Fri | Jan 15, 2021

‘They’re not qualified’ - CEO-in-waiting of mining investors bashes environmentalists

Published:Monday | November 16, 2020 | 12:14 AMJanet Silvera and Jovan Johnson/Senior Gleaner Writers
Garbage is strewn at a section of the Puerto Bueno Mountains in Discovery Bay, St Ann.
Garbage is strewn at a section of the Puerto Bueno Mountains in Discovery Bay, St Ann.

A former deputy commissioner of the Government’s Mines and Geology Division tapped for a leadership role in the controversy-plagued Jamaica World LLC has warned that much of the criticism of the Puerto Bueno Mountains quarrying plan is misplaced noise.

Kashif Sweet, Jamaica World’s managing partner, revealed in an exclusive interview with The Gleaner on Saturday that Ronald Edwards was being eyed for the role of chief executive officer.

A petition was launched on Sunday by residents insistent that the Holness administration was wrong when it overturned a decision by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), a state environmental watchdog, denying Jamaica World a mining and quarrying permit.

Edwards was at the consultation in 2010 in his government position when a precursor company sought mining privileges, and like he did then, he is encouraging residents and lobbyists to visit the site to examine some of the concerns.

“A lot of people who are saying a lot of things, they are not environmentalists. They are not qualified to be environmentalists,” Edwards told The Gleaner on Sunday night.

The petition, which is targeting 2,500 signatures, was nearing 1,400 signs up to press time last evening.

Edwards, confirming that negotiations are ongoing, said that his role would be to ensure environmentally friendly quarrying “so that there is total compliance with all the conditions of the environmental permit”.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness faced a torrent of criticism last week, forcing him to go public to defend the overruling of NEPA against Bengal Development Limited mining limestone in the Puerto Bueno (Dry Harbour) Mountains.

The intrigue over the ecologically sensitive northern coast mountain region is widening, with the European Union (EU), a key government partner, now calling for the ‘integrity’ of the area to be preserved.

Likely mindful of recent allegations of interference in domestic matters plaguing the US, the EU Delegation here engaged in a delicate dance around the matter when questioned but could hardly hide where its interest may be.

“We recognise that there is controversy over the issue,” said Marianne Van Steen, the newly installed ambassador for the EU, which is spending €16.5 million on boosting environmental protection locally.

“We would encourage all stakeholders to engage in meaningful dialogue in order to ensure that all concerns are addressed and the integrity of the Dry Harbour Mountains is preserved for future generations,” she told The Gleaner in an emailed response.

The EU said it is not up to it to “judge” on how Jamaica’s natural resources are used, but “whatever decision is taken, we are confident that this will not be to the detriment of the rich biodiversity of the country and will be in accordance with Jamaica’s strong commitment to environmental protection and the fight against climate change”.

Asif Ahmad, Britain’s top diplomat here, is staying out of the issue, noting that “implementation of specific rules and decisions by ministers on environmental matters like this are entirely internal to the Jamaican Government”.

Ahmad said the British government would have “grounds for engagement if a British company was put in a situation where their investment has environmental implications and their project was controversial”.

Holness has not been pleased with aspects of public discussions on the matter, which, he said, have suggested that his administration is “just going out there destroying assets without any form of consideration”.

“I rubbish that,” he declared, noting that “a strategy of protecting the environment is ensuring that people have livelihoods”.

Bengal, a St Lucia-registered company owned by the Florida-based outfit Jamaica World LLC, has projected to pay over $635 million in taxes to the pandemic-hit coffers along with the creation of 100 jobs.

NEPA has imposed 72 conditions on Bengal, which will be mining 123 acres of a 569-acre property previously owned by Diamond Property Development Company.

Diamond submitted an application in 2010 to mine the area.

In 2010, NEPA-produced verbatim notes of a community consultation in Rio Bueno, where Dr Carlton Campbell, who was appearing as an environment consultant for Diamond, told residents that the company was seeking to supply the local market through road and hotel construction, among other things.

Campbell is managing director of C.L, Environmental, the entity that did a 2019 environmental impact assessment for Bengal.

In denying Bengal’s application in May, NEPA noted potentially deleterious and irreversible impact the project would have on the area, home to a renowned limestone forest, critical watershed, endemic and endangered species and opposition from residents.

Sweet was unable to give a timeline and was uncertain as to when mining would take place in an area previously mined but without any assessment of the environmental damage.

However, in October 2017, US direct private lender, Kennedy Funding Financial, announced that it had closed an “extremely complex” US$2.09 million (J$267.5 million) deal with Jamaica World for the development of a commerce and trade centre at the property in question over a five-year period.

The financiers said the process involved seven lawyers drawn from the United States, St Lucia, and Jamaica.

Sweet, meanwhile, has declined to disclose how much it would cost to comply with the environmental conditions as well as how the new measures would impact on the job projections and tax inflows.

Mining is Jamaica’s largest foreign exchange earner, with bauxite making the biggest contribution, Mining Minister Robert Montague said in a June parliamentary address.

In 2018, the minerals sector contributed 2.7 per cent to Gross Domestic Product while earning about US$1.3 billion.

In a June 2020 paper, global accounting giant PwC pointed to increasing global demand for top-quality lime, with the market in the Americas region projected to grow by over 13 per cent (727 MT) in volume by 2024.