There is a very strong connection between the overfishing of Jamaican waters and the scrap metal trade. Bear with me as I explain.
Fishers can only catch the fish that are there, and the supply is not unlimited. Contrary to popular belief, there is a finite quantity of fish in the sea, and the females of each species lay eggs in known quantities, so we can calculate the rate of natural increase of fish populations.
If fishers catch fish faster than they can hatch and grow to maturity, the fish population will decline (the fishers will then be catching the breeding stock, so there will be even fewer in the next generation). We call this 'overfishing'.
Fishing effort (the power or ability to catch fish) must, therefore, be adjusted by national policy (e.g., limiting the number of licences and the amount of gear) so that fish populations do not decline. In fact, national policy can increase the total fish catch by increasing the total number of breeders (adult fish), by, for example, requiring that the mesh sizes of traps and nets are large enough to allow juveniles to escape, to live to breed before they are eventually caught.
This is modern fisheries management, falling under the general heading of sustainable development. By adjusting the catch rate to be equal to, or less than, the breeding rate, the same tonnage of fish can be available for the dinner table for centuries to come.
But Jamaica is notoriously unable (or unwilling) to manage its fishing industry. We have the most overfished waters in the Caribbean (and maybe the world) because we believe that people must 'eat a food', and the Government issues licences to all comers. There are not enough fish in the sea to allow an unlimited number of fishers. It simply is not sustainable.
I am sure you see where I am going with my argument. The scrap metal sector is similar to the fishing industry, in that the quantity of scrap metal out there is not unlimited; scrap metal is produced by industrial and domestic processes that are known and well understood, and the rate of generation of metal scrap can be calculated.
Before the explosion in the number of traders, there was scrap metal almost everywhere, defacing the Jamaican landscape: derelict cars, broken-down tractors and bulldozers, old engine blocks and car springs, dysfunctional refrigerators and stoves, and the like. Quick money was made, and this has spurred more people to enter the scrap metal trade.
But there is no way that the boom of the early years can be sustained, because there is no loose scrap metal lying around; it has been all harvested. That is why railway lines, electricity wires, telephone cables, water pipes, manhole covers, bridge rails, cultural artefacts, house gates and the like are going missing. Where else are the scavengers to find the stuff to export? Not enough scrap metal is being generated by homes and businesses to keep the thousands in the industry employed.
If unscrupulous persons had not been ripping off public and private property, the industry would have been forced to shut down long ago, because it would have run out of scrap metal to export.
Once the backlog of scrap has been taken off, you cannot export more scrap metal than is generated without cannibalising non-scrap metal. The industry had expanded on the fat of the backlog of scrap build-up and long ago had become unsustainable. It does not have a 'right' to exist if there is no more legitimate scrap to export. The government was right to shut it down.
The People's National Party campaigned on the platform that if it were re-elected, it would reopen the industry. I ask both political parties this question: How many millions in campaign contributions did you receive from players in the scrap metal trade? Does this have anything to do with the announcement that the export trade would soon be reopened?
Just because someone gives you a donation and asks you to give them a 'bly' does not mean that you should do it. That would be bribery and political corruption.
I ask the Government this question: Has there been a scientific study of the quantity of scrap metal on the ground? And estimating the tons of new scrap generated annually? And determining how many firms and people can export legitimate scrap in our emaciated economy?
If not, I believe reopening the scrap metal trade is gross irresponsibility.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.