Stop the world, I want to get off: Jamaica better love China, because it loves us all.

Jamaica got another reminder this week of how the modern world works. We saw the unwrapping of a spanking new highway, linking the north and south of the island, which had been completed by Chinese investment. We have lots of signs of that in the island, especially on roads and soon we will have more if the whispered contract to develop a logistics hub goes ahead as whispered. We won’t get into the political spinning of “gifting”. We know free lunches are only on February 30th.

That is what China has been doing across the world for a good few years now. China’s population and land mass are so large that they scare the bejeebers out of most counties. It’s phenomenonal pace of economic growth, averaging 10 percent a year for the past three decades, has allowed it to do that. It has the world’s largest balance of foreign exchange reserves and also the world’s biggest appetite for materials to build its economy. Hence, it has funded investment in many places where it needs minerals, especially in Africa. Jamaica has some of those valuable minerals too, but China has put its footprint down differently here, choosing to help develop infrastructure. Now, I’m not going to discuss the geo-political rationale for what China is doing here. My basic point is different. People in Jamaica may feel swamped by things Chinese, but pop another spoonful of Maalox.

China is the world’s new investment kid on the block. We get sort of frothy at the mouth in Jamaica about the Chinese presence because we are very small and they are very large. So, we get ‘small man syndrome’ or the ‘Napoleon complex’. To boot, we know we are small and it’s usually called upon as we beat the living daylights out of some opponent. “We likkle but we tallwah!”

But, our history of Chinese involvement in our lives is a bit different. Chinese indentured labour was brought here and in a short time after they were not indentured, the Chinese Jamaicans started to run the Jamaican economy, with stores, initially, but then in many other areas, especially food. That influence is still huge, though blurred by corporate structures and names that do not appear eminently Chinese, such as Juici Beef or Tastee. What, they’re not…?

But, we are not even a blip on the Chinese investment radar screen. In 2013, Chinese investment in US companies doubled, to US$14 billion. This spree was driven by large-scale acquisitions in food, energy and real estate, and was done mostly by private companies, rather than state enterprises, as in the past. It’s no real wonder that when our new highway was opened by the PM this week, we could be mistaken for thinking the road was in Shanghai, for all the red dresses, Chinese writing, and serious absence of black, gold and green. Independence gift? Tek weh yuself! But, that’s how the world is bring repositioned.

In addition, we know that Chinese bond holders prop up the enormous debt of the USA, the size of which is so many times that of most economies.

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Though, the graphic is out of date, it tells a clear story. The world is China’s playground, and we and our region are far from being its main interest, which remains much closer to home, in Asia and Australasia. So, hold on to your knickers.

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Don’t mess with dissing China, learn to embrace it. Uncle Sam can talk all he wants about abuses of human rights spearheaded from Beijing. We hear cha-Ching–and that’s not meant to be a racist alliteration. If the US or others want a place in our hearts, do more than flood the airwaves with awful sitcoms and cardboard food. Put leather on the ground and sweat on your shirt, and come dig up some dirt. Why does Puerto Rico look like it does? That island is slightly smaller than Jamaica, and has a slightly larger population. But, its GDP is about 10 times that of Jamaica’s, and per capita is about seven times ours. Just check that flag.

IMG_1290.JPG Another accident of nature?

Well, we are independent, so let’s get on with what that’s given us. On three, “Eternal father…”

Teaching moments: Simple actions in Rio that would look good in Jamaica

A ten day trip to Rio, whose prime purpose was to enjoy the atmosphere of World Cup football, is no fact finding tour. But, I’ve had to look at socioeconomic developments and try to assess them quickly for most of my working life. So, let me use that experience to share some observations that could help Jamaica move ahead. They are not in any special order.

Tourists need to be left to enjoy their visits and feel safe. Arriving in Rio, the biggest problem is figuring out where to collect baggage; the claim areas are split, either side of duty free shopping. Once done, passing Customs is simple, with basically no stop. Admittedly, Jamaica has been tagged as a drug haven, so we need stiffer checks to protect ourselves from those who want to try some simple drug running, as part of organized operations or just to get some extra dosh. That hurts our tourism badly, and maybe the only way out is some brutal sentencing, including near immediate deportation. The idea of airport courts seems radical but, it may be what’s needed to frighten the daylights out of the casual wrongdoers. Admittedly, tourists arriving at Montego Bay tend to have lghr checks than arrivals at Kingston, most of whom are residents. That, naturally, sets up resentment from locals. But, evenhandedness is something with hitch Jamaica struggles.

Once on land, tourists in Rio see plenty of signs that security is ready to deal with all problems.

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Rio Tourist Police, on Ipanema beach strip

Municipal and national guards were everywhere in uniform Rio. It was likely that some of the road sweepers or other tourist workers were undercover operatives. They were on hand, visible, and clearly ready. I have no idea at what cost. But, no one wants to robbed or mugged on the street when just trying to enjoy sun, sand, and sea.

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Tourists just want to have their fun
We read stories about how favelas and streets had been cleared of vagrants. News reports yesterday mentioned how protesters had been picked up ahead of the final and that 25,000 security personnel had been added to deal with potential protests at the final. Rio is in a very difficult position, so extreme measures are no surprise. But, in the end, the naive or educated visitor wants to come and go safely, and leave a country to sort out its internal strife.

Like Jamaica, Rio has its vendors. They work the beach strips, selling on the beach, trinkets, drinks and snacks. On the roadside, little cafes and juice bars are dotted around. Massage services are there, too, on the beach. Most vendors take no straight away. Pestering in not common. I did not see if vendors were licensed. But, they went on walking the beach. Most beach visitors just went about their recreation. No one offering them drugs. They could get drinks if they wanted, or play or doze, if not.

