Oh island in the sun


Monday, June 30, 2014

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AS I looked at the humble folk sitting expectantly under that tent in Shrewsbury, Westmoreland, last Thursday, the words of Harry Belafonte rang in my head: "This is my island in the sun/ Where my people have toiled since time began."

They were the parish's 84 beneficiaries of the islandwide Sugar Barracks Relocation Programme, brainchild of that dedicated Jamaican, Ambassador Derrick Heaven, and funded by the European Union. This relocation resulted from the divestment of Government sugar holdings in recent years.

The first recipient was the wheelchair-bound 58-year-old Ercelyn Black, a former field supervisor at Frome Estate. Her new home in Barham is modified for easy access. "What I am experiencing now is a wonderful thing," she told a reporter. "I can move around comfortably... Hurricane a come, I don't have to worry."

The audience broke into applause when old men in humble garb put on a special swagger as they went forward to accept their certificates for housing. We looked out at rows of beautifully painted homes, complete with modern amenities provided at no cost to the workers.

"We believe the transformation of the sugar sector would have failed if there was no focus on addressing the needs of the people affected by the restructuring of the industry and showing gratitude to those whose work have, over the years, allowed the sugar industry to thrive," said Chargé d'Affaires of the European Union in Jamaica, Jesús Orús Báguena.

His organisation has disbursed close to $14 billion to fund not only housing, but also economic diversification and environmental sustainability in sugar-dependent areas.

The event was put in historical context by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller: "Our ancestors ... the workers at Frome Sugar Estate, played a significant role in our freedom," she said as she harked back to the sugar workers' strike of 1938 which heralded the rise of trade unionism and the birth of our modern political movement. She was frank in admitting that the issue of housing had still not been fully addressed by her Government.

Some years ago, the Economist newspaper carried a cover feature on home ownership, and the positive impact it had on a country's economy. The report showed that homeowners continue to spend to maintain and improve their properties, thus boosting economies.

I remember handling the groundbreaking ceremony for those Portmore quads which were described as 'matchboxes'. Now, many of them are unrecognisable, having been transformed by ambitious, house- proud Jamaicans.

This column has spoken of the terrible conditions under which our poor are living, including some hotel workers who have migrated to the fringes of resort areas to find employment. There are so many strong leaders in the field of housing and tourism — could we hear their ideas on rolling out a cohesive housing plan?

Clearly there are many compelling reasons why our politicians of both parties should be coming together to address housing — not just new building starts, but also the preservation of homes for the elderly whose spending power is shrinking. In the meanwhile, kudos to the EU, JSIF, Ministry of Housing PATH housing programme and Food For the Poor. May the joy we see in the new homeowners motivate our political representatives to do more to take their constituents out of their hovels, not just to vote on election day, but for good.

Ms Largarde's respectful presentation

I appreciate the respectful and teacherly presentation made by IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde last Friday at the UWI. Clearly this is a different IMF than the one I heard Harry Belafonte describe as 'Mephistopheles' during a concert held at Aboukir in St Ann in the eighties.

We revelled in her description of Jamaica: "A country whose culture has truly captivated the globe... It is so rare to find so much talent packed into such a small space. Jamaica is home to the world's fastest sprinters — Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. It is home to some of the world's most soulful musicians, the birthplace of reggae and Bob Marley, as well as Tessanne, the new singing sensation. It is home to some of the world's most gifted writers — think of the lyricism of Claude McKay and Louise Bennett."

In spite of the richness of our sports and culture, Ms Lagarde stated, "In Jamaica, the poverty rate doubled to 17 per cent." We see the result of this on television news every night — the collapsing house on Pink Lane in downtown Kingston, the jagged zinc fences around inner-city communities where the network of roads will dumbfound the most intelligence-driven crime fighter.

"With the doors of opportunity barred for so many, the result is disengagement and disenchantment," warned the IMF head. "Exclusion creates an inflammatory cocktail of crime and insecurity, and a steady deterioration in the quality of life."

However, she referred to the "global new normal" that we believe offers Jamaica a cornucopia of opportunities. As I mentioned in a recent column, there is only one Jamaica — a rich combo of location, language, racial harmony and a strong democratic system.

We sit at the crossroads of the Americas, and thousands of expatriates have come here and decided to make Jamaica their home, bringing their entrepreneurial spirit with them. We got a great taste of that 'global new normal' when our own Club Kingston VIP Lounge at the Norman Manley International Airport was voted World Number One by thousands of well-travelled Priority Pass Customers.

If we had more leaders like our Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips who do their work in the best interest of their country, and do not allow themselves to be distracted by political temptations, we could make significant strides. This 'orange or green Kool-Aid' that the tribalists drink is poisoning their perspective.

Leaders must temper their political rhetoric so it doesn't turn their followers into depraved desperadoes. Instead, they should be empowering their constituents to take charge of their lives instead of being so persistently dependent on the sops they throw at them.

Ms Lagarde expressed strong support for poverty reduction programmes, and we are hoping that the Economic Oversight Committee (EPOC) led by Richard Byles will lead to some epic changes in how those 'scarce benefits and spoils' are distributed. With the media they should keep a keen eye on who are putting politics ahead of people.

Why the solar shyness?

As we were challenged by Ms Lagarde to find alternative energy solutions, we read in the UK Guardian that two countries in temperate zones — the UK and Germany — "have broken records for generating solar electricity in the last few weeks". The other countries that are moving fast with solar are Spain, China, the US and Canada.

Yet, a study conducted by Sofos Jamaica, a part of the Spanish Sofos Group, showed that Jamaica is a prime location for sourcing energy from the sun. Last month they unveiled the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) power plant in Jamaica to date, at the Grand Palladium Resort and Spa in Hanover. The facility is expected to save over $80 million in energy cost per year, which should cover the cost of the US$3.4 million investment after four years.

What incentives are being offered to encourage such important initiatives? Even new Food For the Poor houses now come with solar panels that give their occupants 12 hours of light each night. If we do not tackle this energy monster, we will never be able to get out of this economic rut. We have the means —now let us show the will.






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