Mon | Nov 30, 2020

Editorial | Vernamfield/May Pen better option than Bernard Lodge

Published:Monday | August 5, 2019 | 12:00 AM

It is more than three months since Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that he had ordered a review of the Bernard Lodge project – his plan to develop a city of 17,000 homes, factories, commercial buildings and recreational facilities on Jamaica’s best agricultural lands. This newspaper has little confidence in the integrity of the exercise.

It is not only that almost nothing has been heard from the Government on the matter since Mr Holness’ April announcement, but there has been a decided absence of transparency in the process.

For instance, no one knows, except, perhaps, people in the Government, the terms of reference of the review, or if the review group includes independent professionals, which is to say, persons who are not in the employ of the Government or directly connected to the project.

For that matter, we don’t know whether it may well be that the PM’s idea of a review has received exaggerated coverage, when he really meant that he wanted an assurance from his officials that all was on track.

Jamaicans should know. This matter is important.

Nearly 5,000 acres of land on which the proposed city is to be built is part of a 29,000-acre estate that used to be a major sugar plantation. Sugar production is on life support in Jamaica. The industry can’t compete in global markets. That, however, doesn’t mean that former sugar lands, including Bernard Lodge’s, are not good for any other form of agriculture.

In fact, even the Government’s own analysis, in the master plan for the Bernard Lodge vanity city, concedes that the soil upon which it is to be built is the best in Jamaica. The alluvial soils of the St Catherine plain, the report notes, varies “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”.

Yet, if all goes to plan, vast swathes of area will be covered in concrete for houses, shops, factories, etc, and lost to agriculture. This encroachment on prime agricultural lands isn’t new. Even at the same Bernard Lodge estate, hundreds of acres have already been put under, or earmarked, for real estate. The situation is the same elsewhere in Jamaica.

Indeed, of the 37 per cent of Jamaica’s land space deemed arable and capable of sustaining crops, only 19.5 per cent is now available for that endeavour; most of the reduction, agricultural specialists say, having happened in the last 50 years. The Bernard Lodge city further reduces that ratio, while lending the psychology of agriculture as peripheral to national development and the pursuit of food security, perhaps telegraphing that the reduction of the country’s US$900-million food import bill is not central to the administration’s policy agenda, despite what it says.

SOCIALLY VIABLE VENUES

Vanity aside, there are other more logistically and socially viable venues for development than Bernard Lodge. The Government already has a plan for the development of the old US Air Force base at Vernamfield, Clarendon, as an aerotropolis as part of a wider initiative to transform Jamaica into a global logistics hub. Vernamfield retains some of the basic infrastructure – an extendable 6,000 feet of runway.

Vernamfield, too, is nearby the Clarendon parish capital of May Pen, a town that displays all the elements of urban decay, including gritty buildings, crumbling infrastructure, and high levels of crime. It would make more sense to integrate the redevelopment of May Pen into the Vernamfield Project, and steer the money to be spent on Bernard Lodge project to this initiative. In the same go, Mr Holness would tackle urban renewal, the problem of crime, and apply the brakes to a problem he himself highlighted – abandoning towns and cities for new housing developments, which often means costly infrastructure and longer travels.