The public interest and the environment

The Jamaica Observer
John Maxwell, Sunday, May 21, 2006

We tend to treat our environment like most men treat their wives. She's there, so what? We assign no value to her work or, even, to her presence. She is expected to perform general, unspecified duties; to take care of the children, cooking and things, and most important, to clean up after us.

In Jamaica, for more than 80 years, Kingston has daily pumped up to 20 million gallons of its sewage into Kingston Harbour, untreated and full of pathogens. We've also dumped our solid waste into our harbour, motor car tyres, lead acid batteries and even entire vehicles.

The detritus of our productivity washes into the harbour, contaminating it with acids and caustics, with heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, with pesticides and herbicides like DDT, lindane and Agent Orange and a variety of noxious and toxic wastes that make most of the water in the harbour dangerous to our health and lethal to the life forms which once made the harbour one of the world's single most productive pieces of sea water.

The assumption was that the sea cleans up everything, like a wife. A little over 30 years ago, we in Jamaica began to discover that this was not so. The trigger was a doctoral study of Kingston Harbour done by Barry Wade for his tutor, Professor Ivan Goodbody, who had for years been vainly warning about the mess we were making of the harbour.

I happened to have been appointed chairman of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) a year or two after Wade's study was published. As part of my own preparation for that job I ransacked the NRCA library for everything I could find that was current and important. When I read Wade's study I was astonished and horrified. Astonished and horrified that the conditions he described could exist and astonished and horrified that my colleagues in journalism had seen fit to completely ignore the report.

I brought the report to the attention of my board. NRCA was really four boards: the Beach Control Authority, the Watersheds Protection Commission, the Wildlife Protection Committee and the Kingston Harbour Water Quality Monitoring group set up a few years earlier at Goodbody's insistence.

When I presented the report to the Authority, they were as alarmed as I was. Within a week we had assembled a group of experts, including Wade and Goodbody, and within about three weeks we had produced an action plan for rescuing Kingston Harbour.

We were concerned that the people of Jamaica, and particularly Kingston, had been stealthily deprived of an abundant source of protein food as well as their most accessible recreational area. We wanted to fix it as quickly as possible. Our solutions were basically low-tech and not capital intensive.

The plan was to begin by cleaning up the gullies - former streams - which carried enormous quantities of waste into the harbour. We were going to reforest the mountains behind Kingston, to reduce soil erosion, which we estimated was costing us more than US$30 million annually in lost agricultural production (coffee and other crops which did not disturb the soil).

We would create a real solution to the problem of domestic and industrial waste, and we were going to build a passive sewage recycling system which would provide water for irrigation and restore the depleted and salt-infused aquifers of the Liguanea, St Catherine and Clarendon plains.

Two factors derailed our plans: the IMF restrictions on government spending and the inability of politicians to understand the huge returns from the plan.

We recognised that if Kingston Harbour's recreational potential were restored we would once again have public bathing beaches in the harbour, sport fishing and yachting. The clean-up would provide lots of jobs for unskilled people who could thereby be absorbed and trained into a more highly skilled workforce.

We would be relocating the hillside farmers who destroyed hundreds of acres of land every year, trying to get a patch of land on which to grow food. And, to cut a long story short, we would reinvigorate the public spirit of the people, mainly through a sort of parliament of the harbour's users and increase the environmental and spiritual value of this beautiful 21 sq mile lagoon turned cesspool.

We were stymied by the IMF strictures and political ignorance. On the day our plan was published, the IMF demanded and got the head of Finance Minister David Coore, who I knew would have understood the value of our plan.

Fast forward three decades. Two new plans have been developed for the resuscitation of Kingston Harbour, financed by external donors, secure in the knowledge that Jamaica has surrendered to the Washington consensus. Each of these plans has cost more to design than the entire cost, including the sewage ponds, of our plan.

Twenty years later, in its 1997 Manifesto, the PNP appealed to the people to re-elect the party because it would safeguard the "God-given" environment and would do everything to protect the Jamaican patrimony.

Three years after that Manifesto was launched, we caught the government in the act of trying to destroy Hope Botanical Gardens to give a developer the right to construct palazzos for the rich with the public gardens as their front yards.

While we managed to derail that piece of vandalism, we were unable to stop them doing something at least as bad and perhaps worse, handing over to that same developer one of the most precious pieces of property in the world to build a gated community which now creeps like a cancer over Long Mountain.

The world's bio-scientists and environmentalists have selected a few special areas round the world as biodiversity 'hot spots' - areas of immeasurable importance to the survival of humanity since they contain examples of some of the rarest and most endangered species of plants and animals.

The Greater Antilles, including Jamaica, is one such hot spot. Within Jamaica, Wareika Hill was one hot spot, valuable not only for the variety of its species, mainly of small life forms, but including one plant, Portlandia albiflora, found nowhere else in Jamaica and not anywhere else in the world.

In addition to its importance in biodiversity, Wareika Hill is the site of ancient Taino/Arawak settlements, which have never been examined by serious scientists. This suits some people, of course, because the less we know of pre-Colombian history, the better for us. The Patterson administration's environmental record, besmirched by Wareika, is even worse.

For several years the NRCA, transformed into the National Environmental and Planning Agency, has failed to protect the public interest.

It has allowed the Urban Development Corporation and the tourist industry to capture public beaches, it has gone ahead with major landscape destruction schemes like the Doomsday (Millennium) Highway and the North Coast Highway without allowing the people they are supposed to serve any real input into the decision making.

