facilities as well as recreational areas. The bottom line is that the bulk of those acres will be encased in concrete and the “class 1 soils” forfeited from agriculture.

When, in the face of outcry, Mr Holness announced that he had ordered a review of the project, this was welcomed, especially by people who believe that Jamaica should pursue a programme of food security and that real estate development, or the building of new cities, if necessary, should take place on marginal lands, of which there is plenty. We, at the time, however, warned of the need for vigilance to ensure that the review was “not an exercise in artifice, but rather a genuine and robust assessment of the (de)merits of the project”.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

We have cause to be concerned that our fears may be realised. The PM didn’t give the terms of reference for this (re)assessment, and it wasn’t clear whether the people mandated with the delivery of the project weren’t the same ones to do the review. That, potentially, would be a conflict of interest.

Last week, Joseph Shoucair, chairman of Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings, the company which owns, and is divesting, Bernard Lodge, confirmed that the agency has begun to compensate lessee farmers, who are being relocated from some of Bernard Lodge’s most fertile areas to other sections, to make way for the development. We would have thought that these relocations and related actions would have been placed on hold, pending the outcome of the review.

According to Mr Shoucair, he was acting on a “directive” from Cabinet in paying the compensation. Apparently, the directive has not been countermanded. It seems, on the face of it, full speed ahead.

It is the Ministry of Job Creation of Economic Growth, as well as the National Environment and Planning Agency, both of which are formally under the control of the PM, that are the leads on the Bernard Lodge project. Are they the same agencies, with the same personalities, at the forefront of the review? And what specific directives were they given? Mr Holness must say.