Burial ground worries

… JLP, PNP and others object to the use of 'prime' land for Santa Cruz cemetery

BY GARFIELD MYERS
Editor-at-Large
South Central Bureau
myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 14, 2018

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — A hunt for land to be used as a public cemetery close to this fast-growing town has been ongoing for many years.

Chairman of St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation and Mayor of Black River Derrick Sangster thought the solution was within reach in recent months, following an agreement that 40 acres of land at Gilnock, just east of Santa Cruz, originally targeted for bauxite mining would be used for the cemetery.

The land, partially under scrub but also occupied by farmers, is owned by the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI)and the National Land Agency (NLA).

It is located at the intersection of the Santa Cruz to Goshen main road at the turn-off to Braes River, within a few hundred metres of two funeral parlours — a factor considered ideal for the cemetery.

However, word came last week that there is strong opposition to any such cemetery at Gilnock. Locals who farm the land, the leadership of the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS) in St Elizabeth, and representatives of both the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) in St Elizabeth North Eastern told the Jamaica Observer that the municipal corporation needed to rethink and find another location.

Further, they argued during a meeting with the Sunday Observer at the proposed cemetery site, that the local authority had made a fundamental mistake by failing to consult with residents before deciding to press ahead with plans for the cemetery, though all agree is sorely needed.

“This is arable land. How can you be thinking of putting cemetery there?” asked Kayon Whyne, head of the JAS branch in St Elizabeth during a telephone conversation with the Sunday Observer. “I am really baffled. I don't think proper (research) and planning was put into this,” she added.

Denzil Williams and Dockery Lynch, who cultivate peanuts, cassava, corn and other crops at Gilnock, said their farm plots on the proposed cemetery site are their only livelihood.

“I have two kids in high school and is farming pay their school fees (expenses) … them along with me and my wife… so when they take it (land) to dump dead, what they leave us to do?” he asked.

Visibly frustrated, Sangster told journalists following the monthly meeting of the municipal corporation last Thursday that he was surprised by the objections. He pointed out that Santa Cruz has been in urgent need of a public cemetery given its rapid urbanisation and the need to move away from home burials. The Goshen cemetery, which had long taken up the slack, was now close to capacity he said.

In any case, he appeared to suggest that the decision to accept the 40 acres of land at Gilnock had been agreed by all political sides. Sangster said the move by the JBI/NLA to donate the land followed a tour by Cabinet Minister Daryl Vaz. The next step, he said, was for it to be surveyed and turned over to the municipality. Sangster revealed that 20 acres of mined-out bauxite lands, some distance south of the Santa Cruz to Goshen main road — first sought by former Black River mayor, the late Roger Clarke more than 20 years ago — was also being acquired for cemetery purposes.

Meeting with the Sunday Observer at the proposed cemetery site, Basil Waite, who is to replace current MP Evon Redman as the PNP's candidate for St Elizabeth North Eastern, his likely opponent Delroy Slowley representing the JLP, councillor Donovan Pagon (PNP) of Braes River Division, and Kirk Rodney (JLP) who is aspiring to challenge Pagon all 'sung from the same hymn book'.

They argued that the land slated for the cemetery is “fertile, arable” land much of which is being farmed and has been in agricultural production for decades. They say the “prime, front-page” land will be needed in the future to accommodate the eastward expansion of Santa Cruz; and that in any case, a proposed cemetery project should first be discussed with the community.

Waite added what seemed a critical discussion point. He argued that the “high water table” made the entire area in and around Santa Cruz, on the central plains of St Elizabeth, close to the Black River Morass unsuitable for a public cemetery.

“This entire area — the water table is high and there are active wells that are in use,” said Waite.

He argued that a public cemetery could lead to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents seeping into aquifers, which could result in “cancer popping up left, right, and centre and [to] people getting sick with no idea why they are ill, with no recourse”.

“Right now one of the major problems we have in this constituency is water resources and getting water to the different areas, and we are going to have to tap into these aquifers [around Santa Cruz]. So what we are setting up [by establishing a public cemetery at Gilnock] is to poison the entire population of these areas; or prevent us tapping these resources to get water to them,” said Waite.

“So it is more than just finding somewhere close to a funeral parlour to put a cemetery. It is a major developmental issue that we need to confront with our best minds, understanding that a cemetery is required at some point. But definitely, let us deal with the locations. Have we consulted with the various government agencies?”

Waite said quick research by him and checks with experts had confirmed that “there is no way this can pass muster if we are going to put the interests of the people at the centre of our discussions”.

He argued that Santa Cruz couldn't be expanded northwards because of the Black River Morass, so there were serious space limitations as planners contemplate growth in the years ahead. For that reason careful, development planning was a necessity.

“One of the things we need to stop and make sure of as we go forward is that there is proper development planning as it relates to commercial, residential, agricultural, and putting in the necessary infrastructure,” said Waite.

Slowley, who is among business leaders in Santa Cruz, said that the municipal corporation needed to explore all the options rather than use “prime” lands for cemetery purposes.

From a business perspective, Slowley said planners should consider the potential for residential and commercial expansion, fuelled by plans for expanded alumina production and a major industrial park by Chinese owners for JISCO Alpart at Nain, just a few miles away.

“Being a businessman also, [I recognise that] the town is expanding. From what is happening at JISCO Alpart, a lot of things are happening; there are a lot of options out there. And I would want to know that the options that are there that can add to business [are] explored,” he said.

“This (40-acre cemetery site) is like front-page, prime land … to just come and to dump a cemetery — no, not good enough. There needs to be some more discussions. There needs to be more consultations before this thing is decided on at such short notice,” he said.

“There are many farmers over there and they have had this for a number of years,” said Slowley, gesturing towards the targeted land.

“I am not averse to having a cemetery for the town; we need one. But at the same time there has to be other options. This is prime residential, prime commercial, prime agricultural property we looking at. So I say let us assess the options rather than jumping to this… rather than (displacing) farmers who have been occupying land for decades now. Let us come to the table to see what other options are there…,” he said.

Slowley pledged to consult with the JLP-led St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation, with a view to an amicable resolution.

Last Thursday Sangster downplayed the concerns about the water table being compromised or that the growth of Santa Cruz would be hampered by the proposed cemetery.

While he couldn't be absolutely certain, Sangster said he believed “investigations were done in terms of water table ...” He pointed out that in the case of the Goshen cemetery further east on the main road, it “could equally be argued that it is in an area where the water table could be high”, yet no concerns had ever been expressed.

Regarding urban expansion Sangster said: “In all practicality, I don't see Santa Cruz expanding out to Gilnock in terms of the town….” The Black River mayor noted that while some farmers were on the land, “I have not seen any massive farming there”.

He added: “In any event Jamaica Bauxite Institute/ National Land Agency own the land. They can determine whether they can make that land available (for a cemetery) and they have determined that.”

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