I’ve barely seen any police at Jamaican resorts, by contrast. Maybe, they are all under cover. But, we have reports of petty or more serious crimes against tourists. Each incident is a blight, and becomes amplified as a negative story when people get back home. Most people have positive images of Jamaica before they visit. The taxi driver who loves “Bobby Marley” is typical. We need to harness that.

Taxis should be safe and trustworthy . Most visitors do not know their way around a foreign country. They often think they are easy targets for exploitation. So, one way of allaying those fears for the benefit of all is for the popular form of transport from point to point, the taxi, be a reliable service. Rio has a lot of taxis, but they never seemed enough.

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Taxi, with onboard GPS, meter, visible official driver ID

Perhaps, the arrival of all those football fans was the reason for seeming excess demand. However hard it was to get a taxi, each one tended to give the same experience. The driver was licensed: the vehicle had the driver’s badge clearly visible. The vehicle was metered. The cost was clear, and drivers did not haggle over the small number, eg R$11.30 was R$11. The driver wore a belt and each seat had a belt. (One driver, seeing my 10 year old daughter was in difficulty strapping in, stopped to free the belt, which had gotten trapped under the seat. Attentive and courteous.) If uncertain of destination, drivers quickly tried to verify directions by using on board GPS, or checking with another driver. Vehicles were NEVER overloaded: no space, no rider. No exceptions. Naturally, in this age of widespread smartphone use, some drivers tried to stay abreast of social activities. One driver was constantly checking and sending voice messages,though he limited this to when stopped at traffic lights. One driver was one the phone to an acquaintance, but still drove carefully.

We took at least two taxis each day and never saw one accident–at all. Rio has six million people and an area half that of Jamaica. Admittedly, road conditions are far better in a Rio, with several four-lane freeways through the city.

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Rio has good, spacious roads

Pedestrians do not have priority, so that would tend to create more problems, but none were evident.

If visitors feel safe travelling around a strange place, day or night, they are likely to venture out more and further. That tends to mean more spending. We are experienced travelers and have a friend who had lived in Brazil and spoke Portuguese. But, those aspects did not feature much in routine travel. We tried our luck on the streets, often needing two taxis, which did not arrive simultaneously. We never ended up at different places; we sometimes had a long wait to meet up again. We were not really worried. We did some research and ventured out on ferry boats, too. No mishaps. Drivers also gave good advice about when to travel and better routes.

My understanding is that the government did not mount any special campaigns. But, perhaps, the trade associations got members to buy into supporting the events with positive attitudes. Or, people have understood what is good for business.

Free Wifi internet access needs to be widely available. Most traveller know about the high cost of roaming charges, so shy away from making local telephone connections. However, they will do their best to keep in touch with friends, families, and colleagues through email, text messages, including via Whatsapp, and social media sites. You only need to go anywhere with free wifi to see the clusters of communicators. Rio offered free wifi to those who were already subscribers to local telephone services. But, many bars, restaurants, and shopping areas had free wifi. Even some hillside slums, favelas, had free wifi networks.

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Favela Santa Marta has free wifi

Brazil has benefited from extensive infrastructure investment connected to major international events. Again, the pay off comes through the easy experience visitors have.

Litter is a major turn off. In Rio, garbage disposal was constant. Large bins on the sidewalk, plus cleaners walking the beach strips and streets. Of course, people are dirty, but it need not swamp everyone or everywhere. We saw plenty of garbage in a favela. Bottles and cans get used as missiles. Likewise, roads that need repair trap trash as well as people. The impression left was that Rio was clean, even if sour-smelling. That’s an observation, not a criticism. Big cities have their odour.

Finally, Rio celebrates its street art. Downtown Kingston has recently had much of its murals removed from ghetto areas. The rationale was that this glorified local criminals. Whatever the truth of that, the murals are important local expression. By contract, Rio promotes such art.

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Favela art, Rio

Admittedly, a recent government initiative has sought to regularize favela life, and accepting murals adds to the sense of ownership. Heavyhandedness is often not needed, once respect has been shown by those in formal authority.

Paqueta: a step back in time

The island of Paqueta is the kind of place that is all too rare these days. It is close to a large urban area but shares little in terms of how it has developed.
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In particular, Paqueta has no motorised vehicles; only bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are supposed to move people around.

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Horses still provide the driver power

Truth is, you’ll see a few trucks belonging to the municipal government, clearing garbage. You’ll also see a tractor pulling a makeshift bus. But, that’s about it. What parts of Rio have on Sundays and holidays, Paqueta has everyday.

It was once the weekend getaway spot for Rio’s rich, but now they apparently sneer at going there. If true, more space for visitors to Rio during the World Cup.
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The ferry was full heading there in the early afternoon. Many were locals, but many were those foreigners still in Brazil for the remaining World Cup matches. Costa Rican fans were ‘licking their wounds’, after their team lost its quarterfinal on Saturday. Argentina’s fans were in boisterous mood, heading into their match against Holland on Wednesday. German fans, likewise.

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Pick your ride

Brazilian fans, which were just about everyone else, were just still lapping up the goodness that comes from being hosts and still in the hunt.

Paqueta has little more to offer than its tranquility, but that’s worth a lot these days. We had lunch in a hotel restaurant that had been open since the 1920s.