The "Strategic" EIA for the Doomsday Highway is a classic. As I pointed out in a previous column [Divine Right, Jan 2003] : 'The concept is so breathtakingly simple, so straightforward, so elegant, if you will, that I cannot imagine why nobody thought of it before:

"Birds located in the modified vegetative communities will relocate when their habitat is removed. Species along the proposed alignment such as reptiles are also highly mobile and should also relocate to adjacent similar habitats."

Of course. Why protect habitat when you can simply inform the birds, lizards, frogs and other highly mobile life-forms that they must "relocate".

"Govament waan de lan!" - that's all you have to tell them, and like gypsies, they will pick up their bags and baggage, pots, pans and household effects and decamp to less valuable real estate.

The government allowed a Belgian dredging company, at the behest of the Port Authority, to dredge up and relocate toxic wastes from the bottom of Kingston Harbour to a new landfill off Portmore, and the deleterious and possibly fatal effects of this new Minimata will probably not be evident for decades.

There are other high crimes, but the most egregious of all may be the fact that while the SPAW Protocol to the Cartagena Convention resides in a building at the bottom of Duke Street, Jamaica is the only significant country which has not ratified the protocol. David McTaggart, founder of Greenpeace International, told me that SPAW was the single most important legal instrument anywhere for the protection of biodiversity.

SPAW is a detailed treaty for the protection of sensitive and important species and habitats. This means that if SPAW had been ratified by Jamaica, the government would have found it almost impossible to plan and carry out its environmental depredations of the last few years.

Enthusiasm is great, but without a little moolah, it is difficult to stop a determined bureaucracy on its destructive path through the environment. Two Jamaican environmental NGOs and two individuals managed to scrape together enough money to drag the government before the High Court and to call a halt to the environmental rape of Pear Tree Bottom near Runaway Bay in St Ann.

Last week, High Court Judge Brian Sykes made several rulings which: . quashed the permit granted by the NRCA to Hotels Jamaica Pinero Ltd, (a Spanish group); . ordered the NRCA to reconsider its grant of the permit; and . declared that the NRCA had not followed its own rules in granting the permit.

The 'Development' lobby is up in arms. The judgment, they say, will hinder 'development' and scare off foreign investors. It has not occurred to them that in their native countries, most developers would not be able to even propose the kind of developments we routinely approve.

European authorities and courts have consistently ruled against granting permissions without public participation. In 1998, 35 countries and the European Union signed the Aarhus "Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decison-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters".

The convention is intended to provide an innovative model of multilateral policymaking and promises to create a new operating environment for public agencies and the corporate world. "It promotes citizen involvement as a key to preventing environmental mismanagement.

"Its principles of transparency and public accountability are integral to the meaningful practice of democratic governance. The Convention furthermore takes the first steps in promoting environmental transparency and accountability norms beyond the nation state.

"It establishes common regional disclosure and participation standards as well as what could be called horizontal accountability by governments and corporations to NGOs and citizens 'irrespective of their citizenship, nationality or domicile'" (from a commentary by Elena Petkova and Peter Veit of the World Resources Institute.)

This in essence means that the Spaniards may as well accept the Jamaican judgment, because if they appeal, the NGOs can appeal to the European Commission, which will certainly enforce the Aarhus Convention and, perhaps, impose even stricter sanctions against the hoteliers.

The lesson to be learnt is that everything we do is eventually of global importance. We live in a world without borders, in which justice will not be restricted by jurisdictions, because whatever we do here either increases or decreases the global prospects for survival.

If we destroy wetlands and kill million-year-old reefs in Runaway Bay, we are damaging the heritage of mankind, not just the prospect of a few tourists. And the tourists are becoming more scrupulous about where they take their vacations, and if they know that their hostelry was built at the expense of the environment, many will find other places to stay.

Our captive dolphins, then, are an affront not only to scientists and environmentalists in Jamaica, they are an affront to the world. But in the Caribbean, we are preparing an even bigger insult to the world community.

"Timeo Danaos et donae ferentes" translated is "I fear of the Greeks, even when they bring gifts". In Virgil's Aenid, Laocoon, priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans not to accept the wooden horse 'donated' to them by the Greeks. He was blinded for his pains and the Wooden Horse in due time discharged its cargo of Greek soldiers who then proceed to rape and destroy the city which had withstood their siege for so long.

Our modern Greeks are the Japanese, who have presented many Caribbean islands with fishing equipment and other baubles. Five hundred years ago, the Manikongo, king of the Congo, complained bitterly to the King of Portugal - who he thought was his friend - asking him to stop the operations of the Portuguese traders whose bangles and beads were corrupting the weak and entrapping the unwary:

"The merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the lands and the sons of noblemen and vassals and our relatives, because the thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom which they are so ambitious of; they grab them and get them to be sold; and so great is the corruption and licentiousness that our country is being completely depopulated, and You, Highness, should not agree with this nor accept it as in your service."

The Japanese aren't buying slaves; they are buying votes. They are buying votes to overturn the moratorium on whaling for profit. This question will come up next month at the International Whaling Commission's meeting in St Kitts.

There, the Japanese are expected to score a coup, with the votes of Antigua, St Kitts, Dominica, St Vincent & the Grenadines and St Lucia, together less than half-a-million people, the Japanese will turn back the rest of the world which wants to outlaw whaling altogether. Monday is International Biodiversity Day. We in the Caribbean will be celebrating it with the best of them.

jankunna [at]