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Puss inna bag

Published:Friday | September 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM

By Peter Espeut

I don't think anyone in the Government of Jamaica knows what the Chinese want to build on the Goat Islands in the Portland Bight Protected Area, and that is why absolutely no information is available - except that it is a US$1.5-billion investment in a logistics hub that will provide 20,000 jobs. Minister Davies' statement to Parliament on Tuesday supports this assertion. Let us walk through it.

"Upon assuming office in January 2012, this administration inherited a memorandum of understanding between the Port Authority of Jamaica and the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), under which CHEC would carry out investigations to determine whether it would enter into a definite agreement for the development of Fort Augusta as a trans-shipment port." CHEC is still making its plans.

"CHEC, having completed its analysis of the Fort Augusta location, came to the conclusion that it did not sufficiently qualify for such a development, partly because the scope and nature of their proposed project had expanded in the ensuing period." Not even CHEC is sure yet exactly what it wants to do.

"The Cabinet, on April 21, 2013, approved an addendum to the existing MOU ... to allow the investors to undertake the necessary feasibility studies/due diligence of the project ... to facilitate the refinement of a final proposal that would be submitted to the Government of Jamaica. The period of assessment is one year and is expected to be completed by the end of April 2014." The Government of Jamaica will not know exactly what the Chinese want to build on the Goat Islands for seven more months! Declarations of support for the Chinese proposal at this time [by the Government, by The Gleaner and by Mr "Go to hell!" Warmington] are premature, and the equivalent of buying 'puss inna bag'.

I must now ask: When the honourable minister of the environment declared in China that "the preferred selection by your company as to where the logistics hub should be located is now under very serious consideration" (Gleaner, August 22, 2013), what exactly was the Government considering "now"? According to Minister Davies, the Government will have nothing to consider until April 2014.

What really worries me is Minister Davies' next sentence: "At that time, a decision will be made as to whether to proceed to a conclusive agreement." How can the Government take a decision, in May 2014, whether or not to proceed with the Chinese proposal before an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project has been completed?

EIA recommendations

Remember that there are always three possible recommendations emerging from an EIA: yes, go ahead as planned; yes, go ahead but with these modifications to the plan, or no, the project is environmentally unsustainable and may not go ahead (i.e., the negative project impacts cannot be adequately mitigated).

Approving the project before the EIA has been conducted is really to declare that "no matter what the EIA says, we are going ahead with the project," which is irresponsible!

Remember also that the EIA cannot begin until CHEC has said definitively what it wants to do. You cannot do an EIA on 'puss inna a bag'. So the terms of reference for the EIA cannot be developed until after April 2014, and since such a study takes about a year to be completed, we won't have the results until around June 2015. Then, and only then, should a decision be taken to proceed or not.

But as I have written before, often in Jamaica, an EIA is just a formality, going through the motions, the decision to go ahead has already been made!

That would seem to be the case here. The Chinese 'puss inna bag' logistics hub is a done deal, no matter what the April 2014 proposal contains, and no matter what the EIA finds. We are that desperate!

There is a big heresy out there, that any and every environmental impact can be mitigated. Therefore, no project - no matter how damaging - need ever be turned down. But the destruction of natural forests by bauxite mining cannot be mitigated by planting grass on 'restored' mined-out lands.

Mitigating destruction

Replanting mangroves and seagrass in new areas to mitigate the destruction of healthy mangroves and seagrass usually does not work, because if mangroves and seagrass could have grown in those new areas, they would have already been there - naturally. The replants usually die! Artificial reefs are no mitigation for healthy coral reefs; there usually is no coral!

For years, dishonest EIA consultants in this country have recommended that destructive and unsustainable projects be approved "with these additional mitigation measures". I expect no less in this case.

Jamaicans are more environmentally aware today than ever before. I don't think we are going to buy this 'puss inna bag'.

Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and natural resource manager. Email feedback to