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Old phone

It had on display some technologies from the various decades: manual calculator, typewriter, old telephone, etc. It also offered some simple solid fare to eat. After a few days eating meat like Brazilians, I needed my meatless Monday. Fish was a welcome change, with a huge salad. It also offered the litre bottle of beer.

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Beer by comparison with other liquids

My older daughter and I chose not to rent bikes after lunch, for fear of buttacheitis, but walked on the beach instead, admiring the calm of the sea and some of the old buildings. We then sat to watch the sun start to set.
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A mother was trying unsuccessfully to get her daughters to stop rolling in the sand and head home. Some fishermen sat without shirts sharing a bottle of what looked like white rum. The beach had stone chess tables, and I could visualize moves being made decades ago.

We took our pictures, several minutes apart, and gawped at the stunning mountains in the background. I don’t know what my daughter was thinking, but I imagined living here centuries ago and wondering who lived in those mountains or what was happening on the mainland. I would have had my fishing and been content.

The sun set for the day, but thankfully it will rise on Tuesday to greet this sleepy island unchanged.

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.
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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.

Reckless abandon

Few things show the failure of inaction in Jamaica as well as the number and types of road accidents here. There’s a periodic wailing and gnashing of teeth happening as the latest data show a sudden increase in the number of road traffic deaths.

Let’s look at the numbers that have caused the concern. Road traffic deaths rose by nearly 50 per cent between February and March this year, according to the latest data from the National Road Safety Council (NRSC). 83 persons were killed on the roads during the period January 1- April 3–a 20 per cent increase when compared with the corresponding period last year. Pedestrians continue to figure prominently in the data with a total of 27 killed during the period January 1 to April 3. Statistics compiled by the NRSC show that 35 persons died in motor vehicle crashes last month, a 41 per cent increase when compared to the 22 road deaths recorded in both January and February. A breakdown of the NRSC data shows that the leading cause of road fatalities this year was speeding, which accounted for 22 deaths, followed by pedestrian error, which resulted in 14 fatalities.

Overturned Coaster bus last week after an accident
Overturned Coaster bus last week after an accident

Put simply, Jamaicans drive too fast and pedestrians are very careless–a lethal combination in a place where walkers and cars often compete for limited space.

Dr Lucien Jones, vice-chairman of the NRSC, noted that recklessness and an increase in cell phone usage by drivers were also among the main contributors to the spike in road fatalities. But, “My own feeling is that it is due to recklessness, but we really don’t know,” Dr. Jones conceded to the Gleaner.

The National Security Minister Peter Bunting is alarmed and convened a meeting with the police and other key stakeholder groups last Thursday, at which a raft of measures to stem the increase were discussed. The results? It was agreed that the Island Traffic Authority, the Transport Authority and other government agencies would put measures in place to ensure that drivers with multiple outstanding tickets are not reissued licences. I thought that action against that would have already been in place after the crash last September that took more lives of Holmwood HS student, when it was found that one of the drivers concerned had hundreds of unpaid traffic fines. That disaster was met with calls for a dedicated and regulated rural bus service. We saw some extra JUTC buses for a few days. Then what?

Mr. Bunting’s meeting also agreed that the police would be provided with additional resources to carry out their traffic-management functions while the National Works Agency will be asked to repair and repaint pedestrian crossings, lights and street signs across the island. One does not need to be a cynic to say that this is all a bit late and also indicative of that careless attitude that is all over Jamaica. Check how many streets have no signs, or look for signs that cannot be read, or look for signs that are just wrong. We have how many unemployed people? What can we ask prisoners to do for ‘hard labour’. Do your jobs, people! Threaten to cut their funding and see how fast they react.

School children crossing roads is a daily sport in Jamaica
School children crossing roads is a daily sport in Jamaica

The happy-go-lucky nature of much of Jamaican life is well illustrated by how we let children deal with traffic. Almost any school day, you’ll see groups of children skipping along merrily on a road, then some of them will gather and hold hands and try to cross a road. They’re used to traffic stopping for them and will often put up a hand–like a crossing guard would–to indicate cars or trucks should stop. Sometimes they don’t, and then we have a nasty accident. Many times, children just run into the street. One of my favourite hated sights is the front of Jamaica College (JC), in Kingston. When school is out in the afternoon, school boys swarm the roads in their dark blue shirts and cross at will in numbers, to catch buses, buy bag juice, start walking home, and more. They just leave the school and head across the road. I have never seen a guard patrolling in front of the school to even try to slow down traffic. The school principal, Dr. Ruel Reid, is an enlighted educator and now a Senator, but I wonder if he has just lost sight of his pupils once that last bell rings. However, I imagine this is a coming sight across Jamaica, it’s just particularly stunning on the busy highway near JC.

While we may be shown the results of many road accidents they are unlikely to have much effect on us. The nature of road use here is such that people take silly risks and do not accumulate the results and change their habits. It’s infectious. Over the weekend, I drove round-trip between Kingston and Ocho Rios, taking the two preferred routes. I headed north to the coast via Mount Rosser. I don’t like that route because of the problem with slow trucks going over the mountain, but also because I find that driving on that road is a bit hairy. It was not too bad early on Saturday morning. The north coast roads are very good–thanks to our care for the foreign exchange-wieldiing tourists. But, it often means excessive speed along many of the stretches. However, I saw no accidents. I came back via Port Maria, which is a more scenic route and tends to have slower driving. Ironically, I saw two accidents; one rear-end, the other a head-on collision which was the cause of much discussion between drivers and police as I passed. Only two vehicles were involved in both cases, and it was unclear why someone would drive into the back of another car on a straight stretch, and the head-on collision seemed odd as no third vehicle was there to suggest a bad overtaking move.

