Columns

Di Goat dun' kill, skin and heng up long, long time

BY PETER E T EDWARDS

Tuesday, March 04, 2014    

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THERE is an Igbo parable that reads: "The fly who has no one to advise it follows the corpse into the ground." This parable travelled from West African via the transatlantic slave trade and reemerged in Jamaica with versions such as: "Sweet-mout' fly follow coffin go a hole," and "Idle donkey follow cane-bump go a pound". I think this parable is a fitting analogy for the ongoing mystery surrounding the Goat Islands development. In this parable I submit that the fly represents the Government of Jamaica, and as a result of their unwillingness to entertain advice on other options for relocating the port development, they are, like "idle donkey", following the promise of sweet sugar cane, taking us along with them into debt and poverty, synonymous with an animal pound.

Project was fait accompli

As many persons suspected, and based on Gordon Shirley's recent comments to the media, it appears that plans to cut, level, fill and dredge the corals and soft bottom sediments surrounding the Goat Islands complex were indeed fait accompli. The Government has, therefore, won the waiting game. In other words "di goat dun kill, skin and heng up long long time".

At the time of writing this contribution, the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce had just completed a multi-day conference on the logistics hub. Hopefully some clarity comes out of these sessions because the public has been under-informed about the whole process. This is evident based on the recent poll showing that a high percentage of Jamaicans were not really sure what this logistics hub thing was about. The lack of transparency surrounding the development is probably why many persons keep confusing the Goat Islands development with the logistics hub. Let me be clear, as best as I can tell, given the limited information, the proposed China Harbour development is not the logistics hub. Whether China Harbour's project will fit into the wider logistics plan or not, we have no idea, but the hub is much more than Goat Islands.

No transparency

The lack of transparency surrounding this issue is very disappointing. As an environmental professional (which is not the same as an "environmentalist") it is hard to provide a balanced and analytical response to this issue in the absence of information. The argument that the discussions are proprietary is quite frankly a bucket of mannish water, because any large-scale development on public lands requires scrutiny. Broad scope of works of any large-scale project is not proprietary information.

One can understand where, in latter stages (i.e. post project approval) of similar projects, companies may be bidding on implementing components of the plan, thus requiring confidentiality. But not in this instance, at such a preliminary stage. This argument by the Government is akin to saying you cannot tell the public whether a project running through, say for example, a village, is going to be a bridge, a tunnel, an asphalt road, or a major waterway (canal). The public has a right to know the general scope of works of this project because the land (up to this point) still belongs to the people of Jamaica.

US$1.5b is cost not project benefit

Another disappointing aspect to the discussions surrounding this project is the less than genuine claim that large financial benefits will accrue to the Jamaican economy. In particular, I am referring to the repeated pronouncements that the project will bring US$1.5 billion into the economy. This is incorrect as this US$1.5b actually represents the cost of the project.

Costs that could include heavy equipment imports, renting special cranes and barges and the cost of importing skilled and perhaps unskilled labour. Misrepresenting this dollar amount as money flowing directly into the Jamaican economy is disingenuous. Many of the items previously described will have to be outsourced, probably to the home country of the major investor.

But back to my original point, without any information on the Goat Islands project there is no way to advise the public of reasonable alternatives. There is not enough information to conduct a proper cost-benefit analysis and no way to really assess the potential environmental and economic impacts. We are simply fed information that 10,000 jobs will be created and money will be crinkling (not jingling) in our pockets. This in my opinion is not an example of good governance or transparency. It smacks of a lack of a respect for the Jamaican people who, at minimum, deserve accurate information so they can make up their minds if this project is something they think will ultimately benefit the widest possible cross section of society.

We should draw any lessons learned from similar large infrastructure projects. If we ask the man in the street in Falmouth how the cruise ship pier has benefited him we may get a sense of what to expect from this new shiny carrot (or cane bump) being dangled in front of us.

Instead, I fear, like the idle donkey mentioned above, we are being led down the road and very soon the country might very well end up in the metaphorical animal pound of further debt.

Dr Peter E T Edwards is a Jamaican marine scientist, environmental economist and policy analyst. He currently works as a consultant for a US Federal ocean and coastal management agency.

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