It became clearer last week that the proposed logistics hub to be constructed by a Chinese firm will be based on the Goat Islands in the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA).
Transport, Works and Housing Minister Dr Omar Davies revealed in the House of Representatives Tuesday that China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) had considered and rejected alternative sites long before they were suggested by environmentalists and others who are yet to be convinced that the expected environmental costs will be outweighed by economic benefits.
CHEC did a "tremendous amount of technical work", which included analysing tidal movement and depth of the sea, and ruled out Jackson Bay and Port Esquivel as possible sites for the project, according to press reports of the minister's statement.
While signalling that location of the project was a settled matter, the minister has been at pains to point out that the project was not a done deal.
This would depend on the details to be hammered out between CHEC and the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ), which is leading the negotiations on behalf of the Government; sign-off by Cabinet; and a favourable environmental impact assessment.
In a radio interview (Nationwide Wednesday morning), the minister suggested that the deal could be off if the numbers didn't add up to Government expectations.
In preparation for this column, I spoke with Minister Davies Thursday; unsurprisingly, he refused to be drawn as to what might be a deal breaker or to indicate the expected economic outcomes. However, he was quite upbeat that the Chinese investment would be the energy to drive the sluggish economy, and so the Government was working hard to make the deal happen.
And former principal of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Professor Gordon Shirley, who took over as chairman of the Port Authority November 1, has given his full support to the transshipment/logistics project proposed for the Goat Islands, because of the economic development opportunities involved, the Jamaica Observer reported Thursday.
"I think we have to, as Jamaicans, seize any opportunities that are presented to us of this magnitude, and explore them as fully as possible," Shirley told a press briefing at the PAJ's downtown Kingston head office, to explain the findings of the environmental management scoping study of the Portland Bight Area, including the Goat Islands, done on behalf of the Authority.
When Chinese interest in building a logistics hub in Jamaica emerged some years ago, it was in the context of government economic strategy to transform the Kingston port into a modern transhipment hub to take advantage of opportunities expected to flow from the expansion of the Panama Canal.
Then, it was indicated that the facility would be located at Fort Augusta, and plans were put in place to relocate prisoners from that correctional facility.
Subsequently, the country was told that Fort Augusta was too small for the scale of project the Chinese planned to undertake and alternative sites were being looked at. Various sites along the St Catherine-Clarendon coastline seemed to be under consideration.
Then, almost out of nowhere, Robert Pickersgill, minister of water, environment and climate change -- while on an official trip with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to China in August -- let slip that the new preferred location for the port facility was the Goat Islands.
Only problem was that the islands are part of the PBPA, thus letting off howls of protest and forcing the Government to react rather than leading the port development agenda.
In the face of the opposition, Dr Davies commissioned a scoping study, which formed the basis of his statement in Parliament Tuesday. A summary of the study has been posted on the PAJ website www.portjam.com.
The study noted that the PBPA is recognised as a "multiple-use national park zoned for multiple activities on sustainable basis". Primary economic activities taking place in the PBPA include electricity generation, fisheries, port and shipping, aquaculture, limestone mining, ethanol production, and animal feed production.
So the issue is not whether industrial activity can take place in the area. That's already happening. It's whether it should be on the Goat Islands and whether the impact on marine and plant life will be irreparable. And if so, is that an acceptable price for development?
"There are several rare, threatened, and endangered species of animals and plants found in the PBPA," according to the environmental scoping study. It noted that there are three fish sanctuaries in the PBPA, but only one sanctuary, Galleon Bay, which is already experiencing naturally degraded performance, is likely to be impacted by the proposed project.
There is dispute about the impact on fishing. Environmentalists have estimated that the livelihood of 4,000-4,500 fishers will be impacted by the project, while the PAJ study noted that "2,585 fishers are registered with the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries" as operating from Rocky Point or Old Harbour, representing approximately 14 per cent of the total across the island.
Further, "The majority of these fishers make their catch from Pedro Cays because the PBPA is in a degraded condition from dynamiting and overfishing."
Accommodating business confidentiality and transparency
Part of the difficulty in getting a handle on the issues is that the public knows very little about the Chinese plans.
We have been told that the investment will be in the region of US$1.5 billion; that it will create the transshipment facility at Goat Islands and a major industrial manufacturing and distribution on-shore facility. The two will be linked by a causeway.
What of the economic benefits to Jamaica from this investment? Will there be opportunities for employment of Jamaicans? And what kind of jobs will be available to Jamaicans? How do we build in a training component to ensure that Jamaicans are employable rather than being told there are no suitably qualified Jamaicans?
There are more fundamental issues about ownership of the islands. Will it be leasehold or freehold? Will Jamaica exercise sovereignty over the islands in areas like taxes, customs duties, national security?
Will it be a foreign enclave as was the case in World War Two, when a US naval base was located on Little Goat Island, courtesy of an arrangement between the US and the British colonial administration? "In that development, an airstrip, barracks, power plant, fuel storage facilities and a water treatment system were installed on the site." Little Goat Island has been there before.
Going forward, the plan is for CHEC and the Port Authority to conclude a framework agreement by the end of January 2014. This will then go to Cabinet for approval. Assuming a green light from the Cabinet, the project will be submitted to the National Environment and Planning Agency to plan an environmental impact assessment to be paid for by the investor.
Why wait until the framework agreement has been finalised and approved by Cabinet before doing the EIA? Dr Davies disagreed with my suggestion that this was a case of putting the cart before the horse or that the EIA will simply rubber-stamp whatever Cabinet agrees. We'll see.
Given the state of the Jamaican economy and everything we know about the agreement with the IMF, I don't believe any well-thinking Jamaican would willy-nilly oppose an investment of this kind.
Question is whether the consultations expected in the months ahead will provide an opportunity for these and other relevant questions to be answered. Transparency is not just a word; it's a sometimes inconvenient requirement of good governance that cannot be trampled by legitimate issues of business confidentiality.
The least we can insist on is realistic and technically sound environment mitigation strategies to reverse the degradation already in evidence in the PBPA. In the words of the minister, "One goal is to get the Chinese to put up the money to protect existing sanctuaries and create new ones."