On Sunday morning, heading to church, I saw an accident at a quiet street corner, with two cars facing each other; one lady driver was looking at the damage and had her arms folded in an angry fashion. It looked as if a car had cut the corner from the main road and been surprised to find another vehicle coming to the junction.

These incidents indicate what’s common about accidents in Jamaica. They happen in a random fashion, all over the place. There are very few constant black spots. Our carelessness and inattention are just constants. Our road conditions don’t help. Pot holes, debris in the road (including rocks or tree limbs). Weather can worsen matters, when we have slippery roads, but also occasional flooding to cover holes and make driving just harder.

Drivers in Jamaica do crazy things. I often have to deal with a speeding SUV or truck trying to bore past me up hills on my way to school. The road is filled with pot holes and makes for tricky driving when going slowly. At speed, it’s just too dangerous most of the times. Yet, the tail gating starts, then the dart out and back in, then…three miles driving directly in front of me, a whole two seconds ahead. People have not processed that the speed and recklessness have had not real gains. In one case, a student who passed me once on the hill in this fashion, arrived at school after me, because I took another set of streets off the hill. I had a good talk to her and warned her about her recklessness. She gained absolutely nothing from the manuevers. But, perhaps the adrenalin rush was it. Lucky, this time.

Motorcyclists in Jamaica are like Kamikaze pilots. Yesterday, on our way to swim practice, my daughter and I saw a rider and his pillion passenger–dressed in butt-cheek revealing shorts–weave in and out of cars along a road, and nearly getting squeezed between two of them as they rode along the lane separator line. I’m sure they were both thrilled. But, could both have been killed. We see people doing wheelies on the roads for long distances. Yee-haw! Helmets are a luxury, and even if worn, cocked on the head is the preference so that the rider can see without looking through the small visor opening!

Many drivers do not use seat belts and many passengers too. Worst, is the number of children seen standing in cars, often in the front, and it’s not just in packed taxis. In uptown Kingston, it seems like a privilege of the rich to have their children unstrapped. These are many of the better-educated people in action, and even those who are foreigners (judging by their diplomatic licence plates) have been bitten by the Jamaican traffic virus.

Dr. Jones says he’s not sure what is really the reason, but thinks recklessness is a major cause. I’m sure he’s right, in a general sense. He wants to lay some blame on cell phone use. I’m not so convinced. I’ve mentioned before that drivers talking on the phone in Jamaica are often clear to see–they drive more slowly. If speed contributes to accidents, then the chatty driver may be safer, for a while. I wont push that though, because we know that yackety-yacking can lead to a lot of inattention. But, here, the attempt to multitask behind the wheel is much as in the US, just with different props–sometimes box dinners are on the go. We also do that with more hazards around–goats, donkeys, broken down vehicles, cane debris, windscreen washers and vendors, loud music blaring, soup pots on the roadside, etc.

I have little confidence in the police’s willingness to deal with reckless driving. I’ve seen them turn a blind eye too often. Last night, driving home, we were stopped at a major intersection, where two lanes of traffic were on each side, and a right turn lane was on each side. Two cars popped through the turning lane to my right to go ahead of me, already waiting at the front at the lights; they were therefore in the pedestrian crossing area, and partly in the lanes for the crossing traffic. I said something to my daughter in the back. Then, up came a motorbike police man, passing the two cars and now sitting in front of them so that he could be first! When the lights turned green, off he sped. What was I to think were his concerns about road safety? How about near zero. I was not able to see his licence plate, but I noted the numbers of the cars, just in case we had a problem as we drove on. So, I say boldly, the police do not care. If they did, then they would not act as the officer did. Don’t give me any claptrap about his being just one. He’s what I see, and he’s incontrovertible evidence. I see such inaction often, just not so blatantly done with me so near. The police like to stop people on the highways to demand papers and stand and talk to them about some infractions. They are also blithely ignorant of the risks they create in such situations. Again, yesterday, coming back into Kingston along Mandela Highway, a driver was standing with his door open, abutting the highway, and he was adjusting his clothes, while two officers were walking past him, in the roadway. Why did I and my passenger need to weave to avoid them? It’s just the way… Mr. Bunting, be alarmed, but see whom of your charges are delinquents.

None of this is new. Just search through the newspapers and reports, now online. We added to our problems with new highways that did not account for the transitions between communities, so people play ‘Russian roulette’ crossing them to get from one village to another, sometimes with animals. We have roads with few sidewalks–it’s part of the quaint charm of the country, much as US suburbs are also often without sidewalks, but fewer Americans get out and walk everywhere. We know that walkers use our roads that have no sidewalks because we can see the paths they carve from years of constant use, trying to squeeze themselves near to a wall or just walking in the roadway. It’s just the way…

I have never seen mention of drugs and alcohol as contributors to accidents in Jamaica, which is odd given our love of drinking and the liberal attitudes towards drug use; and Jamaica has a breathalyzer test. But, do we have enough equipment to administer it?

Reducing road accidents doesn’t need rocket science. It needs some improvement in infrastructure. It needs a bit of diligence and a lot of intelligence. Education needs to be made much more rigorous. Our children often do not understand the risks they run on the roads, but are often left to negotiate them without adult help. On any given day, while I see a handful of adults walking young children to or from school, I see ten times that number of children walking alone, from elementary age through high schoolers. They cannot all be supervised but they could be better informed. Drivers often know what they are doing is wrong, but they are in a rush and getting a rush. We have special categories, in the form of taxi and minibus drivers, but they are just a special pedigree amongst a pack of otherwise wild dogs. They may show some of the worst behaviour but are really not far ahead of the crowd.

