IT appears the United States do, in fact, have an active lease on Jamaican soil, but according to documentation obtained from the National Library of Jamaica yesterday, it's not on the Goat Islands.
The US may have a claim on 100 acres in Portland Ridge, Clarendon.
A January 10, 1961 press release with the heading 'Stage II of West Indies Bases Talks — Jamaica', which was issued by the Federal Information Service from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad — the capital of the then West Indies Federation — gave some details.
"The United States has agreed to release unconditionally to the Government of Jamaica all the areas totalling over 23,000 acres which were leased to it under the 1941 leased Naval and Air Bases Agreement, except for a small parcel of 100 acres, part of Portland Ridge, the precise site to be determined by survey," the document said.
The agreement was brokered between the United States of America, Jamaica, the United Kingdom and the West Indies, the parties which had concluded the fourth phase of the West Indies Bases Talks Stage II the previous December.
The exact boundaries of the 100 acres and the duration of that lease are not clear. The document hinted that those details were contained in the drafting instructions for the new agreement approved during the Stage II talks. However, a newspaper article published here on February 11, 1961, a day after the formal agreement was inked, said the US would retain Chaguaramas, Trinidad, and "small strategic areas on other islands" for a period of 17 years. This, however, was subject to defence needs and could be extended by mutual agreement.
Whether any extension has been actioned is still not clear, but the National Library of Jamaica says it has solicited assistance from the National Library of Trinidad and the Jamaica Archives to source copies of the final agreement itself.
According to the newspaper piece, the US had leased a total of 61,680 acres for 99 years under the Bases-for-Destroyers deal between Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The bases were purportedly for Panama Canal and Western hemisphere defence.
"Under the new agreement [of 1961], the United States will give up 80 per cent of the 61,680 acres it acquired on a 99-year lease in 1941," the article said. The lands it held on to in Trinidad were used as an anti-submarine base.
Speculation has surfaced in recent weeks — after it emerged that the Jamaican Government was considering a Chinese Government proposal for Goat Islands to become home to a trans-shipment port — that the US had an active lease on the cays, located just south of the Hellshire Hills in St Catherine. The Government of Jamaica, through the attorney general, rubbished the suggestion, branding it "bar talk".
Conservationists, including the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (CCAM) — which manages sections of Portland Bight -- and Jamaica Environment Trust have argued that Goat Islands are not suited for such large-scale port development, given that it houses fish sanctuaries, game reserves, endemic species, and falls within the larger Portland Bight Protected Area.
Further, they said the lack of consultation and dialogue with civil society on the proposed development is contrary to the terms of the recently inked Partnership for Jamaica Agreement.
Reacting to the news yesterday, executive director of CCAM Ingrid Parchment told the Jamaica Observer that it was "all very interesting".
"I know there are two leases on Portland Ridge — one by the PWD Gun Club and the other by Jackson Bay Gun Club -- but when you look at the map you realise that there is a bit of land between the two and another piece to the side that are not leased to anyone," she said, adding that things now seemed to be adding up.
For Peter Espeut, former head of CCAM who led the negotiations for the creation of the Portland Bight Protected Area in 1999, the Game Sanctuary around Galleon Harbour in 2004, and the Galleon Harbour Fish Sanctuary in 2010, this changes nothing.
"Our objection to the project is not based on the fact that the Americans have or had a lease on Goat Islands. It's that Government's way of going about the project is not in line with environmental standards, and it is certainly not in keeping with our partnership agreement," Espeut said.
Added Parchment: "I really want to emphasise, that while Goat Islands is the target area [for siting the port], we have to focus on the entire protected area."
According to the Portland Bight Heritage Survey by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (June 2002), those 23,000 acres initially leased included property stretching from Port Royal in Kingston to Williamsfield in Manchester.