Tue | Jul 7, 2020

Editorial | Ploughing land to plant concrete

Published:Sunday | April 5, 2020 | 12:23 AM

We still hope that the Government will appreciate the wisdom of not planting Jamaica’s most fertile lands with concrete and steel and that the economic dislocation from the COVID-19 pandemic will be the epiphany, leading to the embrace of this logic.

But inexplicably, even as it, with competence, grapples with containing the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Holness administration continues to promote the Bernard Lodge city. The promotion of food security is part of the context it offers for the project. Oxymoron and paradox.

Bernard Lodge, part of the St Catherine plain, on Jamaica’s south coast, used to be a major sugar estate, containing, according to the Government’s National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), the country’s “most fertile … (and) A1 soils”. As Jamaica’s sugar industry collapsed, large bits of Bernard Lodge, which is home to a network of aquifers and is served by the island’s most developed irrigation system, were encroached upon for real estate. The same has happened with other good bits of agricultural lands elsewhere in Jamaica.

Indeed, as Lenworth Fulton, the president of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), the farmers’ organisation, used to note, of the 37 per cent of the island that was suitable for agriculture, only 19.5 per cent is now available for farming. Much of that decline has happened over the last half-century, with a rapid expansion of urbanisation. The Government’s plan for Bernard Lodge will further decrease high-quality agricultural lands. Yet the sector, which provides more than 220,000 jobs, is the largest employer of labour in Jamaica, although most farmers, on small lots, barely scratch a living. The COVID-19, and the shedding of jobs it caused in most sectors, is placing agriculture in sharp relief.

With regard to the Bernard Lodge development, the Government has allocated approximately 5,400 acres for the project, of which 3,027 acres, or 56 per cent, is to be used for agriculture and related facilities. That is an increase of 70 per cent on what was set aside for these activities before the outcry against the project. That is a good thing. The bad bit is the rest of the project. It is proposed that 2,378 acres be put under17,000 homes as well as commercial, light industrial, and supporting facilities.

MARGINAL LANDS

This newspaper has consistently argued that there are plenty marginal lands elsewhere in Jamaica, including in the vicinity of Bernard Lodge, on which to build new cities and townships, if required. Our preferred starting point, however, would be a massive inner-city renewal project that would, immediately, positively affect a sizeable chunk of the nearly 900,000 Jamaicans, or a third of the population, who squat or live in informal communities.

This can happen while taking step to ensure food security and to protect the balance of payments and current account. Jamaica’s food-import bill is more than US$900 million and climbing. A significant portion of that, it is true, goes to products consumed by foreign visitors, who are critical to the tourism industry. However, many analysts believe that that bill could be cut by up to a quarter and substantially more if we aggressively promoted substitutions. It can be done without being overly market distorting.

Then there is the matter of global warming and climate change. The experts say that a rise in global temperature could lead to a decline in agricultural output by up to a third. If all other factors remained the same, it would require 33 per cent more land to produce the same amount of food that is grown today. In the circumstance, it seems folly to hand over any country’s “most fertile … A1 soils” to real estate.

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a realm of clarity to the issue of food security. The point is often made about disproportionate impact of hotels on food imports and that a significant portion of the bill is for food consumed by the poor in defence of the expenditure. But as countries shut down their economies and close their borders to keep out the coronavirus, the just-in-time global supply chains, developed over the past three and a half decades, are being badly stressed. They and the economic globalisation upon which they rest won’t disintegrate, but fall under significant scrutiny in the aftermath of COVID-19.

It is likely that people will want to have some of their supply chains closer to home. Domestic food supplies, in the circumstance, will get serious attention. If production falls and supply systems crash in one country, no one wants to face hunger at home while their best lands are under concrete. That is why Jamaica should draw a redline under existing development on farmlands and reverse the plan for new homes and factories at Bernard Lodge and move to a new conversation on the future of agriculture.