We have busy roads, often single lane. Lots go on there. How else will I get hot peanuts and mangoes and a new charger than by having some youth walk with it amidst the traffic? They are not often hit, but they add to the general risks.

But, we love to talk about problems and then think that substitutes well for action. It doesn’t. So, how about a bit less talk and some real action. Mr. Bunting has enough on his plate that he cannot solve easily, but the accidents problem is an easier nut to crack.

Jamaica is…

I’m an avid sports fan, and I woke early, as I have a lot in recent weeks, to watch top-level international athletes. This time, it is Winter Olympians in Sochi, Russia. Last month, it was Australian Open tennis. The early hours of the day are great times for thinking.

Jamaica is often synonymous with coolness. But, like many places, reality is otherwise. I find it hard to stop making comparisons between Jamaica and Guinea–an extremely poor west African country, where I lived and worked for almost four years. It’s more about carrying on with dogged determination in a country that has so much natural charm and beauty, which compensate for the many harsh realities of daily life.

Jamaica is categorised is a ‘middle income’ country. The reality is that we’ve a strong mix of highly sophisticated features in our lives, but also some abject poverty that is near the lowest of the lows. We also have infrastructure that is barely able to function.

This morning, I wanted to have some water. I turned on the taps: nothing. Water lock-offs are part of life. Many people have near permanent ‘lock off’, in that they have no regular running water. Other areas have no water during periods to repair leaks. I was surprised, but not shocked. I have large bottles of water. That may not be the case for others, in rural or urban areas. Fetching water from a well or river is part of daily life in some communities. Water from standpipes is the norm in some other areas. Collect what you need, in buckets or pails, and haul it home. In some places, that still what children have to do before heading to school each day. No time lolling around in front of a television or video game. They may have to tend to some animals, too.

A debate is raging over the approval of a new foreign investor to develop a new 360 megawatt power station in Jamaica. This concerns information that will be made available to the population about the accepted investor. Lots of transparency and governance issues are involved. But, the bottom line is that the country needs more generating and distribution of electricity. Many people cannot afford electricity and get it by using ‘throw ups’. Other people who can afford electricity also steal it: saving money, is saving. Life has moved towards the expectancy of many modern appliances, but for many it’s just about the basic need for light. Electricity is very expensive (about 40 US cents a kilowatt hour). I try to do what I can to curb our costs: I turn off lights and urge members of my household to use solar power when at all possible. It’s not easy, not least from habits that are born from convenience. However, something is wrong with our systems. I noted how much lower our bills became during the relatively cool recent months, but also because I’d ‘negotiated’ the turning off of air conditioners. However, a friend and I had a discussion about this last week: he’d given up trying to save, after cutting off the air conditioners in his house, but the bill barely changing. Either someone was tapping into his source, or his meter was dicky.

When I was growing up in Jamaica in the late-1950s, my grandparents home in deep rural St. Elizabeth had no electricity. I could not see an electricity pole anywhere. We lived by sunlight and kerosene lamp. That was in the time before television in most homes. Of course, we couldn’t have a radio, either. News was by word of mouth or by newspapers. News travelled slowly, not at today’s near instantaneous speeds. Life seemed slower. Rural Jamaica still has much of that slowness, best shown in the way people give directions: landmarks are more used, including the homes of families, which don’t change much. “Go up so. Turn at Mas’ Cambell’s house–the red one. Look for the mango tree down so. Then pass that and head toward the river…” How long this trip will take is not a matter of interest. “You’ll soon reach.” Take any fruit or food offered, because it could be a long walk, if on foot.

Throw-up wires to steal electricity in Jamaica
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Cows grazing on roadside verge between Kingston and Spanish Town

That slowness of life is still part of Jamaica. Even though I now live in the capital, it’s not all high-rise buildings, roads filled with cars and people, large homes with manicured gardens. Just on the edge of Kingston, life is lived at the pace of a deep rural community. Even in the city, trappings of rural life abound. I live with goats, and occasionally pigs or cows, being a feature of my surroundings. It’s nothing odd to see cows tethered on the roadside, grazing for the day.

Jamaica has a large population by Caribbean standards, but is still a small place. People tend to notice who they are with. I went to the bank yesterday afternoon. Banking is a slow process, even though we’ve seen much automation. As I stood in line, two men hailed each other. “Where’ve you been, man?” one asked. “In the country. I don’t come to Kingston much,” came the reply. Both men looked older than me, and I presumed were retired. As I noted above, country-life is slower paced and many people like getting back to that kind of environment.

However, when I got to the front, I joked that it was morning when I came into the bank, but it was now mid-afternoon. The cashier smiled with a wrinkled brow, then immediately asked “Do you remember me?” I took another look at her face. It seemed vaguely familiar. “We were at the swim meet on Saturday,” she added. She was right. Just one meeting, albeit over an hour or so, and my face was in her memory bank. We talked about how our children had performed, and parted, looking forward to the next swim meet. All of a sudden, my visit to the bank had taken on a different feel. I parted with my wad of cash–another aspect of how life has to be led. I could now pay a series of service workers whom I would meet in coming days. Cash is king.

