A mess of Chinese pottage
By Peter Espeut
I just get the feeling that a serious storm is brewing. More than a year ago, Environment Minister Robert Pickersgill's statement that the Government would give serious consideration to the proposal by China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC) to establish a logistics hub on the Goat Islands triggered a storm of protest. How could the Government consider approving a project in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) - one of Jamaica's most sensitive natural areas, with valuable ecosystems and wildlife - that would damage it irreparably? And why the deep secrecy?
To calm the storm, Transport Minister Omar Davies made a statement in Parliament announcing the following procedure agreed by the Cabinet: by the end of April 2014, CHEC - then still doing its due diligence - would submit a proposal to the Government giving details of what they wish to do in the PBPA, and in particular, with the Goat Islands. This proposal would be made public, and would become the subject of public discussion.
Following that, CHEC would make an application to the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) for a permit to proceed. The NRCA would then draft terms of reference for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) that would again be the subject of public discussion, leading to consensus. Then would follow a tendering process, after which a consulting firm would be awarded a contract to perform the EIA. Their draft report would again become the subject of public discussion, after which the decision on whether or not to approve the project would be made.
It would seem that this process has been derailed, because no announcement has been made that CHEC has submitted its formal proposal to the Government. Neither the business community nor the environmental community knows what is proposed to take place on the Goat Islands, and, therefore, no one is in a position to support the CHEC proposal or to reject it.
It is hardly likely that CHEC would be four to five months late in submitting its proposal to the Government. This does not accord with the reputation the Chinese have for timeliness and efficiency. If CHEC was late, I am sure Minister Davies would have said so.
It is more likely that CHEC has submitted its proposal, and that the Government has decided to abandon the solemn undertaking given by Minister Davies to follow due process, and go ahead with the project despite the public objections.
On April 1 last, the government information agency issued a press release which it attempted to withdraw; I don't know how it expected the honest press to cooperate. The headline shouted 'AGREEMENT SIGNED FOR TRANS-SHIPMENT HUB'. There was an accompanying photograph, with the following caption: "Minister of Transport, Works and Housing, Dr the Hon Omar Davies (4th left), presents memorandum of understanding (MOU) to ambassador of the People's Republic of China in Jamaica, Mr Xiaojun Dong (2nd left), after signing the document with China Engineering Company (CHEC) for the development of a trans-shipment hub in the Portland Bight and a feasibility study on the damming of the Bog Walk Gorge, at the ministry in Kingston, on March 28. ... "
The text of the release read, inter alia: "Dr Davies argued that a project which does not harm the environment, and will improve people's living standards, must be explored. 'After all the required studies are carried out, including the environmental assessment, this project will be going ahead,' he said."
After some (disobedient) media houses carried the release, the Government tried to spin away its contents by suggesting that the agreement was only for further feasibility studies; but that story is unbelievable, as those for the hub should have been long over by March. Why try to withdraw the release? But if Minister Davies was correctly quoted, he made it clear that whatever the EIA finds, the project is going ahead.
Even now, the public does not know exactly what CHEC proposes to do on the Goat Islands. Does it plan to level Great Goat Island (as is the scuttlebutt), and push the 100m-high hill into the sea to cover the wetlands between the two islands to create a huge island on which their base will be built (as well as a small town for the Chinese workers)? With post-Panamax ships requiring 18.3 metres depth, and with the 20m depth contour being far out to sea on the other side of Pigeon Island, how much of the seafloor of Portland Bight has to be removed?
I get the feeling that a serious storm is brewing. This one will go to court. The Government of Jamaica will not be allowed to sell our birthright for a mess of Chinese pottage.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.