Once again, the Government is setting up its environmentalists. All it has to do is announce some project that (it claims) will provide thousands of jobs, jobs, jobs for the poor, but which will also destroy the environment, and a chorus of environmentalists (like myself) will react by condemning the project.
This then allows the Government to broad-brush all environmentalists as being against any development at all; and itself as working hard for the upliftment of poor black people, but being blocked by those light-skinned tree-hugging environmentalists.
The recent announcement in China by Environment Minister Bobby Pickersgill that the Jamaican Government is seriously considering the Chinese request to construct a logistics hub on the environmentally valuable Goat Islands in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) was geared to stir up emotionalism, rather than to encourage reason, logic and brainpower.
The public does not know even approximately what the Chinese are proposing, and so support of the project is grasping at straws. The earlier proposal for the logistics hub to be located at the five-acre Fort Augusta site did not raise any environmental eyebrows; but in May, the prime minister announced that Fort Augusta was too small for what the Chinese wanted to do; instead, they needed 3,000 acres at Goat Island for their logistics hub. Clearly, the 3,000-acre logistics hub planned for the PBPA is a different concept than the one planned for Fort Augusta on five acres.
What is the plan?
The trouble is that we don't know what that plan is, and so it is hard for a thinking person to support it without knowing more.
But we know enough to be very concerned, and even disturbed. The logic of the logistics hub is to take advantage of the wider and deeper Panama Canal scheduled to open next year. The present canal built in 1914 can accommodate vessels with drafts up to 12.56m (41.2ft); the new canal will be able to take bigger ships with drafts up to 18.29m (60ft). Cities all over the world are currently adjusting their ports to take the larger vessels. Logistics hub or no logistics hub, the Port of Kingston has to adjust if it wants to stay in business.
Remember that this logistics hub is not Jamaica's project to benefit from the new Panama Canal; it is China's plan for expansion into the Western Hemisphere, using Jamaica's landspace. Where is Jamaica's plan?
So we know the depth of water the logistics hub requires, and the question is, what will they have to do to get that in the shallow waters of Portland Bight? Currently, there are two ports there: Port Esquivel inside to the west (its narrow channel is dredged to just over 11m), and Jamalco's Rocky Point near the entrance of the Bight (with 11-18m-deep access channels).
The Goat Islands are on the inside of Portland Bight to the east, in quite shallow water. The marine chart shows the 10m contour a few hundred metres offshore, but the 20m contour lies outside Pigeon Island, some five miles away.
Destroying the Goat Islands in their present form is bad enough; creating a port on the Goat Islands to take larger ships will require massive dredging, removing thousands of tons of coral reefs and sand and seagrass - massive destruction, fundamentally changing the bathymetry of the Bight - and the livelihoods of the thousands who depend upon it.
This would be unsustainable development - impossible to mitigate - and quite against stated government policy and party manifesto. Certainly, it could be done - at tremendous cost - and money is no object for the Chinese.
Nor is finding cheap labour. All over the world, the Chinese are building roads, bridges and ports, all with Chinese labour - with little or no local employment. I am prepared to believe that the Chinese intend to employ 10,000 persons in their logistics hub; but I am willing to bet that, going on past and current performance elsewhere, very few of those jobs will go to Jamaicans.
Mike Henry, in an article earlier this week, said that he was well aware of this while, as minister of works, he was negotiating with them. Is this present Government deceiving the Jamaican people with promises of Jamaican jobs, jobs, jobs on Goat Islands?
Swapping healthy ecosystems for jobs and employment is one thing, debatable in itself; but destroying healthy Jamaican ecosystems to provide jobs for Chinese workers and to develop the Chinese economy is quite another.
Two days ago, the Gleaner editor asserted that "the matter of investment and jobs ... makes the Goat Islands project a no-brainer". I want to encourage my readers - and the Gleaner editor - not to be carried away by grand promises of jobs, jobs, jobs at any cost, but to use their brains to properly evaluate this project.
Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and natural resource manager. Email feedback to email@example.com.