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Young athletes waiting at National Stadium, ahead of Camperdown Classic

Her mentioning the swim event reminded me that at the Stadium complex this past weekend, we’d seen the place used to the maximum. Swimming at the Aquatic Centre, over three days. Track and field going on in the main stadium during Saturday–Camperdown Classic. Netball matches going on at the adjacent hard courts. Jamaica’s youths were out in full force. They are not all feckless, sex-crazed, good-for-nothing individuals. Here was a hard core of hard-working people, looking to enjoy themselves and show off their skills. The young runners and jumpers would be alongside some of their idols, now international stars, who had begun doing similar events when at school. The netballers and runners were mainly teenagers, and we never saw one arrive in a car; on foot, by bus, they had made their way. The swimmers, mainly prep or primary schoolers, were the ones who’d arrived by car.

But, big events mean big sales in Jamaica. When my daughter and I arrived at the pool on Saturday morning, at about 7am, we noticed that the vendors were just setting up their stands. Food of all sorts. Trinkets of many types. A chance to make money during the next 12 hours. More than a day’s work and maybe more than a day’s earnings. It was a bumper weekend, because on the Friday night a concert had been taking place adjacent to the stadium. No fancy concession stands with name burgers or pizza. Soup. Rice and peas. Jerk food. Drinks. Staples of the Jamaican road diner.

This story has a new page turning every day.

Jamaica is a constant bag of fun and frustrations.

Eroding our own future

Some news commentary on the radio this morning has been with me all day. Criminals have been evicting people from their homes, then forcing the persons to rent back the premises from them. Jamaicans have some strange ways of extortion and making lives of so-called fellow citizens unbearable.

Those involved in crime are finding new areas of activity. There’s really no limit to where crime can take place, in terms of what can be used as the lever with which to force people into uncomfortable positions. The idea of being able to get away from crime by living in certain areas or closing areas off from the general public is a fallacy. Living in gated communities or the other common practice of locked doors to business premises provide a degree of security only at those places–and it’s only a degree. A friend told me how neighbours in his gated complex had been held up and robbed. It seemed that what happened must have needed ‘inside help’.

Here is the crux of what seems to have happened to Jamaica. Crime has become a tourniquet. The recent newspaper article in the Gleaner about the existence of ‘death squads’ in the police force, who receive instructions from senior officers to kill criminals points to an unending circle. The extraordinary levels of killings of civilians by security forces now had a more sinister context. With a day of the press report, another police killing occurred, in downtown Kingston (Orange Villa) this time the victim might have suffered from ‘mistaken identity’.

Crime seems to be everywhere. Crime seems to involve almost any and everyone, including those who are appointed to fight crime and protect the rest of us. This is a maddening dilemma to face. Lawlessness is so ingrained in what passes for normal life that it becomes difficult to understand how the country can really function.

We hear reports of extensive gang activity. We hear and read about drugs trading. We are constantly informed about thefts, often with violence: nothing is safe if it can be moved. Livestock; electrical goods; money; cars; household contents. We are so aware of theft that reports of sand mining at Duncans (Trelawny) quickly brought concern that the beach was being stolen. Government sources indicate that the mining was all legitimate. But, our suspicions were raised quickly; it had happened before.

Crime has taken a deep hold of the society and much economic activity. It is inevitable, in many respects. People have had little hope for so long and have decided to ‘make hope’. The easiest way to make that hope real, is to take away the hopes and dreams of others. Nothing need be created besides fear. Then, extract. It’s a cynical way to live, but there we’ve gone.

I believe that poor economic performance over decades has pushed many Jamaicans to a brink over which they then tumbled. Others followed, thinking that the gains far exceeded the risks of loss. Things wont change much unless that economic malaise ends.

Another piece of news struck me today. The UK recorded much better than expected employment data. Britain’s Prime Minister (@Number10gov) took to Twitter quickly to record his reactions: “Biggest quarterly increase in employment on record. More jobs means more security, peace of mind & opportunity for the British people.”

Britain has high unemployment by western European standards–7 percent; with youth unemployment (16 to 24-year-olds) at 21 percent. Compared this to Jamaica’s 16 percent and 40 percent, respectively. That island economy’s leader understands what poses major dangers and what is needed to avoid that. To repeat: “More jobs means more security, peace of mind & opportunity“. It’s not that simple, but it’s that simple.

Dawn arising, but who stole the sun?

One of life’s sad realities is that we are all not blessed in the same ways. Those who could be termed ‘gifted’ (or a similar positive term) tend to have that accolade because ‘good’ things happen to them or ‘bad’ things avoid them, or both. Some have a rich mixture of both and will either feel neutral or tend to the side where the majority of experience tilts. This applies to people as individuals but also, collectively, as nations.

Jamaica is a place where the rich mixture applies. Blessed with a wonderful, warm climate over a lush and beautiful landscape, and surrounded by glistening sea water. The land and sea provide some of the best things that nature can offer. The people who now live there are mainly the offspring of slaves brought from Africa over 400 years ago, mixed with other immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, India, and China, who came voluntarily and involuntarily. They have melded and formed a fascinating multicultural mess. For most of its history, Jamaica has had few instances of civil strife between the different cultures. Yes, slaves rebelled against British landowners and political rulers. Yes, blacks have had instances of rioting against Chinese businesses. Yes, people who were not Rastafarians have attacked and victimized Rastas.

When Jamaica was a colony, it could not carve out unilaterally an identity for itself that was free from the control of its colonial masters. However, Jamaicans tried to show that they would not let these colonial rulers dictate without challenge. Slave riots in the 19th century resulted in significant changes in the relationship Britain had with the island it ruled. Labour unrest in the 1930s and the push for universal suffrage changed the perception of Jamaicans about themselves and their rights, and changed Britain’s view of this then-colony’s willingness to be subjected to second class or worse citizenship.

