Tourism has long been the leading economic sector in Jamaica, bringing in half of all foreign revenue to support a quarter of all jobs. Yet government officials now risk jeopardizing that lucrative business, and Jamaica’s reputation in the international community, with a secretive deal to let a Chinese company build a mega-freighter seaport smack-dab in the nation’s largest natural protected area.
So reports: TakePart
The planned port would occupy the Goat Islands, in the heart of the Portland Bight Protected Area, which only last year the same government officials were petitioning UNESCO to designate a Global Biosphere Reserve. Instead, the lure of a $1.5 billion investment and a rumored 10,000 jobs has resulted in the deal with China Harbour Engineering Company, part of a conglomerate blacklisted by the World Bank under its Fraud and Corruption Sanctioning Policy.
Many details of the proposed project remain unknown, and the government has rebuffed repeated requests for information under Jamaica’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. But the plan is believed to involve clear-cutting the mangrove forests on both Goat Islands, building up a level work area using dredge spoils from the surrounding waters, and constructing a coal-fired power plant to support the new infrastructure. The port, including areas currently designated as marine sanctuaries, would accommodate “post-Panamax”-size ships—up to 1,200 feet long and with a 50-foot draft—arriving via the newly expanded Panama Canal.
The new port would compromise an area known for extensive sea‐grass beds, coral reefs, wetlands, and Jamaica’s largest mangrove forests (mangroves sequester more per-acre carbon than rainforests do). The protected area is also home to the Jamaican iguana, a species believed extinct until its dramatic rediscovery in 1990. Since then, the international conservation community has spent millions of dollars rebuilding the iguana population in a protected forest in the Hellshire Hills, part of the reserve adjacent to the proposed port. Much of that investment hinged on the government’s promise, now apparently discarded, that the Goat Islands would become a permanent home for the iguanas, which are Jamaica’s largest vertebrate species.
According to Anole Annals
The China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) has proposed the construction of a trans shipping port and logistics hub in Jamaica to take advantage of the expansion of the Panama Canal, and has selected the Goat islands as its suitable location, even going so far as to decline several alternatives which were offered for development due to land area restraints as well as the optimal location of the islands in relation to Kingston Harbour. Should the project receive the go ahead from the Jamaican parliament, it is likely that the entire PBPA will be affected. With an estimated budget of US$1.5 billion (so far I do not believe the government has explicitly stated the exact amount) invested by CHEC, this is a construction project on a grand scale. The size of the port would greatly exceed the combined area of the Goat Islands, which in all likelihood would be bulldozed and dredged in the process as the water around the islands is only 11 feet deep, and would extend onto the coastal mainland. The construction of the port as well as the resulting economic activities that it would open the way for would have a devastating impact on the coastal dry forest ecosystems of the PBPA as a result of pollution as well as environmental degradation seeing as the Goat Islands and their surrounding reefs serve as natural buffers to effect of waves on the coastline. Should the port be built, it is very likely that many of the endemic plant and animal species of the PBPA , which represent a large chunk of the endemic biodiversity of the Caribbean, would be lost.Jamaica’s existing port in Kingston Harbor could be expanded to handle the new traffic, Alfred Sangster, past president of Jamaica’s University of Technology, wrote earlier this week in the Jamaica Observer. The Chinese decision to reject that option “reflects a clear desire to have an enclave on the islands” where it can operate with fewer restrictions. He characterized the Chinese as the “new colonialists…in a country which has long memories of the legacies of colonialism.”
The project is still being reviewed and the government has not signed off on the area as the definite location of the Logistics hub yet. The area is currently being assessed by the Jamaican Port Authority to investigate the social, economical and environmental implications that this will have and the project is being reviewed by CHEC in order to draft a final proposal to the Jamaican government. The government seems intent on going through with the project and so far key members in the debate have expressed sentiments such as that ”two likkle lizaad” (two small lizards) are not enough to hinder the development of the Jamaican economy. Admittedly, some of Jamaica’s involved ministers have not given details as to whether not the project is likely to be undertaken in the PBPA.
Diana McCaulay, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, noted that the government has already relaxed work permit rules and created new categories of economic citizenship to accommodate the proposed project. On previous projects with Chinese contractors, she said, the majority of employees have been Chinese people. “And where they do employ Jamaican people, they don’t obey our work rules,” she said. She also worried that the secret terms of the deal may include tax or other incentives. “What is the benefit to Jamaica? That’s not clear.”
She added that China Harbour had insisted on building a coal-fired power plant, despite the inevitable contribution to climate change, because Jamaica’s electricity rates are too high. “Imagine that. We have to pay [the high rates], and they don’t.”
As one of the most indebted nations in the world, Jamaica is dependent on an International Monetary Fund financial package that stipulates paying down the nation’s debts. McCaulay attributed the deal to “desperation for what they call ‘development,’ but it’s more about winning an election in two years” for the government of Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller “than any benefit to Jamaica.”
Conservationists say the Jamaican government does not much concern itself over internal protests, but both Jamaica and China are concerned about international opinion. Jamaica’s economy depends largely on European and American tourists, and the U.S. consumer market is the ultimate destination for most ships that would be using the Goat Islands port. So signatures from outside Jamaica may carry weight on a petition asking Prime Minister Simpson-Miller to stop the proposed development.
Remember, the Jamaican government and the China Harbour Engineering Company do not care about the Jamaican people. They and CHEC do care deeply about world opinion though. Here is a chance to make them squirm.