Thu | Nov 26, 2020

Editorial |Dry Harbour Mountains is too murky

Published:Thursday | November 19, 2020 | 12:09 AM

GIVEN HIS personal, and the Government’s, track record – not great – with constitutional cases, it is moot how much Prime Minister Andrew Holness would welcome a legal challenge of his decision to allow limestone mining in the ecologically fragile Dry Harbour Mountains, near Rio Bueno, on Jamaica’s north shore.

Yet, the threat by National Integrity Action (NIA), Trevor Munroe’s good-governance watchdog, is a shot across the bow, reminding environmentalists of a weapon that they have not, thus far, employed in their frequent fights with the Government. Mr Holness, in the circumstances, owes Jamaicans a fuller, detailed and considered explanation of his decision to overrule the recommendations of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), including an obligation for full transparency when politicians are allowed to reserve the actions of technical staff. The latter point is relevant not only to environmental matters, or the law that established NEPA.

The 2011 amendments to the Constitution establishes at Section 13(3)(l), the right of Jamaicans “to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage”. Further, as Professor Munroe noted, the Constitution permits no infringement of fundamental rights and freedoms “save only as may be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.

PUBLIC OPINION

This is the backdrop, and warning, against which the NIA urged the prime minister, given the “breadth and depth” of public opinion against it, to relent on the mining project.

What, so far, is in the public domain is that a little-known private limited liability company, Jamaica World, owns around 570 acres of land in the Dry Harbour Mountains. The land has estimated reserves of 335.3 million metric tonnes of limestone deposit, of which 156.4 million is proven. Jamaica World hopes, over 20 years, to mine 50 acres of the land, extracting nearly 40 million tonnes of limestone at an annual average rate of two million tonnes.

Except that, apart from the normal nuisances associated with mining, with which residents are concerned, they are also fearful of what will happen to the substantially untouched dry limestone forest of the Dry Harbour Mountains, with its endemic species of flora and fauna. They are also concerned about the caves which, according to some scientists, are critical to understanding the geological and sea level history of Jamaica, and the likely future impact of climate change.

Earlier this year, the scientists at NEPA denied Jamaica World’s application to mine the area. But as allowed by the law, the company appealed the decision, which was upheld by Mr Holness, who, ultimately, heads the ministry to which NEPA reports.

The prime minister has argued that his decision was informed, in part, by the long list of undertakings to which the company will have to adhere. He has also said that the project will allow for proper management of the land, which was already disturbed, including by a previous mining operation. The latter reference is to the two million tonnes of ore that was removed from the site over a seven-year period, up to 2007, during the construction of the North Coast Highway.

PUBLIC DEFENCE

The prime minister’s public defence of his decision, however, does not rest only on the mitigation plans or the other technical aspects of the proposed mining operation. In a speech last week, he highlighted a proposed future development of the area, including residential and commercial real estate and ecotourism projects. His theme was that development will reduce poverty and, thereby, the inclination of the poor to despoil the Dry Harbour Mountains.

Those future undertakings, however, are not addressed in the environmental impact assessment on the mining sector, except, perhaps, for a reference to a planned approach to the different phases of mining. “The slope angles to be achieved will ensure future development plans for the proponent, Jamaica World Mining,” the document says.

In this regard, there is need for clarity about the contours of the “future development plans” and whether these are grandfathered by the current licence. In other words, will the developers have to separately make their case for the projects about which Mr Holness spoke? Both NEPA and the prime minister owe Jamaicans and the residents of the Bengal/Rio Bueno district an explanation on this matter.

Further, Mr Holness must, with urgency, take to the Parliament amendments to Section 35 of the NEPA Act, obligating the minister to engage all interested parties when considering appeals against the considered decisions of the environmental technocrats and scientists. Concerned people must be allowed to make inputs in those deliberations. The prime minister should also share his perspective on the rights relating to the environment that are inherent in Jamaica’s Constitution.