International Day of Happiness, 20 March 2014

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wants us to observe the International Day of Happiness in an appropriate manner, including through education and public awareness-raising activities. This is the second anniversary of this ‘celebration’. From what I have seen from an early reading of the newspapers, Jamaica has nothing special planned for today; I may have to be corrected later. Last year, at least, an article in a local paper mentioned the day.

We do have something already prepared–as they used to say on cookery programs. Pharrell Williams sings an infectious song that has become the theme of many in a short period of time. In this fast-moving, electronic age, many have already made their own versions of the song and we can share them. It is tempting to look at Jamaica and see all the signs of unhappiness and ask how they could be made to disappear. I’ll resist that temptation, fearing that “How?” may lead me to a period of deep depression, that would become deeper as I asked “When?”

So, while Bhutan can glow in the knowledge that it has tried to quantify the pursuit of happiness as a national object, I will just make the case that we all try to be happy and make someone happy today. If that’s beyond you, just listen to ‘Jamaica Happy’.

If the mood really grabs you, let me suggest that you grab someone and hum or sing the tune with them. Who knows? The infection could spread. My somewhat warped sense of humour can easily envisage our Parliamentarians breaking into this song this afternoon. If it would not breach protocol, it would be made better if the Queen’s representative, the Governor General, and his wife came sashaying into the chamber. My warped imagination also has me seeing ‘two likkle lizards’ getting their groove on…

Wetlands and water
Wetlands, food, and water

Goat Islands and logistics hub: dealing with some of its lack of logic

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.

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.

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.

Is Jamaica held in CHEC?

So, the good Dr. Omar Davies, Jamaica’s Transport, Works and Housing Minister, gave us some of what for which we had been longing. He told Parliament about the preliminary stages of plans, by China Harbour Engineering Company Limited (CHEC) to develop a logistics hub on the Goat Islands. The Port Authority of Jamaica will be responsible for project development and implementation. The Minister called this preliminary thingy an Initial Framework Agreement (we may call it ‘IFA’…IFA this…).

The project is expected to create 2000 jobs during construction; 10000 jobs will be there at the end. The government will negotiate ratios of Jamaican to Chinese workers. What kind of jobs, sir? Wait boy! There will be jobs.

We were ‘warned’ that Jamaica is not the only ‘game in town’. CHEC is ready to mate with other suitors, though Jamaica has certain ‘advantages’ (unspecified). I wonder if it’s our wonderful jerk chicken or maybe some of our other greenfield developments sprouting in our countryside.

CHEC can go ahead and conduct geotechnical studies and engineering surveys. A technical feasibility study should be completed by April 2014, then preliminary designs of phase 1 will begin and completed by end-June 2014. Then CHEC will present to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), to seek terms of reference for an environmental impact analysis (EIA). At completion of the EIA, the project will be ready for presentation to Cabinet. Phew!

Oh, I nearly forgot. CHEC want to develop a coal-fired power plant on the Goat Islands. Imagine them not wanting to pay the current rate of US42 cents a kilowatt-hour.

If people were nervous about the whole development before, I think they are super worried now. “Look at that, Cheryl! Jamaica dun got itself some smoke stacks way off in the yonder that used to be blue.” Did I hear someone mention China’s record on pollution on coal-powered energy production? Turn up the gramaphone, dear. I love that song ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’.

Is there any chance the Chinese developers will produce some extra electricity to sell to other Jamaicans at a lower rate? That would be interesting to set aside current discussions on a 360 megawatt plant. What? Mega What!

Jamaica’s environmental lobby, mainly the Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET) has already raised its concerns about the whole concept of developing on the Goat Islands. Their CEO, Diana McCaulay, has already been quick to raise that “Coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels, so there are emissions of mercury, arsenic, ash, a long list of them, and it is also the main greenhouse gas; the main gas that causes global climate change.” Will the ‘fight’ over this project also have to get dirty and dusty?

Johnny Nash was a great Jamaican singer and he had many songs still memorable today. I feel that his time may be coming again, after the little expose we got yesterday. There are more questions than answers.

The more I find out, the less I know.

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.