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Goat Islands: A mistake we must not make

Alfred SANGSTER

Monday, April 21, 2014    

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An agreement has been signed for a Chinese-initiated logistics hub to be developed on the Goat Islands. A forum at the UWI on November 10, 2013 unfortunately cast the development as a war between the environment and development. The battle lines have been drawn as the issue emerges as a critical one for Jamaica. This article reexamines the issues and postulates a win-win situation for Jamaica with the retention of the current multi-user arrangements for the Portland Bight with the development of the Kingston Harbour site as the hub.

The proposed development

China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) proposes to spend US$1.5 billion on the project and it has been confidently stated by the proponents of the scheme that some 10,000 jobs, with associated infrastructure — yet to be defined — will be generated. Dianna Macaulay has evoked the Access to Information Act to gain information on the proposal.

The environmental issues

The environmentalists have been attacked by trivialising the issue with comments like, "There are no lizards on the Goat Islands" (Professor Shirley). However the environmentalists envisage a home for this nearly extinct species on the islands. The significant value of the carbon credits of the area, quoted by the UN agency, has been dismissed as insignificant, and the resort to vulgar name-calling — That Screeching Environmentalist by Ronald Mason — of those that defend the Portland Bight should be rejected.

The present PNP Government made a covenant with the Jamaican people in passing, in 1999, legislation to create the Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA) as a national treasure. This covenant will be breached. And, it should also be noted that a further 2012 proposal to UNESCO, resubmitted in November 2013, for the Portland Bight area to be designated a Biosphere Reserve was subsequently stopped from implementation by Robert Pickersgill's Ministry of Water, Land, Environment, and Climate Change. This action was obviously intended to clear the way for the Chinese hub.

The Government has taken the Chinese bait and is moving ahead to make the area a large industrial site. The JLP Opposition, with their heads buried in the sand, has said we will wait on the environmental survey results. Both parties are guilty of breaching a covenant with the Jamaican people. It should be noted that the first scoping study — used to justify the action — was extensively criticised by some eight professional agencies. We must insist that the required environmental study is subject to open tender with the contractor general's involvement.

The Chinese in Jamaica

The Chinese have a long history of involvement in Jamaican life. This project moves in a new dimension in terms of both size and concept. A very successful project with the previous administration — JDIP — was well implemented. The Chinese rejection of the Kingston Harbour site for the Goat Islands on the basis that the site was too small is a bogus claim, as the size is no different from the Goat Islands, taking into account the additional land area planned beyond the shoreline. It reflects a clear desire to have an enclave on the islands and the development puts the Chinese as the new colonialists (imperialists). Such an enclave would have both sovereignty and constitutional implications for Jamaica and represents a new philosophical methodology of working in the country. This new view of the Chinese as colonialists in a country which has long memories of the legacies of colonialism is potentially dangerous for both parties. For the project can expect increasing opposition from all sectors of the society with the prospect of a legal case being brought on the matter. The project also goes against recognised national laws and international treaties. Consultation with eminent Chinese-Jamaicans, Howard Chin (JIE); Professor Anthony Chen (UWI), and others would be advisable in seeking guidance on the way forward. Also, turn to the former Kingston Harbour project. Money would be better spent, the hub objectives achieved with less expenditure, and a significant saving of time.

Location of the hub

Arguments in favour of the Kingston Harbour site start with the fact that the harbour exists already; all traffic methods are at hand or readily expanded; some hub-type projects and infrastructure already exist and can be expanded; the project could meet the urgency identified with the Panama Canal expansion; and the site is multi-billion-dollar valued and the Chinese offer of US$1.5 billion is minuscule in relation to the estimate of US$15 billion ultimately required for a truly international hub.

Partnership the way

A partnership with the private sector and the Chinese is very viable. The private sector can show two recent examples — New Kingston and Port Bustamante — as successfully implemented significant national projects. Local private sector companies can get together to form a local consortium which would be the core Jamaica component of the hub. This consortium would need creative and visionary leadership. Additional external funding would significantly enhance the project.

The local firms would become involved in the equity of the business and therefore there would be long-term commitment to the Jamaicanisation of the hub and port. The Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) going to bed with the Chinese project without the local equity participation is regrettable and unacceptable. We must not make the same mistake that we made with bauxite by merely selling the product without the ownership component in terms of business involvement.

This is a project which requires vision and faith in the future and a belief that Jamaica can partner successfully with the Chinese in this important development. Done this way it is an immediate growth project for the country.

Alfred Sangster is the former president of the University of Technology, Jamaica (formerly College of the Arts, Science and Technology) and also served as chairman of Jamaica Institute Management.

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