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Editorial | Where’s Audley on Bernard Lodge city?

Published:Wednesday | February 27, 2019 | 12:00 AM

When Audley Shaw was transferred from the finance to the agriculture and industry ministry, most people saw it as a demotion. We perceived matters differently. It was an opportunity, we hoped, for Mr Shaw to employ his charisma, energy and force of character in breathing new life into a near-comatose farm sector and pursue its obvious potential for synergy with manufacturing.

Maybe we overestimated Mr Shaw’s talents, or that the shuffle so knocked the wind out of him that he lost his will and surrendered reason. For we struggle to understand his seeming whimpering acquiescence to, and lack of pushback against, the administration’s plan to develop a city on Jamaica’s best agricultural lands at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine.

Bernard Lodge is on an alluvial plain where sugar used to be grown. Its lands are now largely idle because of the inefficiency of Jamaica’s sugar industry and the collapsed global market price for the commodity since the elimination of preferences.

A year ago, the Holness administration announced that 4,600 acres of this fertile plain will be the site of a new city, accommodating 17,000 homes, factories, shopping centres, schools and other infrastructure.

Put another way, most of Bernard Lodge’s rich, loamy soil will, in time, be covered with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete. Or, as Martin Addington, an urban planner working on the project, put it to reporters last week: “This is no airy-fairy talk at all. This is a real plan and a real city to be constructed here.”

The Government defends its decision to raise its city there, in part, on the fact that the previous People’s National Party (PNP) administration sold more than 300 acres of Bernard Lodge’s land for the construction of hundreds of homes, many of which have already been built. There was no public outcry over that decision.

We make three points. The first is that the PNP government was wrong in its action. Second, it is unfortunate that there was absence of uproar over that decision. And finally, there is in this matter no virtue in trading in moral equivalency. The fundamental point is that the Bernard Lodge city represents the continued, and accelerated, encroachment of real estate on Jamaica’s most fertile lands, whether it is, as in this case, on the southern plains, in the northern valleys, or in the west, suggesting the absence of a rational land-use policy and/or the abandonment of agriculture as a worthy or viable economic enterprise.

Unless it is that our policymakers have concluded that small-scale, peasant-style production is the eternal and only approach to farming in Jamaica, which accounts for nearly 200,000 jobs. When Mr Shaw became the agriculture minister, he lamented the large tracks of unproductive agricultural lands in the island, waxed about flying over huge expanses of productive fields in South America, and shared his vision of having the same thing in Jamaica.

Is it part of the vision?

We would have expected that Bernard Lodge would be encompassed in that vision. But judging from the minister’s public silence on the Bernard Lodge city, ours may have been a vain hope. The danger is that by the time Mr Shaw emerges from his narcoleptic approach to the matter, or the Government comes to its sense about the relationship between fertile lands, agriculture, food security and reduced current account deficits, it may well be too late. Too many thousand tonnes of concrete may have been poured.

None of this, if the folly of Bernard Lodge penetrates, precludes the development of a new city. It can be built elsewhere, on marginal lands, of which, unlike the fertile type, there is, in relative terms, plenty. We are sure some of the design plans for Bernard Lodge can be salvaged for that project.