Martin Henry | Can environment and business do the tango?
On this World Environment Day, what's the state of play in that matter between the fish company, Algix, and the rum company, Appleton, out on the Black River, the Black River being part of our environmental commons whose water they both share?
We're also five days into the 2016 hurricane season, with a Met promise of an "active season". Jamaica has not had a major hurricane since 2012, with Sandy. But even before the hurricane season started, the forecasted flood rains have already begun in the east of the island, causing at least one death in St Thomas. The predictions are for 10-16 named storms, four to eight hurricanes, and four intense hurricanes between now and November 30 when the hurricane season officially ends.
You will recall that an injunction was granted in January to Algix by the Supreme Court barring the J. Wray & Nephew-operated Appleton Estate from discharging into the Black River effluent that exceeds regulation limits, a practice Algix claims was contaminating its downstream fish ponds using water from the river and adversely affecting its fish production.
The court ordered Appleton's immediate compliance with the environmental regulatory agency, NEPA's, effluent-discharge regulations without regard for the transition-to-compliance plan which had been agreed by NEPA and Appleton. Algix said it has lost large quantities of fish as a result of the dumping of the industrial waste and is claiming US$49.5 million in damages.
J. Wray & Nephew filed an appeal against the injunction with the Court of Appeal, which upheld the ruling by the Supreme Court. The case is set for trial, starting September 26.
While the court ruling was not to stop Appleton from operating but only to bring its effluent discharge in line with NEPA regulations, the immediate fallout was the inability of the company to operate its factory to process the 2016 sugar crop. This has kept hundreds of people out of work and has affected the entire economy of the area. There have been roadblock protests.
But the fish producers, claiming to be the largest in the English-speaking Caribbean, are employers, too, with big plans for expansion and for exports.
It was pretty obvious that the prime minister had forgotten the environment portfolio when organising his Cabinet. Under protest from environmentalists, in a hasty wheel-and-come-again move, the portfolio landed in the super-Office of the Prime Minister in the super-Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. Locating environment in ministry mixes of portfolios is never an easy and smooth task. Environment easily clashes with all the production things and doesn't sit well with many of the service things.
The man assigned to environment, Minister without Portfolio Daryl Vaz, says the Government is committed to the country's development, while protecting the environment and mitigating the impacts of climate change. He was speaking at a National Adaptation Plan forum soon after he was handed the portfolio in March.
It is climate change that is bringing us the severe weather events like more active hurricane seasons with bigger and badder storms. "In coming years," the minister said, "as climate change is predicted to make extreme weather events more frequent and more intense, we need to streamline our adaptation plans to prepare the key sectors of our economies for these threats."
The Government, with the help of international partners, would be taking "a sector-by-sector approach" in relation to climate-change adaptation, through the provision of sector strategies and action plans, the minister announced. The problem is that Jamaica, a tiny player on the global stage, can do very little to reduce climate change, whatever its cause, but will have to struggle with big impacts of climate change as a small island developing state.
How the Government will juggle and balance environment and 'development' by economic growth will be an unfolding drama. The Algix-Appleton impasse is an interesting scene in the drama. And whatever has become of the Goat Islands economic development projects of the last administration and their clashes with environmental concerns? Vaz, by heart and hand an economics and growth businessman, will have his hands full with environmental issues and growth and job creation grating against each other.
While over in Westmoreland, residents in Llandilo have been protesting an LPG plant planted on their doorsteps, over in St Thomas, crabs have been swarming the seashore at the eastern end of the parish.
The Llandilo people have been hit with the NIMBY syndrome - not in my backyard. NEPA, often accused of being weak-kneed in environmental enforcement (after all, the agency gave J. Wray & Nephew leeway to meet effluent discharge standards at Appleton gradually, an agreement that the courts declined to uphold), said it did due diligence, including consulting with residents, before granting permission for the gas plant. The property owners are disputing the consultation, pointing fingers at the informal occupants, aka squatters, as the yes people.
But if community agreement is going to be a hard requirement for NEPA approval, NIMBY projects are going to have a hard time getting off the ground.
The Westmoreland Parish Council says it has played by the rules that allow commercial development in the area. But what kind of commerce?
Some opposing residents are charging that the development was approved because a family member of the developer was once a senior employee of the parish council. A former mayor of the neighbouring Hanover Parish Council is now in trouble with the law for favouring family with state resources.
The gas plant developer is holding out the carrot of jobs, jobs, and says the people want him in.
These clashes are going to multiply, especially as citizens become more environmentally aware and activist. The constitutional Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms guarantees them "the right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage".
The built environment is a crucial part of this right. Ask the people of Rema who have been suffering from back flow of sewage into their homes for more than 20 years, and have been without running water for the last seven. Uncollected garbage piles up in their community, and drains are breeding sites for mosquitoes, with ZIKV cases multiplying across the country.
The media have been providing a lot more environmental coverage, which is now mainstreamed and not an add-on. There are even environmental-beat specialists in some outfits. Good.
NEPA has just completed a commissioned survey of the knowledge, attitudes, practices and behaviours of the population in relation to the environment in Jamaica. The findings of the survey should become public knowledge.
And those crabs in St Thomas. Swarming is not all that unusual. We're used to rainflies and cicadas coming out in their numbers in their seasons. And last year, we had a spectacular swarming of new mosquitoes. Locust swarms have historically triggered famines and still occur fairly regularly in modern times.
The St Thomas Environmental Protection Association (STEPA) is attributing the crab swarm to the destruction of mangroves, loss of coral, and the effects of overfishing on coral loss. Everything thrown in. But marine biologist Dr Karl Aiken countered that the crabs flooded the beach to shed fertilised eggs.
While World Environment Day this year is focusing on the fight against the illegal trade in wildlife around the world, with Angola as the host country, let us, led by Vaz and NEPA, focus at home on preserving the Jamaican environment in the best possible condition, honouring the charter provision, while pursuing economic growth and job creation.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator.