Columns

We have deliberately failed to protect our watershed areas

WIGNALL’S WORLD

MARK WIGNALL

Sunday, August 03, 2014    

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IN the early 1950s, when three American companies — Reynolds, Alcan, Kaiser — came to Jamaica to set up operations in bauxite mining, my father, then in his early 30s, secured a job as a master electrician with the Reynolds operation in St Ann.

As a result, he and my mother packed up their small family and moved from Rockfort to Moneague. Years later, when my sister Rosie (early reader, bright, precocious) passed the Common Entrance, Daddy packed up the family again and moved to Newark Avenue, off Waltham Park Road, to facilitate my 'big sister'. Daddy then bought himself a motorcycle to make his early morning trips to his job in Claremont, St Ann.

When we lived in the bustling little town of Moneague all traffic heading for Ocho Rios and other areas of the north coast had to pass through that little town. It had its market, police station, grocery shops, churches, bars, and a real tavern — the type that could accommodate people who desired overnight lodging. Commerce was alive and well!

While we lived in Moneague I attended an infant school run by the very strict Miss Winnifred Wallace, who some time later married and made the name-change to Campbell. Mrs Campbell is obviously now of very senior age and still living at her home in Moneague with the word "Monticello" carved out on the gate.

For a short but most glorious time in the late 1950s I lived with Miss Wallace, and then with her parents in the deep rural district of Clapham, just a mile or so outside of Moneague.

Those were quite simple days, and many people simply flowed with the frequency of the times. Some took the opportunity to answer the call for the rebuilding of Britain after the horrors of Hitler's expansionist ideals and World War II and found employment abroad.

The streets were lined with stone provided by women who sat by the roadway with stone hammers pounding away at rocks to make the top covering for many roadways. Some were rolled by steam rollers, while others relied on time to settle the stone.

There was no electric lighting, only the moon by night, kerosene lamps and the fear of 'duppies'. There was no running water. When I attended Clapham Primary School, nearby was a tank with a fairly wide paved catchment. Whenever the rains failed to come as expected, and the community tank ran dry, and drums holding rain runoff from rooftops became empty, people made the trip to Riverhead, where we would fetch water from Bluehole.

To us, as kids, Bluehole was simply this bottomless hole of water. It came out of the ground and formed the source of the Rio Hoe and the Moneague Lake. Chief means of transporting the water? Mainly women skilfully balancing up to five gallons of water in a bucket and using something called a 'cotta' to form the buffer between the top of the head and the underside of the heavy load. Then, of course, there was the perennial donkey.

No house was complete without the trusted donkey. A man on a Saturday night would go to "Big Shop" to a bar to "tek him waters", would get drunk, have his friends load him on the donkey's back, and with one slap on the rear end the donkey would head for home with the well-juiced-up rider simply there along for the ride, but not in control.

I can remember just before I left Clapham to attend Jones Town Primary, the water from Bluehole was just the most pure and sweetest form of freshness I had ever tasted.

From fresh water to a poisoned space

In 1976 I returned to Clapham as a grown man, 26 years old. Then a very unemotional man, the revisit was quite emotional for me, especially as 'Miss Eva' said, "Is likkle Markie dis? Poor likkle ting, mek mi hug yuh up." As I tried to do what we all do in such situations, I set out to retrace every single step of every bit of ground that I could remember ever having trod on.

On the way back, I stopped at the beautifully fearful Bluehole. As I dipped my hand in the water I noticed that there were not many people around. There was the absence of boys swimming and diving. A woman close by saw me and said: "Yuh know seh fish start come back in it." I questioned her.

"A long time now wi can't drink di water. It bitter." I began my investigations, which were all too obvious at the outset. The remains of bauxite mining, the red mud, was stored in a huge lake at Mount Rosser. The caustic soda in the mud had seeped in the huge aquifer underneath the mountain. Bluehole was simply an outlet from that aquifer, and in the years that the bauxite companies tore up the earth and provided jobs for hundreds, possibly thousands of Jamaicans, we were paying the price for that.

The huge aquifier at Mount Rosser had the chemical leeched into its storage and many people simply had to grin — well, maybe not so much grinning — and bear it, because they were powerless to change what was happening.

It is likely that the leeching has ceased with time, and Bluehole was returning to its sweet freshness again. But, it is more than possible that, in making the decision to situate the red mud lake at Mount Rosser, engineers and geologists would have known of the consequences. Maybe some concluded that since they didn't have to live beside 'those people' it was OK for them to make the decision.

Then again, maybe someone simply sold out our water future.

It is my understanding that some time in the early 1970s, before Michael Manley embarked on his improperly thought-out socio-political experimentations — he, the puppeteer, we the puppets — the Mona reservoir was de-silted. It is also my understanding that as the huge piles of silt which were piled right alongside the structure were awaiting removal by trucks, heavy rains came and washed the silt back into the water.

