Sun | Jul 12, 2020

Editorial | Mark a red line through Bernard Lodge

Published:Wednesday | June 24, 2020 | 12:15 AM

Having broken ground for 1,650 homes at Bernard Lodge, perhaps Prime Minister Andrew Holness might relent and mark a red line through further real estate projects on the former sugar plantation. Or on arable land anywhere.

If he did, Mr Holness could count on our support in having the project named in his honour, or being celebrated with some other monument that might be deemed more fitting.

Not that you would be readily aware that the development is at Bernard Lodge. It is now being exclusively referred to as Catherine Estates, which is at Dunbeholden in the parish of St Catherine. This, probably, is a strategic move by the developers, the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ). Keeping the name Bernard Lodge out of it is a slick way around potential controversy.

Bernard Lodge occupies vast swathes of land on the St Catherine Plains, which abuts sections of Jamaica’s southern coast. It possesses what the Government’s primary environmental watchdog, the National Environmental and Planning Agency, describes as the “most fertile soil in the island” and “class 1 soils”.

It is from this property that Prime Minister Holness intends to lop nearly 2,000 acres for his new city, or township, of 17,000 residences, supporting infrastructure and commercial buildings. Another 3,000 acres in the vicinity of the city will be allocated to agriculture and agri-processing facilities. The figure is 76 per cent more land than was originally reserved for agriculture. The increase came in the face of sharp questions by critics about the merits of the project. Their logic was, and remains, unassailable.

When he used to speak rationally about such matters, before caving in to the Government, Lenworth Fulton, the president of the farmers’ lobby, the Jamaica Agriculture Society, lectured Jamaicans on the relatively small portion of their island – 37 per cent – that was deemed worthy of serious agriculture. But by the middle of the 2000s, only 19.5 per cent of the arable land wasn’t available for farming. Most of that 47 per cent of the arable lands to which farmers no longer have access was planted in concrete and steel and bitumen for houses, commercial real estate, and roads to an expanding suburbia. And most of this happened, Mr Fulton reminded in a speech in 2019, over the last 50 years.

As this happened, Jamaica’s agricultural output also declined, and its food import bill rocketed. Recently, it has hovered at US$900 million, and would possibly have broken the US$1-billion barrier this year but for the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted the island’s tourism and put a brake on demand. The coronavirus strengthens the argument for increasing agricultural output and for policies to protect arable land.

The pandemic’s disruption of global supply chains highlighted, in stark terms, the danger of food insecurity, especially in countries with food production deficits. Indeed, it is of little value to be able to afford to import food if it isn’t available for purchase or can’t be delivered. Further, it is good economic sense if Jamaica could displace imported food with domestic production. The experts say this would be possible for up to a quarter of the value of food imports, which would represent a boon to domestic production and employment, particularly in rural economies.

GREATER EFFICACY

These considerations have greater efficacy in the context of global warming and climate change. Scientists have warned that a warmer planet could lead to the decline in agricultural yields of up to a third. All things being equal, that would mean it would require one-third more land to produce the same amount of food. Which raises further questions about food security and suggests that Jamaica’s best agricultural land should be left for just that – agriculture.

We, however, are willing to trade on the Catherine Estates project on two counts. The weaker one is that seven years ago, when this newspaper, and others, were insufficiently attentive to the issue of food security and farm employment, the former People’s National Party administration divested 300 acres of the Bernard Lodge lands to a private developer. Many people made deposits on homes before the developer went bust. The project has been resuscitated by the HAJ and a Chinese partner. In that sense, the scheme may be considered to have been grandfathered.

But more important, though, is our willingness to concede on this piece of the island’s “most fertile soil” in exchange for a long moratorium on arable land being planted with mortar. There are sufficient marginal lands in Jamaican for housing estates, or new cities, if such marquee projects are deemed essential.

The better plan, though, would be to steer the money earmarked for the Bernard Lodge city to a massive and inclusive programme of urban renewal, including of May Pen, Clarendon, which could become central to Mike Henry’s vision for an aerotropolis at nearby Vernamfield, without the need for the greenfield development of the scale proposed around the old American airbase.