THERE is a popular perception which prevails in various quarters of society that members of the clergy are at best naïve when it comes to the realities of life, and at worst simplistic in their understanding of life in the society.
This is particularly true when it comes to any discussion about the country's economic and social life as well as how its development is shaped. Confinement to matters spiritual or polite tolerance is the best accommodation for such well-intentioned but uninformed persons.
Last Tuesday, some members of the clergy took to the streets in Ocho Rios to demonstrate against a move by the Urban Development Corporation to end access to the falls and beach at what is known as Little Dunn's River.
The beach is used by the residents of Ocho Rios and others who desire to enjoy some of the resources of the country without having to deal with economic challenges. They have indicated that they are protesting against the fact that the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) has recently erected a fence, installed a padlocked gate, placed guards to prevent entry to the property by citizens, and have, with the assistance of the police and National Works Agency, erected 'No Parking' signs to ensure that access to the facility remains off limits.
Members of the public will recall that within recent weeks there have been stories carried in the media about persons charging a fee to overseas visitors who enter the property. Of course, the reports have been disputed by various persons, who claimed that the reports were exaggerated and that there was an attempt to commercialise the facility and exclude residents from the access which they had enjoyed up to that point.
For Jamaicans who have tried to get a response from any public sector agency in this country, it must be mind-boggling to see that within a matter of days of that news report, the UDC has gone beyond conceptual visioning to the point at which a spokesperson can begin to speak of specific plans in store for that property.
Like many Jamaicans, I heard the interview being conducted on one of our major radio stations involving the spokesperson from the UDC and the spokesperson from the clergy group, and I have serious reservations about what is being planned for that property.
It is clear that the falls and beach are not only being used by people who carry out illicit activities, but it is a place where citizens, such as members of that same clergy group, go to enjoy a swim on a daily basis. Having personal knowledge of some of the protesting pastors, I have no reason to doubt what has been shared regarding their use of the facility.
These members of the clergy are certainly not exceptional citizens who use the facility, but a mere sampling of Jamaicans who use this last remaining spot of the natural resource of Ocho Rios which citizens are allowed to enjoy without cost.
The only meaningful point which I have heard from the UDC spokesperson is the fact that unscrupulous persons are using the facility in ways that are not legal. The point is that every public facility in this country is now being used by persons to "put food on the table" and to "send the children to school". It is the story of our bus parks, and it is the story of our airports.
Indeed, not even private sector plazas and facilities escape itinerant vendors and people seeking to carry out some kind of illegitimate and unauthorised commercial activity because it is a place traversed by people they view as potential customers.
What then must the owners of these facilities do? Put fences around them, make them impregnable, or close them down? All around this country, order is brought to these facilities by the use of security guards and the implementation of policies and procedures for the containment of unacceptable behaviour.
The larger question is not whether it is beyond the capacity of the UDC to implement such policies and strategies, but whether those responsible for governance understand that the people of this country must not be excluded from its resources in the name of development and progress.
I spent two days in Negril last weekend and was able to go on a long morning walk along the length of that roadway. I was struck by the way in which development of that area is progressing at a rate that is restricting access to the ordinary Jamaican who would like to visit the beach with his or her family and not be in a position to pay entry fees.
I am fully aware that on this subject, repeated governments have been caught between the interests of business and the well-being and rights of citizens. Accordingly, there has been a rather fuzzy debate as to whether beaches constitute private property from which citizens can be excluded, or whether only the beachfront property is private property. There is no question that the fuzziness is not emanating from the citizenry.
During the month of August, I was involved in a conference in Barbados and was taken around by a clergyman. One of the things he pointed out to me as we drove around was the access points which Barbadian law requires, at specific intervals, for their citizens to go to the beach. It is no wonder that the tourists and the Barbadian citizens are constantly interacting in public places and on public transportation, unlike what prevails in our country.
We have no such requirement, and the development regarding this Little Dunn's River is bringing it to the fore. While we make the economic development of the country a priority at this time, and while leaders of Government and politicians as a whole profess their love for the poor people of this country, this development in Ocho Rios should be a time to stop and reflect on the nature of such development and its impact on our people.
It is no secret that most of our public facilities are subject to vandalism of one kind or another as citizens do not identify with the institutions and their well-being. Accordingly, our schools, post offices, clinics, and churches have become targets. Policies like that being pursued in Ocho Rios will only push our citizens further away from identification with social values and the perceived social good.
The authorities have not really heard the threat of citizens in the tourist centres that they do not feel that they are getting a fair deal and they will destroy what is there if they do not get a better deal. The craft vendors have said this repeatedly, and a few interventions have taken place to put out the fires, but the embers still remain.
Our political leaders who identify themselves as the spokespersons and representatives of the poor must remember that people cannot always be herded into obedient followership. The dons and area leaders with the associated gangs which have become a thorn in the flesh of this nation grew out of a political culture which could no longer meet their demands for ongoing loyalty.
Likewise, the people will not be silent forever if the leaders of this nation believe that they can keep them in a perpetual state of dependence. Should the poor not enjoy the benefits of this country, or are certain facilities reserved for tourists and well-off Jamaicans?
Perhaps some of the flippant responses which have been forthcoming regarding the Goat Islands will now be regurgitated, as the prospect for economic development of another project is considered primary.
Perhaps the protesting clergy of Ocho Rios may not be as naïve, crazy or as uninformed as some perceive them to be. And, perhaps the great teacher to whom these clergy have allegiance said it well in the past, and says it to this nation if we will but listen: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear".
-- Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands