Keep out?
Public access of Jamaicans to the patrimony
We all know where the best beaches are located in this country.

It was most refreshing to see an article carried by The Gleaner of Saturday, November 26, 2022, in which the leader of the parliamentary Opposition was reported to be concerned about public access to beaches. While it is true that politicians are known to have visions of the nature of the desired transformation of our Jamaican society while they are in the Opposition, Mark Golding is here being quite strident in expressing what has been a growing concern for many Jamaicans, but which has not been addressed by both political parties while they constituted the Government of the day.

In this article Golding is making a campaign promise as to what a Government led by him would do if and when returned to power. While I would not venture to comment on his fortunes in that regard, I do take seriously the tenor of the feelings of many Jamaicans which he has captured in stating the nature of our exclusion from the beaches of the land, the emotions it is generating among our people, and the potential for disruption if those who administer, promote, and have investments in the hospitality industry do not pay attention to the writing on the wall.

For those who never saw the article, or who have glossed over it, perhaps treating it as political gibberish or partisan political posturing, I want to lift up the pertinent section of that article.

"Opposition leader and People's National Party (PNP) President Mark Golding has expressed concern about how the tourism product continues to be developed without ensuring that Jamaicans will maintain access to the island's beaches.

"Golding, who toured a section of [north-eastern] St Ann recently, spoke to The Gleaner about the issue and expressed the hope that common ground could be found that sees Jamaicans being able to enjoy the nation's beaches as before.

" 'And so we've reached a situation now where it's a source of a lot of anger and frustration, because a lot of the beach that people in former times were able to enjoy and use are no longer accessible to them, and we've committed to doing something about that when we're next in Government.' "

It is interesting that, while both political parties tout the right of access to land by citizens of this country when it relates to agriculture and housing, as part of their patrimony, patrimony never seems to arise in relation to beaches.

Beaches are not just a matter of ownership for private individuals and institutions that have pedigree by virtue of descent or wealth, but constitute a communal natural resource. Beaches refer not to the structures, facilities, and services erected on beachfront land, but can be understood as "a narrow strip of land separating a body of water from inland areas. Beaches are usually made of sand, tiny grains of rocks and minerals that have been worn down by constant pounding by wind and waves", and is therefore not a reference to structures and facilities which may adorn the beachfront.

A conflict has been brewing over the years, as cited by Golding, but has been skirted by various governments. And, even now as more hotels are being built, further denying access to some of the few remaining spots accessible to locals, whether as fishermen or beach-goers, with fencing, the disgruntlement increases.

In more recent days, Professor Carolyn Cooper has brought to public light the issue of the development of Rockfort Mineral Bath — a facility that has been open to the masses of Jamaicans as a national resource and which access has been afforded by the imposition of a minimal charge to assist with the maintenance of the facility. As is the case with our beaches, it appears that there is a plan brewing to privatise the facility. As the professor points out, privatising these public facilities has been the route to making these facilities inaccessible to the masses of people because of the admission fees that are imposed, facilitating the privileged who can afford such costs, while enriching the management. And while there are those who love to advance the notion that the Government does not have the resources to maintain these facilities, they seem to forget that citizens pay taxes. And, while it is never enough, there are some basic social facilities which must be maintained for the well-being and welfare of our people that can never be profit-making, including the provision of green spaces, public parks and beaches, as well as the provision of public bathroom facilities, if there is to be a modicum of civility among our population.

Travelling recently with a Jamaican who makes his living transporting people in the hospitality industry, it was quite disconcerting to hear how he speaks of the perception of some in the sector regarding what is happening to ordinary Jamaicans as it relates to access to doing business with tourists, and who is perceived to be the ones keeping them down, while they enjoy the benefits for themselves with dribblings going to the "small man".

Perhaps the political leaders need to understand that the citizens who come face to face with this exclusion have, and are expressing, a perception of the "big man" and "big business" as the ones who are responsible for the prevailing situation and the recipients of Government's attention. So it is, therefore, not enough to simply tout the size of the financial investment and the number of jobs that will follow from the development of these properties and the employment prospects, as important as those numbers may be.

In recent weeks I had the privilege to visit St Vincent and the Grenadines, which boast 32 islands and the countless number of beaches that accompany such a spread. As I toured the island of St Vincent, guided by a graduate in tourism from our own University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), and who operates his multifaceted business in the industry, I asked him concerning access to the beaches for citizens. He informed me that they were facing a problem with individuals and developers denying access of citizens to the beaches by the erection of fences. In light of the growing problem, the Government took the necessary step to ensure that all the new hotels and villas must make access paths available to the public. This stated position by the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines is very much in sync with that which one sees along the beachfront in Barbados, where there are intermittent signs indicating the path to the beach.

As we all know, not every beach is suitable for use for a number of reasons, including dangerous currents and rocky terrain. We all know where the best beaches are located in this country. Why should ordinary citizens not have designated access to the seven-mile stretch of beaches on the Negril coast or the beaches of Ocho Rios? The few so-called public beaches are either under poor management by individuals with the right political connections or are unkempt places like our public cemeteries. Public access paths would provide citizens with something that is decent and respectful.

Perhaps the day will come, sooner than later, when an individual or group that is offended by the existing situation, and faced with a potential explosive situation of confrontation, will bring a legal challenge, supported by legal counsel sympathetic to the rights of citizens, and who test the matter in the nation's courts of law.

One of the questions we must ask ourselves is the extent to which the broad population of this nation believe that the strategies and policies that are pursued by way of governance, by repeated governments, have their interest at heart. The social and economic inequalities are having a divisive effect on our nation — manifested by the lack of interest in the electoral process and the emergence of subcultures which move on a different track to what some would like to think of as mainstream society.

If this nation cannot develop more effective strategies for inclusion, ownership, and a sense of belonging at every level of the society, people will destroy the very things that are currently holding the threads together.

Howard Gregory
Howard Gregory

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