Editors' Forum | Gov't choking Ja - Environmentalists demand greater responsibility from agencies polluting the environment
In bemoaning the adverse findings of the Air and Water Quality Report for Jamaica, a study conducted by the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), veteran environmentalist Peter Espeut says that the country must advance to a point where government officers are held personally responsible for the success or failure of their ministry, particularly where management of the environment is concerned.
"It seems to me that one of the greatest polluters in Jamaica is the Government, whether through the National Solid Waste Management Authority or the National Water Commission, and so on, but what we lack is a proper mechanism to call the Government to account for its behaviour," Espeut stated yesterday during a Gleaner Editors' Forum at the company's North Street office.
"If the actual government officers were held personally responsible for the conduct of their agencies, then maybe you'd get some action, but right now, nobody is responsible."
The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) undertakes the technical and administrative mandate of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act (NRCA), which provides for the management, conservation, and protection of the natural resources of Jamaica. Under the NRCA, NEPA can take legal action against public bodies that are non-compliant with set air- and water-quality standards, but according to Espeut, if government imposes a fine on government, the taxpayers would be the victims.
He also argued that the pairing of the environment portfolio with other unrelated portfolios over successive administrations has been to its detriment, primarily because of conflicts of interest.
Currently, the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Office of the Prime Minister has responsibility for the environment portfolio, a move with which Espeut disagrees.
"If your main objective is job creation and economic development, then you're going to want to allow industries to operate in your country that may be environmentally damaging. If the same minister with responsibility for the environment is the same one able to grant permission for the industry that is environmentally damaging to take place, then the minister is faced with a choice of, 'Do I let this industry operate, which will hurt the environment but bring jobs, or do I think of the environment?'" he reasoned.
"Job and economic development will always be dominant, so for me, the environment must be a stand-alone ministry, along with fisheries, forestry, water, and all environmentally related things."
Legal officer for JET, Terri-Ann Guyah, also supported Espeut's claim of conflict of interest while stating that if the water and air quality issues aren't given priority, then the environment will be a "sinking ship".
"The Government can legally take action against its own government, but will they do so?" she questioned.
"Taking action against the heads of agencies and making them personally liable is something we should consider strongly. Generally speaking, in cases where the directors or heads of governments do not act within their mandate and the Government refuses to take action, we must now look at the particular individuals and hold them accountable for their inactions or actions that do not conform to the law."