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Merriam-Webster’s tells me that environmentalism is ‘advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environmentespecially: the movement to control pollution’. That same dictionary tells me that advocacy is ‘the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal’. By those definitions, I will say that I am an environmentalist and an advocate. By those same definitions, I would imagine that most people in Jamaica (and maybe in most countries) are environmentalists, not least because this is largely a rural country, and one that lives primarily from its natural resources (sea, sand, sun, minerals, agriculture and fishing). If we do not control pollution, it will literally be the death of us. Where we may get into trouble, or simply differences of opinion, is how strongly we advocate.

Party politics is often based upon finding and exploiting divisions of opinion, real or imagined, large or small. It goes further if it can split people into sides–‘them’ and ‘us’. For purely selfish reasons, party politicians want ‘us’ to be stronger than ‘them’ and ‘our’ views and ideas to gain supremacy over ‘theirs’. Neutrals have to be made into partisans for party politics to thrive. But, it really doesn’t matter to political activists how they get divisions into play.

I think Jamaica is in the process of having a false debate, about which there is probably little real division of opinion. That’s a bold statement. But, here’s my thinking.

We have heard–though had precious little detail with which to work–that Chinese investors want to implement a project to develop a logistics/transshipment hub in Jamaica, and that they prefer this to be based on and around the Goat Islands. A government spokesman last week gave some information about these plans and the process that is taking place to consider this project.

Now, the Goat Islands are part of the Portand Bight Protected Area (PBTA), set up primarily to protect the coral reefs and also serve to protect vulnerable and endemic species. So, it would be reasonable to assume that the Jamaican government would have to address the potential conflict of having an industrial development sited on the Goat Islands and the risk to its environmental objectives for the islands. That conflict would suggest that a series of alternative locations would have to be in play, and that choosing to go ahead on the Goat Islands would only happen if it could be shown that the national environmental objectives are not ignored.

Jamaica’s economy has been in a deep slump for decades. It has hardly grown in decades, in overall terms and in terms of per head of population. Jamaica produces far too few jobs for its population, with the result that unemployment sits at about 16 percent (and more than double that rate for young people).

The Jamaican economy relies heavily on tourism, mining, and agriculture; service sector activities are also important. Its manufacturing sector has struggled for decades, not least because the country has struggled to stay competitive and show high levels of productivity. Whatever the current profile of the economy, job-creating activities are to be treasured.

Jamaica’s official plans for manufacturing are set out in the Vision 2030 document (my emphasis).

The Manufacturing Sector Plan for Vision 2030 Jamaica will enable the manufacturing sector to make the transition to higher levels of productivity and value added production using efficient technologies and environmentally sustainable processes, with motivated, productive employees, within an enabling business and regulatory environment.

So, again, we see that the environment and its protection are central to the official way forward already developed for the country. So, when politicians–especially those in government–talk about ‘environmentalists’ or ‘environmental lobby’, they ought really to be looking in the mirror, because they are truly part of that group. Maybe, they never realised the commitment that has been made. In which case, I’d suggest they familiarise themselves with the policy document.

Whatever the economic merits of the Chinese proposals, protecting Jamaica’s environment must be part of Jamaica’s official position. So, job creation does not trump official policy on protecting the environment. Higher national income alone does not trump official policy on the environment. So, if the Chinese plans jeopardise the Goat Islands, the government must be committed to deal with that. If the plans pose other risks to the Jamaican environment, then they also have to be set in the context of the Vision 2030 commitment. On that basis, the notion of building a coal-fired power generation plant would seem to be more than a trivial challenge for the government. How that fits the criterion of ‘environmentally sustainable’ cannot be glossed over. Let’s not prejudge the arguments, but they need to be set out and the pros and cons thrashed out.

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Lime Cay, one of the islands off Kingston’s harbors. Natural beauty and relatively unspoiled

I visited Lime Cay this morning, with a group of children swimmers who were using the holiday to train in open sea water.

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View of Blue Mountains and eastern Jamaica from Lime Cay.

I pointed out to them where the possible logistics hub development would be. Many of them do not know the areas off Kingston’s harbours. They enjoyed the current views, and the relatively untouched place where they were training.

I tried to visualise a coal-powered generating plant in the distance. It did not fit. I know that change is hard to imagine sometimes, and did not think harder.

Whatever likes or dislikes I may have for certain types of development, I like to see processes work themselves through and conclusions occur that have not taken expedient short cuts. My fear with the discussions on the logistics hub is that short cuts are being taken. But, let me give all sides the benefit of the doubt, for the moment and put that fear aside.

What I want to see is an end to this false division that says there are people who care about Jamaica’s environment and suggesting that they are against development, and others. That view of ‘environmentalists’ is not true, and it’s a canard. To make that point stronger, the government ought to figure out itself and see that it is part of the country’s environmental lobby. After all, one of the government’s Cabinet minister portfolios is ‘Minister of Water, Land, Environment & Climate Change’. The post holder is The Hon. Robert Dixon Pickersgill. Precious little has been heard from him recently, and deafening silence seems to be the status quo on the matter of the logistics hub and the Goat Islands. With that situation, shouldn’t Mr. Pickersgill be the environmental spokesman at the Cabinet table? If he is not speaking up on that topic, why is the post still in place?

A lady commented to me this morning that she felt her voice did not count on the matter of the logistics hub and Goat Islands. I told her that she has to make her voice heard. I do not know to whom the government is listening, but if people are silent then their views can never feature–even in the retelling of history and what it will show of public opinion. I did a random survey of two ordinary Jamaicans while I was writing and they were against the development. That’s not categorical in terms of how people feel, but it suggests that people have concerns. However, the government has given the impression that the road is already paved and cannot be relaid.

Whatever concerns I have, they are broad. I am not convinced that Jamaicans will see much by way of jobs. I cannot be proved wrong on that because the government or the investor has not given me any assurances on jobs. Telling people that 2,000 jobs will be there during construction and 10,000 more when the project is completed is meaningless. More so, when we are told that ratios of Chinese:Jamaican will be negotiated.

It’s never a good idea to try to railroad people into making decisions. It’s never a good idea when the decisions have major national implications. It’s also not a good idea when the decisions seem to run counter to things that government has already committed to do.