Selling country to the lowest bidder

Published: Sunday | September 1, 2013 Comments 0
Environmental lobbyists say fishermen plying their trade near Goat Islands could be in greater jeopardy because of declining fish stock in the wake of industrialising the protected area. - Ian Allen/Staff Photographer
Environmental lobbyists say fishermen plying their trade near Goat Islands could be in greater jeopardy because of declining fish stock in the wake of industrialising the protected area. - Ian Allen/Staff Photographer

Peter Edwards, Guesdt Columnist

I would like to offer some thoughts on the recent announcement that the Government of Jamaica (at the behest of the Chinese Government) is planning to implement a large port development project in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA). In particular, I would like to respond to a few of the points made by the Rev Garnett Roper in his guest column 'Goat Islands: ecology and economy' (Sunday Gleaner, August 25, 2013).

Before I respond directly to Rev Roper's comments, I would like to briefly provide some context regarding balancing trade-offs between environmental sustainability and development.

Why is incorporating natural capital accounting into national accounts important for a country?

Natural capital is the land, air, water, living organisms and all formations of the Earth's biosphere that provide us with ecosystem goods and services imperative for survival and well-being. Furthermore, it is the basis for all human economic activity.

Natural capital has, in the past, not fully been accounted for in national budgets. However, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Development Programme and some governments now realise that incorporating natural capital into national accounts can support better decisions for inclusive development.

Roper's poverty argument

Rev Roper, in his article, laid out a set of arguments for the fast-tracking of the port development project. He stated, "Poverty is the greatest threat to the environment," and suggested that Jamaica is "confining itself to perpetual poverty by foreclosing the option for development for a full one-eighth of its development space".

I agree with Rev Roper: Poverty is indeed a threat to the environment. However, his suggestion that the level of poverty (or prosperity) is directly correlated to the utilisation of a certain area of 'development space' (whatever that means) is fallacious and misleading.

I would argue that the main reason for Jamaica's poverty is, instead, caused by decades of ineptitude and neglect by successive governments (i.e., both political parties) and their failure to invest in our most precious resource - the people - through education, health and other indicators of social well-being.

Rev Roper also questioned whether or not Jamaica's approval mechanisms have the "capacity" respond to the regulatory needs of a development project of this magnitude within a (somewhat arbitrary) 12-month approval period. He goes on to (erroneously) suggest that the National Environment and Planning Agency has no authority to determine management or the appropriate uses of the area since the management of the PBPA has been given to the Urban Development Corporation.

Perhaps this is another way of saying the Government should "run wid it". I would advise him to check his facts about the approval process. Large projects such as this will require a proper environmental impact asessment (EIA). A 12-month period is quite likely too short for all the studies needed for a proper cost-benefit analysis to be conducted prior to any approval (or non-approval) of this plan.

Challenge to civil society

Rev Roper also made some comments which seem to be a direct challenge to members of civil society and the environmental lobby. He suggested that the decision to declare the PBPA was one-sided and that "a narrow band of environmentalists and a privileged few dominated the conversation".

It seems to me that Rev Roper is helping to perpetuate this attitude that it is a small number of Jamaican brown/white people from uptown who are stopping development in the country. For example, he writes: "... 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."

That statement is condescending and belies the significance of the opposition to this proposed development. First of all, the environmental lobby, university scientists and others are not just concerned with children's access to turtles, iguanas and birds. They are more concerned with broader issues, such as poverty alleviation, justice and equitable access to natural resources.

Second, it is quite likely the privileged few and idle rich he referred to are the ones that actually stand to benefit from a development project such as this one. These "privileged few" are the politically connected with all the 'links'. They are the ones who will have first preference to contracts such as: supplying and hauling aggregate, marine construction, and handling the immigration paperwork for Chinese workers, to name a few.

There are the other privileged few who will benefit from votes or other means such as members of parliament, councillors and usual sycophants. Last, let us not forget the area leaders/dons who have to get their cut of the money for ensuring 'security' on the construction site. Ironically, it is probably these same privileged few who currently sail over to the Goat Islands on their boats to shoot birds, fish and frolic. So either way, they benefit.

Based on previous projects, the actual benefits to the broader Jamaican society may be lower than the touted US$1.5 billion of investment. Rev Roper supports this concern when he stated, "The Palisadoes and the north-south highway links have not added real value to the Jamaican economy and the Jamaican worker." What will be different about this project? Will an additional set of Chinese workers be used to do the work instead of unemployed Jamaicans?

I recall former Prime Minister Bruce Golding's public utterances about the strings attached to accepting Chinese funding and his apparent agreement through his support of a comment heard on talk radio that "one Chiney can do five smaddy work". I see nothing about this project that demonstrates that this will not continue to be the case.

Troubling lack of transparency

What is troubling about this project is the lack of transparency and apparent willingness of the Government to reverse laws put in place to protect and preserve the environment.

I implore the Jamaican media to do some proper investigative work. Questions need to be asked. Why not use the existing port facilities in the area like Port Esquivel? Why must the Chinese have their 'own' port? What are the implications for Jamaica's sovereignty over its archipelagic islands? Is this really a logistics hub or something else? Is there a link between this project and the siting of a proposed limestone/clinker quarry and China's growing demand for cement?

What are the conditions attached to approval of this project? Are there any sanctions if the project is not approved? If so, will they take their money and leave Jamaica? So many questions and so few answers. The Jamaican people need to know.

The handling of this whole issue is of great concern, and the fast-tracking of this project without regard for our laws and regulations suggests that something is afoot. If any decision is one-sided, it appears to be the fait accompli nature of this ill-advised project.

Dr Peter E.T. Edwards is a Jamaican marine scientist, environmental economist and policy analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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