By Din Duggan
The following is an excerpt of a speech I delivered to HEART Trust/NTA career development officers (CDOs) at their retreat in Ocho Rios last Thursday. The speech sought to inspire the CDOs to recognise and embrace their critical role as stewards of Jamaica's most precious asset - its people.
Do you remember a song by dancehall artiste Sean Paul from a few years ago? It was called We Be Burnin'. The song contained a line that went: "Some got gold and oil and diamonds, all we got is Mary J, so legalise it ... ."
I was probably about 24 at the time. Looking back, I thought I was smarter at 24, but apparently I wasn't, because I remember thinking, "It's true! Countries like South Africa have diamonds. Australia has gold. Trinidad has oil - black gold. What do we have?"
Really. What do we - little, old Jamaica - have, except Mary J ... and L.A. Lewis?
Bauxite? Ha! I'm from Mandeville. I remember when bauxite companies were king; when bauxite was booming; when Alcan and Alcoa and Alpart were huge contributors to the Jamaican economy. My father worked at the old Alcan for many years. I grew up a child of bauxite, literally. I used to run around covered in the Mandeville red dirt. Now, bauxite does little for us. Good people who once held great jobs at those companies are now unemployed.
The cost of energy is so high and our bauxite infrastructure so outdated, that despite having some of the richest soil in the world for bauxite production, we can barely produce it profitably, anymore.
The long-term prognosis is horrible. Industries are moving away from bauxite and aluminium. I read an article in Forbes magazine recently about Alexey Mordashov, the third-richest man in Russia. The billionaire is betting big on steel - investing billions in steel mills in the United States.
The trend (and, indeed, the mandate set by the United States government) in the transportation industry - the largest consumer of aluminium - is towards more fuel-efficient vehicles. To attain maximum fuel efficiency, cars must become lighter. Ford Motor Company, for instance, will have to reduce its average car weight by 700 pounds before 2020 - only eight years from now. So automakers are turning to new, lightweight steel over aluminium. This means that bauxite - the main source of aluminium - is in for tough times. And Jamaica - one of the main producers of bauxite, historically - will really feel the pinch.
What about tourism? We barely have that. We're killing our environment - destroying the mangroves that protect our coastline. Our beaches - the lifeblood of our tourism product - are rapidly eroding. Sure, Brand Jamaica resonates with travellers, but sand, sun and sea are available in abundance around the globe. A bit of bad publicity for Jamaica - another high-profile disturbance like we saw in 2010 with the Dudus madness, for instance - and tourists might simply choose to travel elsewhere.
Furthermore, much of the income earned from tourism doesn't filter into the broader economy. The dollars don't reach the farmers and the craft vendors and the average man on the street, anymore. Often, earnings fly off to foreign lands or remain trapped behind resort walls.
What else do we have? Music? We're not developing our music industry in a sustainable manner. Much of the economic value of Jamaican music is being recognised outside Jamaica. Similarly, some of our top artistes are now residing outside Jamaica - in nice, fancy, foreign prisons. Buju Banton is in jail. Vybz Kartel stayed local, but in a local jail. And despite singing that him "nah go a jail again", Busy Signal gone a jail, again.
So what resources do we truly have in Jamaica? Is Sean Paul correct? Is it really that all we have is Mary J?
Of course not!
By the way, if you don't know who or what Mary J is, ask your neighbour.
I learned an invaluable lesson from this song: dancehall artistes chat a whole heap of foolishness. Sean Paul was absolutely wrong - and probably high. He knew that we had something, but that something is much more valuable than Mary J. That something is Mary. And James. And Blacka. And Precious.
That something is our people. That is the key to our economic development - our people. They are our greatest assets. They are our ultimate commodities. They are our diamonds; they are our gold; they are our oil - our black gold.
Din Duggan is an attorney working as a consultant with a global legal search firm. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or view his past columns at facebook.com/dinduggan and twitter.com/YoungDuggan.