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Let's have the logistics hub minus the coal

GARFIELD HIGGINS

Sunday, March 16, 2014    

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If people destroy something replaceable made by mankind, they are called vandals; if they destroy something irreplaceable made by God, they are called developers.

-- Joseph Wood Krutch

THE Goat Islands — big and little Goat Islands — unlike Goat Hill in St Mary, are no longer inhabited by feral or domestic goats. Some researchers say that the islands got their names because wild goats once lived there. If we are to accept the prognostication of Dr the Honourable Omar Davies, minister of transport and works, the islands are inhabited by "two likkle lizard".

Since I have never been to these islands, I sometimes wonder if our minister was talking about 'polly', green, common, ground, Iguanas or the almost universally feared 'croaker', whose nocturnal noises are said by some country folk to be a prediction of rain. Ahh! I might never know.

Immediately, however, is the concern that the Chinese will be using coal to generate electricity. No! The Chinese are not talking about the coal that our grandparents used sometimes as an alternative to kerosene stoves. This coal is a product that has been developed by processes of fossilisation underground over millions of years.

Unlike the coal granny would use, this type of coal emits tons of soot, smog and ash into the atmosphere, which then help to cause acid rain. No, you definitely can't use this type of coal to directly roast your yellow heart breadfruit either.

Some people in the Jamaican country parts would often use pimento or 'dog' wood to make what they call premium coal. Well, the Chinese, in an effort to appease the environmentalists in Jamaica, have promised that the coal that will be used at Goat Islands will be clean. This is like 'ole' time people telling us when we were young that a 'sensi' fowl's mouth would be cleaned during mango season. An oxymoron if there ever was one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "I cannot hear what you say because what you do speaks so loud." Action speaks louder than words, especially past actions.

The use of coal — clean or otherwise to generate electricity — will result in the destruction of the Arawak [or Taino] Jamaica 'land of wood and water' nomenclature, but even more immediate is the threat that a coal plant would present to living Jamaicans and indigenous flora and fauna.

The Chinese are great at many things, contrary to the old racist adage that Chinese 'only tink bout commerce', and Chinese are not good at football because every corner they get 'dem tun it inna shop'. The likelihood of China replacing America as the chief power-broker of the world in the next 15 years is very likely, especially given the strides that Cathay has made over the last 150 years.

Some even predict that the Chinese Yuan will replace the American dollar as the international reserve currency before the end of the next decade. They now have some of the best universities, physical, manufacturing and financial infrastructure, and miraculously have rewritten the political and economic textbooks by achieving a forced but seemingly workable marriage between capitalist economics and communist governmental rule.

That they have largely succeeded in GDP growth of between 10 and 12 per cent annually is a marker of their success, and they are a people who have stood the test of time. Like 'ole time' people say, they have lived to tell the tale.

That tale, however, is a horse of a different colour when it comes to care, protection and preservation of the environment. In fact, China has one of the worst environmental records in the world. Should we believe, as they have said, that they will take every care to protect the Jamaican environment when they have not protected theirs? Or, should we 'tek sleep and mark death'?

I think the latter. Some would have us believe, as Bob Marley sang, "Don't worry about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be alright."

Dr the Honourable Peter Phillips, minister of finance, in speaking at a town hall meeting put on by the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation recently, said that the country should be seeking to take advantage "of a gift bestowed by the Almighty, which is our geographic space". He noted that while "it is important to protect the environment, this must be weighed against the economic benefits that may be accrued from mega-projects".

The question is, which scale is Dr Phillips willing to use to do the weighing? Is he going to use the scale of economic benefits that could result in short-, medium- and long-term economic growth, and, of course, advantages for an upcoming local government and the biggie, the general elections in 2016? Or is he willing to use a scale that places a premium on the preservation of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil quality for generations to come?

Evidently, Dr Phillips agrees that there are tangible environmental concerns as regards the logistics hub, but he seems simultaneously to believe that the immediate economic benefits are weightier than long-term environmental issues.

His views seem to coincide with the Jamaican proverb that what drop off a head will drop 'pon' shoulder. But what kind and quality of shoulder will we have, or will the entire body become gangrenous if we accept Dr Phillips' recommendations?

According to CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) Diana McCaulay, if the Chinese are allowed to have it their way, the entire Jamaican body may well be invaded by gangrene. McCaulay said in an article published recently in this newspaper that "Coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels, so there are emissions of mercury, arsenic, ash, a long list of them, and it is also the main greenhouse gas; the main gas that causes global climate change."

The environmentalists would have us believe that the use of coal will mean many of our children will be born with cleft lips and palates, have continual 'running belly' if they make it beyond the delivery room, and breathe air unsuitable for John Crows. They would have us believe that the water in our taps will look like that in the Kingston Harbour.

The unfortunate reality is that it's not a far-fetched exaggeration. There are many cities in China where taking a breath or having a drink of water is a hugely unpleasant experience. Many experts predict that at the rate at which the Chinese are destroying their environment, China will be turned into an environmental dust bowl in a few years. The predictions are dire, according to China from the Inside. Nature | PBS ww.pbs.org/kqed/chinainside/nature/environment.html.

Water shortages will be a grave problem for China, especially northern China. Approximately two-thirds of the 661 cities suffer from water shortages now, and more cities will face this crisis in the future. The huge population and gigantic economic engine will suck rivers and lakes dry, foul wells, and lower groundwater tables. Pollution will make limited water useless and dangerous to human health in many areas.

Even after the very expensive South-to-North Water Diversion Project is finished, as projected, by 2050, there will still be many battles over the last drop of water. Due to heavy pollution and overfishing, China's vast oceans (three million square kilometres) may become empty as marine fisheries collapse.

Many countries in Central and South America are already worried that their way of life is in imminent danger as exemplified in an assessment by Jonathan Turley published online on March 28, 2013, headlined 'Ecuador to sell China more than three million hectares of pristine Amazonian rainforest for oil development'.

"We have long followed the horrific record of China on the environment," Mr Turley wrote. "The Chinese regime has continued to push for high production rates as the number of 'cancer villages' and lethal pollution rises across the country. This record has made China the worst environmental violator in the world. Now, greed has combined with power to make for what could be one of the greatest single environmental losses with China expanding its destructive record to Latin America.

"Ecuador has announced a plan to auction off more than three million hectares of pristine Amazonian rainforest to Chinese oil companies. The loss of such pristine areas (and unique species within it) will cause incalculable damage to feed China's insatiable demand for energy," he added.

While some of this might sound like Star Trek, it is not. If the Chinese have their way, Jamaica in 2030 might not be a place to live, work, raise families and do business. Can we take that risk? Answering that question is not a matter of Hobson's choice. It should be possible to have economic growth and sustainable environmental preservation.

So, while I and others welcome our Chinese friends, we are quick to tell them we are not Luddites, nor are we hewers of wood and drawers of water, we do not encourage and/or harbour any ill-will towards the Chinese, but we, as Jamaicans, wish for Jamaica to remain the 'Land of Wood and Water' for generations to come.

So let's have the logistics hub minus the use of coal to generate electricity for its operations. Let's take every precaution possible and necessary to ensure that our flora and fauna are protected for future generations.

If you look around the world, the countries with the best environmental practices are the wealthiest. There's a reason for that.

As Chevron CEO John S Watson is reported as saying: "If you're worried about where your next meal is going to come from or shelter over your head, your focus is on those things."

— Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Comments to higgins160@yahoo.com

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