I am certain that if that in fact did happen, men had to be paid for the initial de-silting. And, who knows, maybe considering the haphazard type of politics which existed at the time, it is likely that truckers were paid to remove the silt.

Jamaicans have no tax-paying culture

There are some sociologists who believe that the Jamaican male's ease and propensity to impregnate many women can be linked to the long experience of slavery, where the male's 'siring' of many children was encouraged and placed high on the estate owner's agenda of items.

In other words, a 'social gene' operates in the present system which impels our men to jumping from female pillar to girlish post. We are both impelled towards it like automatons and imperiled at the same time. If the theory holds.

So, what is it that discourages us from paying taxes?

It ought to be obvious to most of us that we are in the grip of an International Monetary Fund agreement, and one key element of it that our Government must satisfy is that of tax reform. The other route, that of culling the civil service, is not one that matches with the People's National Party's core philosophical objectives.

The PNP does nor fire people, it hires, even just for the sake of creating another job.

If we care to remember, in the last administration, then Prime Minister Bruce Golding told us that he had run the names of 500 Jamaicans who were known to be high earners ($10m to $15M per year) through the tax system, and not even 10 per cent of the names came up.

Peter Phillips has no other option but to go aggressive on tax reform. And, of course, every opposition party secretly yearns for the party in power to do its dirty work for it. Which opposition party doesn't wish to return to power with a better tax collection system than obtained it its time at the bat? Plus, that transmits to more in the coffers.

The PNP has the choice of shrinking the size of government relative to the overall economy. It has chosen not to send home government employees and instead focus on growing the economy. But growing the economy can also mean a transfer of a part of the money in private hands to the coffers of the Government, even if not one extra widget is produced nationally.

In fact, the real economy can shrink while an aggressive tax policy could show an increase in Government's collections.

The well heeled can afford expensive accountants to shield earnings from the tax man. The poor simply don't give a damn because there is nothing to tax.

A mason said to me last week when I asked him how much tax was he willing to pay.

"Me? Nothing! After mi spend di whole day a mix cement and lay block, yuh ah tell me seh yuh waan tek my money? Den mi nah pay GCT aready? Dem nah get nuh more from me so dem can teif it an' gi dem fren!"

A few months ago when I asked a young businesswoman who was struggling on keeping her small business operation open if the $5,000 per month tax wasn't reasonable, she fumed.

"Is me and dem start it? Some month when mi can't even find di rent, dem help mi? Mi not giving dem none, and dem not getting anything. Argument done!"

My rich friends do not talk, and I do not ask them anything. It is a taboo subject and worse than enquiring about the married man who is probably closeted in the gay darkness.

Taxes in Jamaica are seen like the chicken and the egg. Do we clean up Government first, or do we do tax reform first? Which ought to come first? Many people believe that increased taxes will give the politicians more to steal.

I pointed out to a youngster that a country in Western Europe had one of the highest rate of taxes, close to 50 per cent. I told him that the streets were constantly clean, the garbage collected like clock work, the police are effective, violent crime is ridiculously low, and there is universal health care and education to university level with easy loans available for specialist areas. The people could see the return on their tax investments.

He said: "Is two week no garbage no collect, and wi can't see di councillor. Somebody get rape and yuh call police? Dem good fi come next week. Wha wi fi pay for? Tell mi, Missa Wignall!"

I said: "But if yuh don't pay the system can't get better." He shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.

I believe that it would need a gargantuan culture shift to get the population convinced that the government machinery would be prepared to return their collective investments in better service delivery, especially in our health centres and in education.

There is presently too healthy a mistrust of government to make tax reform a painless process. Many people are struggling with meeting basic daily needs. So in all this talk of tax reform they believe its refers to someone else, not them.

A poor woman approached me in a little two-stooler recently. She stepped into the place, sat on a stool and, as she stared down at two bits of printed material, she shook her head. I could see that they were booklists. I asked to see them then decided to use the Yellow Pages app on my phone to contact a well known bookshop. The shop didn't have two of the books, but one list added up to $12,000.

"Weh mi ago find dat?" she asked no one in particular. She has two young sons and the viability of their future is uncertain based on the trajectory that I have observed. I said to her: "You think yuh having problems? A man with two boys in high school just called me and said that next term's total cost for his two children including books is $150,000. You have no rich uncle who is going to die and leave $50 million for you and your children. My father forced education down our throats like medicine. We had no choice. Only education can save your children and make them walk with their heads held high. Find di money!"

The government has to find that extra tax dollar. The little man has to find his way through the economic darkness. Finding the middle ground is the difficult part.

observemark@gmail.com

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