Jamaica blog day: Environment vs Development. Baha-mar meet Jamaica’s logistics hub

I left Jamaica’s shores on May 22, to arrive on those of another CARICOM country, an archipelago, The Bahamas. Back home, much concern exists over what development of a logistics and transhipment hub may mean for the natural environment, especially the Goat Islands. The concerns involve what may happen, and who may do it: a Chinese investor has approval for the project. In The Bahamas, we get to see some effects of another Chinese-financed and built development on the local environment with the Baha-mar resort project.

China has a poor reputation regarding care for the environment. It is a major consumer of natural resources. It is a major polluter of the environment. It is on a development path that sees it doing more of both things. In Jamaica, the hub project may involve the introduction of coal-powered energy production. The world’s major multilateral financing agency, the World Bank, is pulling away from such projects; so too is the main multilateral financing agency in the CARICOM region, the Inter-American Development Bank.

So, why would Jamaica run headlong towards coal? A good question, but one which its government has not answered other than to indicate that it would provide substantially cheaper energy than is available on that island. That can’t be the whole answer, which would require looking at what costs such energy production could and may inflict on the island. The Jamaican population would love to have a fuller answer.

I have made no deep analysis of the Baha-mar project, but have watched how it has changed the landscape of New Providence. What have I seen?

New and extensive highways. From the airport, in the west, through Baha-mar, and moving east, New Providence has new four-lane roads. More concrete. More asphalt. Fewer trees. Fewer shrubs. More metallic light poles. More solar-powered lights.

At and near the project, I have seen new buildings: hotel complex; police station; new offices and retail stores. I have also seen a new boardwalk, used by a few tourists and many Chinese workers. I have seen a lake and its mangroves exposed: it had been hidden by bush but now can be reached and used. It contains many fish and birds. I cannot say if its exposure has led to its being abused. When I last looked closely, it was clean. People enjoy the vista it offers, and its tranquillity.

Existing hotels near the project are being refurbished.

To get all of this, The Bahamas has used much more electricity from its oil-powered energy generation plant at Lyford Cay, in the west. Someone can check what that has added to their import bill. Did they earn more foreign exchange to pay for that? Is the country holding more debt as a result?

Remember, I’m only giving visual impressions and focusing on obvious things. Why? That’s all most people will perceive. The amount of money and resources used will be a blur to most people. They will notice more or less. They like or loathe what they see. Residents will know how things have changed and feel happy or aggrieved about the changes, some of which affected them directly. For instance, construction of the highways meant huge upheavals of traffic patterns, with congestion and delays. It also meant dirt and noise and grime. It meant some local residents got jobs. But, many jobs were for Chinese workers.

The local economy got a boost but took a hit while the project was underway. I won’t try to gauge how that balanced; other things happened to affect that.

All of this goes to what Jamaica may soon experience. For us, it will be different in an important way. New Providence is small, though it holds most of the national population. Baha-mar looms large. You can see the hotel complex from almost anywhere on the island. The highways have altered significantly travel on the island, with more speed. I imagine everyone in Nassau has felt the project. Have the people on Grand Bahama, another, larger island in the archipelago? Not that they would notice.

Jamaica’s hub project will loom large over Kingston and its immediate environs, but may be invisible to most of Jamaica.

That may mean how it’s perceived becomes something for those near the capital. Its costs and benefits will seem more limited.

That may be something that the government has exploited. Those who may feel the hub development can be isolated, even made to seem small and insignificant. While some opposition to the project may exist, it too can seem limited. By extension, opponents can be more easily picked off.

Thus, Jamaica’s hub development poses an interesting problem of how to mobilise national concerns over what may seem to be a local matter. The national benefits and costs hardly factor in if you’re in Portland or Westmoreland, to take two extreme points far to the north of Kingston. But, how much of the hub project’s impact will really be only local?

I don’t know the answer, but pose this as a challenge to those wanting to raise the level of debate on the topic. Jamaicans need to see and hear convincing arguments about what the hub will mean for parishes outside Kingston, St. Andrew, St. Catherine, and Clarendon.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)