Who owns Jamaica's beaches?
Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
Easton Douglas once took up a very big job that's still not finished. I suppose it was much harder than chairing the board of the National Housing Trust. A board of yes-men and -women makes things really easy for a chairman. This is particularly true if it's a 'bagasse' board, accountable to no one.
As minister of environment and housing, Easton Douglas announced in 1995 that the Government had started to develop a policy for controlling access to Jamaica's beaches. Nothing much has come of this promise after almost two decades. We are still stuck with a 1956 Beach Control Act.
According to that pre-Independence law, the Queen of England owns our beaches: "all rights in and over the foreshore of this Island and the floor of the sea are hereby declared to be vested in the Crown". But even that outdated act does acknowledge the fact that the rights of the public have to be protected against selfish private-sector interests.
Hotel owners, for example, can apply for a licence to operate 'private' beaches. But the act makes it absolutely clear that "licence shall not be granted under this section unless the Authority has certified that the issue of the licence is not likely to conflict with the public interest in regard to fishing, bathing, recreation or the protection of the environment".
Now this 'Authority' is the very same Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) that appears to have given its stamp of approval to the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) to sell off protected public lands on Long Mountain to private developers. So I really don't have much faith in the capacity of the NRCA to protect the public interest.
Two Sundays ago, I watched that episode of Anthony Bourdain's travel series, 'Parts Unknown', which focused on Jamaica. Avoiding the well-known all-inclusive hotels in and around MoBay, Bourdain turned to Portland, where Jamaica's upscale tourist industry started. And he didn't paint the usual portrait of the island as 'paradise'. He got it right.
Bourdain documents the sharp lines of division in our society. The programme wasn't aired on CNN in Jamaica. Conspiracy theorists immediately came up with a wicked explanation. It was because Flow is owned by Michael Lee-Chin. He came off so badly in the show that he stopped the company from airing it.
When I checked with Flow, I learned that CNN sends targeted feeds to different markets. We get the Latin American and Caribbean feed. Bourdain's show is not on our feed. It's now on Vimeo.com. Hopefully, either TVJ or CVM will negotiate the rights to air the episode. We all need to see it. It's not a pretty picture of our country. The landscape is beautiful and the food is appetising. But the disparity between the rich and poor is rather ugly.
"WHAT KIND OF PERSON?"
Perhaps Michael Lee-Chin should have been much more cautious about exposing himself to Bourdain. This is how Bourdain introduces him: "There are those who believe that the area can come back; that it must come back. That the future is in hotels and resorts and restaurants for wealthy visitors as it once was.
"Take this place, for instance: the Trident hotel. Expensive, luxurious! Best of all, I'm the only guest. Oh, did I mention that it comes with a castle? What kind of person would own a building like that? Who? Why? Then this man arrived and kind of answered that question. All of this belongs to Michael Lee-Chin. Local boy-turned-billionaire. One of the richest men in the world. And my host. He's invited me for dinner."
With guests like Bourdain, you don't need gatecrashers. Down the road at GoldenEye, St Mary, Chris Blackwell, another host, gets the full Bourdain treatment. It's a case of show me your friends. According to Bourdain, "When Blackwell heard I wanted to visit the local fishermen, he hooked me up with his good friend, Carl, to accompany me."
Apparently forgetting that this wasn't a B movie, Carl Bradshaw acts quite ugly. One of the insistent fishermen tries to tell the truth as he sees it. Blackwell's 'development' plan for Oracabessa will create major problems: "This going belong to di tourist ... . The native here don't have no beach in a few months time."
Bradshaw menacingly responds, "Wi no care 'bout truth, man. Wi kill people fi truth, man." And he shouts down the middle-age fisherman, "Yute, yute, just stop talk! Mi seh just stop buct talk!" Bradshaw forces the fisherman out of the interview. And then descends into a pseudo-philosophical rant on "tolerance"!
The star of Bourdain's show is Cynthia who, with her partner Dennis, runs a cookshop on Winnifred Beach in Portland. It's the only public beach for miles. The Urban Development Corporation (UDC) tried to capture the beach for private use, promising that the public would still have access. Cynthia's response is completely understandable: "We don't trust them. So we do not believe what they say."
The Free Winnifred Benevolent Society took UDC to court. Last month, before Bourdain's travel show aired, they won the case. Their heroism is a part of Jamaican culture we definitely know. The barbed-wire fences that block public access to so many beaches around the island must be torn down.