The world was changing and Jamaica was part of the trend that was underway to challenge Imperialism. After the Second World War, colonies across the world were looking to break away from colonizers. Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to take its Independence from Britian. Among its Caribbean counterparts, Jamaica has often been in the forefront of developments–good and bad.

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Since, Independence in 1962, the country has tried to steer itself upon a path it wants to call its own. It’s been a rocky road. Its political life has been turbulent. The country has lived with a ‘tribal’ divide in national politics, which has seen divisions worsened by violent confrontations and developments of physical areas of control and exclusion in the so-called ‘garrisons’.

Its economic fortunes have not really been very good. Jamaica has been like many countries trying to develop but being small and not able to do much more than live off its natural attributes. Even though the country has seen its population grow rapidly, its economic base has not changed much in a fundamental way.

Jamaica has used its natural blessings.

Jamaica is what it grows: fruit, vegetables, fish, sugar cane. Jamaica is what is under the ground: bauxite, once discovered, became king. Jamaica, however, did manage to gain something more for adding value to its dirt by developing an alumina industry.

Jamaica is its climate. Once sugar and bananas did not hold sway as products to sell, Jamaica could sell its sunshine, sea, and sand, and foreign tourists flocked to sample them.

Jamaica was not about making many things. It bottled drinks and sold its excellent rums, and managed to create a great local beer. It processed some fruit and vegetables. It made medical products based on local herbs and plants, many of which have never had equal or better. It began to process its national dishes to sell locally and abroad. It tried to use its labour to make garments, a popular stepping stone for developing countries.

But, its blessings and things that came naturally have not been enough.

Jamaica was too small to develop many industries to dominate international markets. Its indigenous goods found markets but again have not seen demand swell enormously. It could not make cars, ships, steel, or other large scale items wanted by many countries at prices that would be competitive. It could use its people to offer services to each other and the rest of the world, but we have done that without being very competitive compared to local neighbors or others in further places–and these activities need us to be super competitive.

Those things that brought money to Jamaica, however, have not been enough to cover all the things that Jamaicans want to buy. As life changed, so did tastes. People wanted foreign food. People wanted to enjoy what richer countries had, and that mainly meant cars and the things that make cars work–oil. We wanted to enjoy electricity, and what it powered; we went with the production model that was common, fueling power generation by oil, which we did not have. We did not exploit our natural attributes in the form of sunlight, wind and waves. We wanted a life built on imports. Nothing wrong with that if you can afford it, but a big problem if you cannot and it becomes engrained, almost an entitlement.

Sadly, for Jamaicans, living beyond our natural and financial means has become the norm. We are now living with the pain that such excess should impose. Maybe, people thought that it was possible to live beyond our means for ever, or at least for a very long time. It really shouldn’t be hard to understand that living off gifts and loans has never been something that lasts very long, or occurs except on special occasions.

If Jamaica is like many people, it will take a lot of pain before being convinced that things have to change. Right now, the current wave of pain has not yet become extreme, but squeals of agony are beginning to get louder and come from places that were quiet before.
Much of the pain comes from a visual and real image that people do not like–their currency getting increasingly lower in value compared to other money in the world. That hits pride as well as pocket. Some of the pain is coming from bills not having the flexibility to be put off anymore. Debt allowed many (both persons and government) to enjoy what they wanted but really could not afford. Now, repaying debt is eating up literally what food people had eaten in the past. Some people may like to blame the government for being excessive, but individuals have done their part, too.

But, if change is to come, it will mean giving up much that people have taken for granted. That is unlikely to happen fast unless through some catastrophe. So, people will have to wean themselves or be weaned from the current patterns. Many will want to hang on till the last. People will also have to consider how to better exploit some ‘blessings’, which are almost natural, in that they are very much part of the country.

The country has a rich vein of creativity that has been captivating nationals and foreigners for well over a century. This has shown itself in music, dance, painting, writing, sport, food, different life styles, ingenious solutions to life’s problems, and more. We have exploited them, but not fully by any extent of the imagination.

We have gifted and talented people who cannot use their talents in the country or are not valued within the country. We understand that our doctors, nurses, teachers, artists, athletes may leave to ply their skills abroad, for more money, more fame, maybe more support, maybe more opportunities in the future. But, are we doing anything to stem that flow?

Platitudes won’t stop emigration. Jobs and good pay would help. Neither seems to be on the menu. Pleas of moral suasion won’t necessarily halt the flow, either. Pricking someone’s conscience will not affect them much if they also have to look at themselves and those they support and still see that they are in a plight. A pricked conscience does not pay rent, buy food, clothe children, or improve education and health options. That said, many have ‘hung on’ and not fled abroad, but for how much longer?

Migration has been a mixed blessing for Jamaica, both curse and cure. Many have left and supported those left behind. They took pressure off the local job market. But, we lost their sills and hardly gained a soul to replace those.

So, is Jamaica approaching a serious decision point, which has been on the horizon or a very long time? Can it change without catastrophe, or will it have to go through an extra layer of pain before curbing behaviour?

Economic policies can only affect directly some parts of a country’s problems and won’t go very far if the underlying behaviour problem goes unchanged, because people will soon revert to old habits. Jamaica may be on its way to tackling only a part of its difficulties and not really set to do more than find itself a breathing space.

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Goat, anyone?

