Mon | Nov 12, 2018

Goat Islands: ecology and economy

Published:Sunday | August 25, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller greets Chinese President Xi Jinping for their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last Thursday.-AP

Garnett Roper, GUEST COLUMNIST

The indication from Dr Omar Davies that the Government of Jamaica is contemplating an unsolicited investment proposal of US$1.5 billion in Jamaica's seaport in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) from the Chinese is welcome. Dr Davies has every reason to be sanguine about this development.

The opportunity can be taken in the context of a robust, environmentally savvy regulatory infrastructure. We ought to strike the happy balance between protection of our vulnerable ecosystems, both in the marine environment and on land, as well as Jamaica's biodiversity.

NEW OPPORTUNITY

Instead of a zero sum game of bitter acrimony and wild accusation, this can be an opportunity to bring the community together and to make choices in the long-term interest of the Jamaican people.

According to Dr Davies in my radio interview with him on Newstalk 93FM last week, what is anticipated is Chinese investment to build a port and to develop a light to medium manufacturing facility, including considerable IT manufacturing facilities. During the construction phase, the total project is anticipated to employ some 3,000 persons, and when fully operational, the project will employ upwards of 15,000.

My discussion with others that appear to be in the know suggests that this is a trans-shipment facility with a causeway to the mainland and a further development of the land side of about 2,000 acres of land. According to Dr Davies, the Chinese have done their technical analysis and are ready to sign an MOU with Jamaica to commence construction in 2014 and, over the life of the investment, to expend a minimum of US$1.5 billion.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

The drawback is twofold: First, there is the question of whether or not Jamaica's approval mechanisms, including NEPA, have the capacity to respond with requisite approval within a 12-month period. The second challenge is even more profound: it is whether or not such a development can, and ought to, be accommodated within the PBPA. The PBPA was so designated in 1999 and encompasses an area of 724 square miles of the Jamaican archipelago. It stretches from Hellshire in St Catherine in the east to Rocky Point in southeast Clarendon.

The PBPA is a nesting site for marine birds and endangered turtle species, such as hawksbill and green turtles. This reserve area is said to contain 81 acres of limestone forest, wetlands, seagrass and mangroves. It covers 500 kilometres on land and 1,300 kilometres on the marine side. Little Goat Island falls within the PBPA. The reserve is habitat and home to birds, iguanas, crocodiles, manatees, sea turtles, fish and 50,000 human beings.

It contains two ports; part of three sugar production estates; various fish farms; a bauxite-alumina plant; a feed factory; two electric plants; and other industrial and commercial installations (JPAT 2010).

Fortunately or unfortunately, the management of the PBPA has been given to the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), so it is up to the UDC, and not NEPA, to determine appropriate uses for the PBPA.

I have maintained from the very outset that the 1999 decision was one-sided in that a narrow band of environmentalists and a privileged few dominated the conversation, and this resulted in economic options being foreclosed pre-emptorarily. The designated area ought not to have been so large.

Jamaica is confining itself to perpetual poverty by foreclosing the option for development for a full one-eighth of its development space. When this is put along with the Cockpit Country, which also has been the subject of capture by the very same environmental lobby, Jamaica is in danger of shooting itself in the foot.

OUR GREATEST PROBLEM

Poverty is the greatest threat to the environment. The Jamaican economy has not grown for 21 quarters, according to Ralston Hyman, a leading commentator. We have poverty, sociopathy and violence. We cannot, therefore, afford to look a gift horse in the mouth. I believe, therefore, that the Cabinet ought to narrow the boundaries of the protected area.

More to the point, there are already commercial developments, including two ports within the PBPA. The further development by the Chinese is not, therefore, ipso facto, in conflict with the nature reserve.

Jamaica needs this particular investment at this time. Time is of the essence because of all the development in the Panama Canal and the opportunities to participate in global maritime that are implied by the 2015 Panamax.

Therefore, I am recommending to the minister of transport, housing and works, Dr Omar Davies, that he take a proactive, rather than tentative, approach to this development.

I think that consultation needs to begin immediately in which the message of what is planned in the wake of this investment by the Chinese to town hall meetings to get buy-in by the Jamaican people. Their good sense will prevail. The second is to negotiate with the Chinese that a significant sum be set aside to develop a nature reserve to give the children of Jamaica access to crocodiles and turtles, iguanas, manatees and marine birds.

These environmental niceties are reserved for the privileged few and often the idle rich who own boats and yachts and have access to some of the most pristine and beautiful parts of this country.

Third, and this is the rub: While we welcome Chinese investments and we are mindful that they are the only game in town, we cannot give them the whole shop without ensuring that Jamaica gets its fair share. There are 1.3 billion Chinese in China. They can staff and populate the port and the land area without a single Jamaican worker, without ruffling the feathers of their demography. This must not be allowed to become a Chinese colony and another form of social apartheid of which we are quite capable in this country.

Important, as well, the negotiations ought to ensure that quotas are predetermined as to the percentage of Jamaicans employed in professional posts at all levels.

The Chinese investments, to date, including Palisadoes and the north-south link, have not added real value to the Jamaican economy and the Jamaican worker. The relationships have been marked by protests about wages and the timeliness of payment.

Our goal in all of these investments is the improvement of the lot of our people. We will expect the arguments to cease quickly and the negotiations to continue in earnest as the minister and his team seek to hold the feet of the Chinese to the fire in the interest of the Jamaican people.

The Rev Dr Garnett Roper is president of Jamaica Theological Seminary and chairman of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garnettroper@hotmail.com.