THERE are ancient stories of the oral and written traditions which have sought to express valuable lessons to humanity through the ages, but which we, in our modern era, treat with scant regard, assuming the superiority of our modern and contemporary formulations.
In this regard, there is an ancient story contained in the biblical tradition to which I have found myself returning in recent days in order to help me process a current development in the life of our nation.
In the Book of Genesis chapter 25, there is recorded the story of two brothers who were constantly in conflict with each other from birth. This conflict gained momentum one eventful day over a bowl of stew. The younger brother had prepared for himself a meal of stew while his older brother was off in the field. When the older brother returned home famished after his day's activities, he sought to engage his brother's generosity by asking for a bowl of that stew. Seeing the possibility of the leverage which this presented in face of his brother's need, the younger brother decided to play hardball. He refused the request, and remained unresponsive.
As the pangs of hunger seized the older brother, the younger brother decided to make his move for the kill. He indicated that his older brother would need to surrender his birthright, and all the attendant rights and privileges which went with that status, as the price for the bowl of stew. Yielding to his hunger and the demands of his brother, he rationalised the situation by saying to himself: "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?"
As if to ensure that he signed the dotted lines to that agreement, the younger brother requested that the older one swear to the commitment he had made. No doubt, this involved the invocation of the divine witness, and the laying on the table of any sense of integrity which he possessed in honouring his word.
With that, the stew was forthcoming, embellished with bread, which was not even a part of the initial request. He partook of the same and experienced the relief which comes from the immediacy of the pangs of hunger being relieved.
What is most interesting, however, is the way in which the experience impacted his sense of selfhood as the meal settled in his stomach. The text tells us that he "despised his birthright". Clearly, here is testimony to the way in which the most basic of human needs being satisfied, with ultimate value being given to the satisfaction of this need, leads to the surrender of the possibilities of life which the future holds for the individual, and a consequent overwhelming sense of self-contempt. Is there then something about the human person which is sacred and which cannot be sacrificed for any price?
Our nation is currently in the most critical period it has ever faced. The economic indicators are dismal, the unemployment figures are at a disturbingly high level, and there is a high level of hopelessness and despair among many. While the entire nation is challenged concerning the way forward, the Government of the day has a primary responsibility for developing strategies for alleviating the situation and placing the nation on a path to growth. A major strategy has to be the attraction of investment capital from overseas which can provide employment and increase the nation's productive capacity.
Unfortunately, given our nation's situation, there is no rush of investors knocking at our doors, even as some of our traditional partners and sources of investment are dealing with their own domestic problems or engaging other nations of the world in which there are more strategic benefits to be gained. In this regard, China has become for us, as it is becoming for many developing nations, our "knight in shining armour".
Enter then the visit of Prime Minister Simpson Miller to China, and the negotiation of a deal with the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) to construct a transshipment port in the Portland Bight/Goat Islands area, and which has now sparked a public debate which can become very divisive.
On the one hand there are those who have approached things from the perspective of the possibilities which this project offers for investment, employment, and for contributing to the nation's Gross Domestic Product. Those who support this position argue that the Government should proceed with this negotiation with alacrity and have the deal concluded at an early date, given the deadline for readiness for the opening of the expanded Panama Canal.
Equally strident are those who stand opposed to the project, primarily on the basis of concerns regarding its impact on the environment, while there are those who raise questions regarding the extent of the benefits to be derived, given the experience of the influx of Chinese workers on projects funded from China at the expense of Jamaican workers. A position not as widely expressed has to do with the issue of sovereignty, given the fact that the area to be taken over by the Chinese would be treated as a restricted area, as is done with embassies.
People with an environmental concern have often been treated by some as a fringe element whose intention is primarily obstructionist. I believe that experience has demonstrated that the concerns expressed by this group have been valid in relation to many of the issues raised about developmental projects. Those who have joined this group have indicated that the proposed development of the Goat Islands area would not only be a disaster, but an act of violation of the very laws which the Government has passed regarding the protection of that area, as well as international treaties to which the Government of Jamaica is a signatory.
Furthermore, they have argued that the way in which this project is being approached is yet another manifestation of the lack of transparency in governance, as it took a leak of information to make the nation aware of what was being negotiated on its behalf.
I have no doubt regarding the validity of the concerns of the environmentalists, but would like to take the issue further. Information I read some time ago indicated to me that the rate of deforestation is now the fastest in Jamaica, even as there are pious speeches telling persons why they should not cut down trees to make yam sticks, they should not build houses in certain locations because of the potential for erosion, and we must not throw away our plastics carelessly because of the damage they do to beaches and other parts of the environment.
How do we get citizens to accept platitudes regarding the care and protection of the environment when decisions are being taken at the level of governance which are in violation of these very principles, and without any serious engagement of the nation to indicate that the environmental factors are being given due consideration?
At the same time, it cannot go unnoticed that this major project, with its potential impact on the environment, is being undertaken while another major project with similar consequences for the environment is still on the table in relation to the Cockpit Country. One of the lessons we must take seriously is the fact that we cannot predict all of the consequences of our interference with the environment. We have as a clear example the consequences to Caribbean Terrace Housing Estate and the Palisadoes Road, when sand is mined freely from the rivers coming from the hills of St Thomas.
At a very personal level, I have my reservations regarding the benefits of bauxite mining and whether there has been any serious consideration by the various governments on what have been the long-term effects on this form of mining on the environment. Are the farmers who have been left with mined-out land been heard regarding the productivity of the surface soil with which they have been left? Are we satisfied that the ground water has not been seriously compromised by effluent from alumina production?
Has any branch of government undertaken any long-term study of the health factors related to persons who live within a certain radius of those plants which process alumina? Like many Jamaicans, I have a measure of scepticism regarding the reliability and integrity of some of the reports coming from government-related environmental agencies.
There is absolutely no question that the Government is in an unenviable position in terms of finding and attracting the kinds of investment which will have the significant impact on the economy which the nation needs at this time. At the same time, we must determine what defines us as a nation, what are the things that constitute our birthright and are therefore sacred, versus those things which are optional extras and which are dispensable. In making that determination, we must understand that birthright is not just a matter for this generation but for those to come.
If we do not make this kind of determination for ourselves, and given the extent of our need, others shall see our vulnerability and go for the kill. We already know from local experience that whenever the Government has found it necessary to dispose of public assets, many of our local entrepreneurs have come to the table as those coming for a "fire sale", and have often been successful in their bid.
We are prone to blame external agencies for our problems, the International Monetary Fund having had its full share. It is easy to transfer this to the Chinese who now see our need and recognise that they have leverage to be used. What is necessary at this time in going forward is for our Government to have an ongoing discussion of a transparent nature with the nation, informing us about things which they hold as sacred to our birthright as a people, and how these things are to be engaged in taking us out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves. Because, in the long run, we may not only despise those who have satisfied our need but we may despise our very selves -- Government and people alike.
Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands