Why Is Jamaica Selling Out Its Environment to a Blacklisted International Conglomerate?
A $1.5 billion investment and the promise of 10,000 jobs were enough incentive to convince Jamaican officials to turn their backs on conservation.
April 22, 2014 By Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff is the author of ‘The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth’ and other books.
Tourism has long been the leading economic sector in Jamaica, bringing in half of all foreign revenue to support a quarter of all jobs. Yet government officials now risk jeopardizing that lucrative business, and Jamaica’s reputation in the international community, with a secretive deal to let a Chinese company build a mega-freighter seaport smack-dab in the nation’s largest natural protected area.
The planned port would occupy the Goat Islands, in the heart of the Portland Bight Protected Area, which only last year the same government officials were petitioning UNESCO to designate a Global Biosphere Reserve. Instead, the lure of a $1.5 billion investment and a rumored 10,000 jobs has resulted in the deal with China Harbour Engineering Company, part of a conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its Fraud and Corruption Sanctioning Policy.
Many details of the proposed project remain unknown, and the government has rebuffed repeated requests for information under Jamaica’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. But the plan is believed to involve clear-cutting the mangrove forests on both Goat Islands, building up a level work area using dredge spoils from the surrounding waters, and constructing a coal-fired power plant to support the new infrastructure. The port, including areas currently designated as marine sanctuaries, would accommodate “post-Panamax”-size ships—up to 1,200 feet long and with a 50-foot draft—arriving via the newly expanded Panama Canal.
The new port would compromise an area known for extensive sea‐grass beds, coral reefs, wetlands, and Jamaica’s largest mangrove forests (mangroves sequester more per-acre carbon than rainforests do). The protected area is also home to the Jamaican iguana, a species believed extinct until its dramatic rediscovery in 1990. Since then, the international conservation community has spent millions of dollars rebuilding the iguana population in a protected forest in the Hellshire Hills, part of the reserve adjacent to the proposed port. Much of that investment hinged on the government’s promise, now apparently discarded, that the Goat Islands would become a permanent home for the iguanas, which are Jamaica’s largest vertebrate species.
“It sends a really poor message to the international conservation community—that an investment in Jamaica is not a good investment, that it can be wiped out in the blink of an eye,” said Byron Wilson, a herpetologist at the University of the West Indies. Wilson warned that a proposed causeway from the Goat Islands to the mainland, and the likely development of a community of workers, would consign the mainland iguana population to re-extinction. “Any place you put a lot of Chinese workers around the world, the wildlife suffers—it’s pretty clear.”
“Everything is for sale in Jamaica,” and not just the Goat Islands, added Rick Hudson, a herpetologist at the Fort Worth Zoo who has long collaborated on the iguana project. “They’re committed to developing every inch of the coastline for high-end hotels and resorts. There’s going to be no natural environment left.” Thus not much reason to visit Jamaica in the first place.
Jamaica’s existing port in Kingston Harbor could be expanded to handle the new traffic, Alfred Sangster, past president of Jamaica’s University of Technology, wrote earlier this week in the Jamaica Observer. The Chinese decision to reject that option “reflects a clear desire to have an enclave on the islands” where it can operate with fewer restrictions. He characterized the Chinese as the “new colonialists…in a country which has long memories of the legacies of colonialism.”
Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, noted that the government has already relaxed work permit rules and created new categories of economic citizenship to accommodate the proposed project. On previous projects with Chinese contractors, she said, the majority of employees have been Chinese people. “And where they do employ Jamaican people, they don’t obey our work rules,” she said. She also worried that the secret terms of the deal may include tax or other incentives. “What is the benefit to Jamaica? That’s not clear.”
She added that China Harbour had insisted on building a coal-fired power plant, despite the inevitable contribution to climate change, because Jamaica’s electricity rates are too high. “Imagine that. We have to pay [the high rates], and they don’t.”
* 3) View and Like the videos on You Tube:
Don’t Sell Out Jamaica – Save Goat Islands 2 – Extended PSA
Don’t Sell Out Jamaica – Save Goat Islands PSA
Don’t Mess With Goat Islands (animation)
* 4) Write expressing your objections to the following people. A paper letter counts for more than an e-mail, but we have provided both addresses in each case. You can word your letter any way you like, but we suggest you ask for full public disclosure of the details of the planned transshipment port in the Portland Bight Protected Area, with comprehensive public consultation. You could also mention that you believe that an Environmental Impact Assessment should be conducted before any decision is taken.
The Most Honourable Portia Simpson-Miller M.P.,
Prime Minister of Jamaica
The Office of the Prime Minister
1 Devon Road
[email protected] the Hon. Omar Davies,
Minister of Transport, Works and Housing
Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing
138A Maxfield Avenue
Prof. Gordon Shirley,
President and CEO
Port Authority of Jamaica
15 -17 Duke Street
[email protected] Robert Pickersgill,
Minister of Land Water Environment & Climate Change
Ministry of Land Water Environment and Climate Change
25 Dominica Drive
* 5) Write to the newspapers in Jamaica:
The Gleaner – [email protected]
Jamaica Observer – [email protected]