Phillips demands Bernard Lodge sale reversal

Senior staff reporter

Saturday, March 16, 2019

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OPPOSITION Leader Dr Peter Phillips has demanded that the Government reverse the sale of the Bernard Lodge lands and open up the process for transparency, to include the input of 200 farmers affected by the development plan.

Phillips made the call in his contribution to the 2019/20 budget debate in the House of Representatives on Thursday, saying that the Opposition has received a request from the 200 farmers to take up their cause in Parliament.

Tensions have been high between the farmers and SCJ Holdings over notices for them to relocate. SCJ Holdings is a Government-owned land management company which supports various investments in agriculture, tourism, construction and other sectors, mainly by providing lands through sale, lease, or joint venture arrangements with investors.

“We are making a formal demand that the Government remove the roadblocks that have been put in place to deny the farmers access to their crops. They have crops on the land, allow them to take them off, and reverse the decision to transfer control of the property to a few without any open process. Invite the fullest participation of the partners in preparation of the new development plan,” the opposition leader insisted.

“For over a decade some 200 farmers, some with lease agreements, some who occupied lots with the knowledge of the National Land Agency, have been farming these lands. They are now being told that they will be removed to make way for a chosen few who will be the beneficiaries of a new Bernard Lodge development plan. The issues at Bernard Lodge raise profound questions of policy and procedure,” he stated.

Dr Phillips noted that the farmers were not included in the development plan, neither were the properties advertised as required by the National Land Policy. He questioned whether those divestment guidelines have been changed, and the basis on which the purchasers were selected.

“All the lands were sold before any land agreement has been formalised, and without any tender process,” he stated, noting that large portions of the land are to be used for housing.

Last March, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that Cabinet had approved the Bernard Lodge land use master plan for the development of a new town in the Bernard Lodge area of St Catherine. The lands have traditionally been used for agriculture and manufacturing.

The plan is to include 17,000 houses, commercial and industrial operations, schools, and other amenities. Cabinet recently approved a partnership between the Housing Agency of Jamaica and China Harbour Engineering Company to develop 1,600 housing units — comprising approximately 600 studio units and 1,000 one-bedroom houses at Bernard Lodge, beginning in the first quarter of this fiscal year.

Dr Phillips said the role of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) in the transactions should also be made transparent.

“Has there been a change in NEPA's position and on what basis?” he asked. “Because we still know that the foremost hydrologist in the country continues to object to it (the development). What is happening there appears to be a travesty. You cannot create an economy that is more inclusive by marginalising innovative people from the mainstream of economic life. The farmers are the very people that ought to be encouraged if you want to reach your growth target.”

Phillips also said the Government should also make public the names of those who these prime lands were sold to, and the conditions of the transaction.

He argued that taxpayers' money have contributed to the extensive irrigation infrastructure now in place at Bernard Lodge, stemming from a 1980s project which was aimed at getting Jamaica into winter vegetable production.

“This infrastructure is now valued at over tens of billions of dollars. The irrigation wells were rehabilitated a few years ago at a cost of $6 billion, which was borne by Jamaican taxpayers,” he told the House.

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