Which must come first, development or environmental protection?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

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Many in the construction industry, both private and public, feel strongly that environmental activists, supported by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), are bent on stifling Jamaica's economic development.

Those who feel this way are loathe to voice this publicly because protecting the natural environment of Jamaica is a national good and it is a PR nightmare to be critical of this goal. They argue that the “environmentalists” and NEPA have:

• Blocked some very good construction projects, some citing the fact that Goat Island never became the core of a logistics hub when there was nothing unique about the flora and fauna in this undeveloped area.

• Deprived the country and the people of that part of the country of a valuable, transformative development which would have provided desperately needed investment, infrastructure and employment.

They point to the need for environmentalists to focus on serious problems such as cleaning up Kingston Harbour, the world's seventh largest natural harbour now choked with pollution; the sporadic burning of the Riverton City dump and enforcing the ban on plastic bottles and bags.

• NEPA has served to delay construction projects and /or added considerable and at times unnecessary work, such as environmental impact assessments, in order to procure an environment permit. This can take over four to six months and add several million dollars to the project cost, and then it becomes a subjective judgement, such as how much mangrove to remove, if not all, to create a beach.

• Only projects of a certain size have to do environmental assessment studies while there is no policy for the numerous small projects which devastate beaches, hillside and watersheds. There is an absence of a national enforcement policy.

The other side of the argument is that NEPA and the environmentalists have to prevent permanent harmful impact to the natural environment and to protect the communities which pre-exist from adverse social and economic harm.

Nobody disagrees with the mission of the environmentalists and the necessary role of NEPA which, for the most part, it has done effectively if not always on a timely basis. This is particularly important in Jamaica because our environment is both extremely beautiful but fragile and subject to periodic natural disasters.

Moreover, as Jamaica is a developing country, there are many small, poor communities often illegally settled and which are not able to argue their own interests.

There is no activity of mankind which does not have some impact on the natural environment and some social economic impact on communities. Ideally, a construction project can actually enhance and protect the natural environment. In many instances, the social and economic benefits far outweigh the negative dislocation.

The answer is a viable, pragmatic policy agreed upon and implemented that must be based on a balance between development and protection of the environment and communities.


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