Wanted: Independence for NEPA
Environmental protection may benefit from a completely independent body.

In looking at the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and its role as an environmental protection agency, the Jamaica Observer reached out to NEPA itself, to the World Bank which has strong environmental programmes in the Caribbean in which it invests, to the United Nations Environment Protection (UNEP) programme, to the Jamaica Environment Trust and the office of the auditor general.

Our aim was to discover: What is the true role of NEPA — is it to create jobs and support investments or to protect the environment, and what are the constraints affecting its ability to carrying out its role?

In review, we found that NEPA is obliged to do all of the above and must therefore work where there are breaches or challenges to ensure investments are protected. The Government of Jamaica desires the agency to protect investments, while at the same time manage a large environmental mandate though an under-resourced and under-funded network.

We addressed the peculiar conflict of an environmental agency being tasked to protect the environment even while fostering the Government's job creation mandate because it falls under Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation (MEGJC).

We suggested that in the same way in which the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) had gained its independence, NEPA would also benefit from a similar process.

The Bank of Jamaica (Amendment) Act, 2020 took effect in April 2021, allowing the central bank to operate independently of the Ministry of Finance. Under the new law, the Government will no longer have the power to issue directions on monetary policy and, as such, the BOJ will have operational independence in the implementation of policy.

We therefore turned to several independent bodies to ask: Can you kindly respond to the statement that NEPA appears to be a rubber stamp for the MEGJC and has failed in meeting national goals of environmental protection?

We also asked: Please also respond to the statement that NEPA needs legislative ring fencing in order to perform independently and without political influence.

We added: Please state your case in favour of NEPA meeting planned objectives in environmental protection by both local and global standards.

The only direct response was gained from the Jamaica Environmental Trust whose answers were outlined in the article on the need for reform.

The auditor general pointed to the two reports which were done on the body, one published in 2012 and the other in 2020. Questions were not directly addressed.

NEPA, responding through its communication unit, said, "The agency does not have a response to this inquiry."

UNEP from its regional office replied: "For some of the questions you may reach out to the Jamaican authorities who are best placed to address them." UNEP, however, added a glowing report on its (UNEP) programmes in the island.

The World Bank responded: "We have not developed an assessment of the environmental protection programme in Jamaica either. We do not have ongoing projects with NEPA, and as a result are not in a position to comment on the questions raised by you."

The best outline of the frustrations faced by NEPA came from its latest strategic management report which was discussed in our feature, and gave insight into management's perspective on politics and other stressors.

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