Wed | Nov 20, 2019

Editorial | Not assuaged at Bernard Lodge

Published:Monday | October 21, 2019 | 12:12 AM

It is prudent to remind Prime Minister Andrew Holness of a truism not infrequently repeated by this newspaper, mostly for the benefit of governments. What is worse than formulating bad policy is implementing that policy. Usually, attempting to contort oneself around the original idea doesn’t work.

That is why, while we note and appreciate the administration’s tweak of its proposed Bernard Lodge city, or township, or municipality, as the PM now prefers to refer to it, we remain convinced that it is a bad idea to plant the country’s most fertile land with concrete and steel for homes. Any such land should be earmarked exclusively for farming and related endeavours.

Bernard Lodge, on the plains of St Catherine, on Jamaica’s southern coast, used to be a sprawling sugar estate, which, according to the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency, possesses “the most fertile soils in the island … regarded as Class 1 soils”. Over several decades, as the sugar industry all but collapsed, successive governments have permitted the vandalising of Bernard Lodge, and elsewhere on the St Catherine plains, by opening the area to real estate development.

Last week, for instance, Mr Holness signed an agreement for the Chinese firm, China Harbour Engineering Company, to construct houses at Bernard Lodge, for which scores of persons made deposits nearly six years ago, before the initial private developer went bust. Other developers have, separately, built hundreds of homes on the Bernard Lodge property on portions of some 350 acres of land divested by the previous People’s National Party (PNP) administration.

Mr Holness’ city is different in scope and magnitude from those ventures. As initially outlined, it would encompass nearly 5,000 acres, or more than seven square miles, of land on which 17,000 homes would be built, plus commercial, industrial and recreational facilities. However, 1,700 acres would be used for farming and agro-processing.

In the face of some opposition to the real estate development, the Government now says that 3,000 acres will be reserved for agriculture, 76 per cent more land than the initial declaration. What is not clear is whether additional land will come from the initial allocation, whether additional acreages are being added to the venture, or if fewer homes will now be built.

DRAW A RED LINE

But that matters little. The point is, once homes are built on the Bernard Lodge property, those “most fertile ... Class 1 soils” will be foreclosed to agriculture. The larger context here is that while only an estimated 37 per cent of Jamaica was deemed suitable for agriculture, only around 19.5 per cent is now available for farming, given the encroachment of real estate on the most arable lands over the last half-century.

One argument is that these lands have been largely idle. Yet, Jamaica has a food import bill in the region of US$900 million, or around a fifth of overall imports. Most experts believe that food imports can be reduced by at least a quarter with substitutions. The Government says it is committed to a policy of food security, whose economic sense is advanced in this era of climate change and global warming.

Climate experts predict that with hotter temperatures, global agricultural yields will decline by a third. All things being equal, it will require a third more land to produce the same amount of food, which won’t be available if the land is under concrete.

With regard to Bernard Lodge especially, the area has Jamaica’s most well-developed irrigation system and is home to a network of aquifers that leading hydrologists have warned could become overtapped and/or contaminated by the pressures of the real estate development.

Mistakes were made in the past at Bernard Lodge, which, unfortunately, were not called out at the time, including by this newspaper. Previous errors, however, do not validate new ones. We should draw a red line under what has already gone bad at Bernard Lodge.