Let’s go with the splash headline. EVERYONE IN JAMAICA TALKING ABOUT GOAT ISLANDS. I know it’s not true but the topic has taken up a lot of headline space and news reporting. What’s the big fuss? A couple of largely abandoned islands off Jamaica’s south coast may be part of some plans for industrial development. The islands are in an environmental protection area and reefs around them are supposed to be the breeding ground of many fish. Very few Jamaicans know where these islands are and even fewer have been anywhere near them. They generate little directly that can be called economic activity, but by allowing fish to breed, they provide the base of livelihood for local fishermen.

The islands are also home of some important flora and fauna, in the form of cacti and mangrove. They have lovely beaches, largely unspoiled, we’d expect. They were once the home of local iguanas–thought extinct in the 1940s–but these have mostly been eaten by other predators, such as goats.

Local environmentalists are worried that any development may go ahead without due regard to the need to protect the special qualities of the Goat Islands.

Some feel that local environmentalists are like rich kids wanting to protect their comfortable lifestyles without regard for the needs of those who are not financially secure, have few or no job opportunities, or are struggling in other social ways. They see only the prospects of jobs and feel that any noise over protecting the environment will kill those jobs, even though no one can say how many or what types these may be. Some have rudely told the environmentalists to “Go to Hell!”–rudeness, for sure.

Developing the area industrially could go ahead without destroying the special environment, but protective measures would be a burden on investors that they may wish to avoid. Disturbance, pollution, invasion of other species of animals or plants, and more, will take place once development starts in the area. Over time, the area could recover, though there’s no knowing if that would happen.

Of course, the need for jobs is desperate, and like a drowning person about to suck on the mouthpiece of an air tank, any attempt to cut off the possibility of oxygen–or jobs–leads to panic.

Right now, one thing that is clear is that little information has been shared about many important things concerning possible development of the Goat Islands. All of the information is not in one place or any single person–about the investors and their plans; about possible impact on the islands; about possible legal restrictions on developing the islands; about local concerns; and more.

Little by little, that fog of ignorance is being lifted, but as often happens, ignorance and misinformation will guide many discussions in the meantime.

We need a few goats in the area to deal with the rubbish. We could use them also to butt a few people so that they see more clearly what is going on. We should also remember that goat milk is very good but people love to milk things till they’re dry or till just they are satisfied.

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Tear down this wall?

One intriguing aspect of the informality that characterizes Jamaican economic and social life is housing. If you’ve visited the island and not noticed the galvanized zinc/corrugated iron surroundings for some communities, and the plyboard sidings for many homes, which mark shanty towns, then you were asleep or not paying attention. If you’ve missed them, then drive near some of the gullies on lower ground in Kingston, or alongside rivers around the island.

“I would tear them down,” I heard someone utter last night as we approached Kingston from the west, along Washington Boulevard. “Then what would you do?” I asked. Unsightly, they may be, but important they are, too. They display very clearly some of the strains put on a nation as it develops. Poor people looking for work and new opportunities far outstripping available housing. With a large enough housing stock, one could see more rooms to let absorbing most of the newcomers, if they were able to afford rents. When Caribbean migrants went to the UK, USA, and Canada, after the mid-1940s, that’s what many found, and they did not need to make shanty towns. They often lived in substandard and overcrowded conditions, at least, initially.

Shanty dwellings or similar are not new, historically or geographically, especially as urban areas developed and people left the land to find work in larger towns and cities.

Estimates put squatter populations at about 1 billion, worldwide, about 1/6 of world total. Other estimates put the number of squatters in Jamaica at about 1 million, about a third of the total population. Poor services, limited amenities, high-density living, drugs, crime, diseases–all are part of daily squatter life.

Those squatters, despite their parlous and shambolic housing, often mean votes. They certainly do in Jamaica. Who’d want to dislodge voters from their homes? Keeping people in such circumstances, however, keeps the embers burning under a possible tinderbox, so, periodic social explosions should not come as a surprise. These communities can also be the source of many vibrant and creative social elements, as people claw and scrape to rise from the slums.

Last year, sociologist Peter Espuit wrote an article about Jamaica’s housing challenges. It explained much of the social and economic origin of the migration from rural areas to urban ones, especially Kingston. He also focused on the inequalities to which housing added. Importantly, he looked at the political significance of squatter and low-income communities in the tribal cauldron of Jamaican politics.

Maybe, if you have no constituents or no national links then you can talk glibly about tearing down the zinc. I don’t see any spanking new housing sprouting up to take any of the shanty dwellers. Clearing the areas without any provision for the new homeless is tantamount to insanity.

Perhaps, it was propitious that today’s Daily Observer included an article about Digicel’s role in revitalizing downtown Kingston. By bringing business activity back into the long-rundown waterfront area, hopes have been raised. Digicel added to life by investing in rehabilitating Coronation Market. Interesting, revitalizing housing downtown doesn’t get much mention. Poor people adjacent to budding business areas often sit awkwardly. Think about the City of London or Wall Street.

However, for life to be brought back into downtown housing, which now has swathes of slum housing in what were once good housing areas, one would need something like gentrification to occur. Is that likely? This phenomenon, common in developed countries, has featured little in developing nations, including the Caribbean. Developing countries have focused more on new housing rather than rehabilitation of existing housing.20130825-141804.jpgJamaica may not have a substantial enough cohort of identified gentrification types for that to be a realistic trend, near-term–affluent singles or childless couples, homosexuals, and artists or ‘Bohemian’ types.

Enough Jamaicans know what it is to live in poor housing, or to have limited services. I know many who drive past the shanty dwellings and think back to either childhood days or life in deep rural communities, if not their own, then for someone close. Go, ahead! Think about tearing them down.