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Friday, December 06, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Jamaica’s ‘Port Goat’: jobs or marine reserve?
Another week, another island. Jamaica’s prime minister Portia Simpson Miller, spent last week on a five-day visit to Beijing. After the welcome and gun salutes, she met President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang—and representatives of the China Communications Construction Company, whose subsidiary China Harbour has its western hemisphere headquarters in Jamaica.
China Harbour wants to push ahead with a mega-project for port development on the Goat Islands, a mile offshore from Jamaica’s Hellshire Hills. These are “arguably the most protected piece of land in Jamaica,” says Diana McCaulay, of the Jamaica Environment Trust. Environment minister Robert Pickersgill—one of only two cabinet members in Jamaica’s Beijing party—says the port proposal “is now under very serious consideration.” McCaulay says there is no statutory requirement for an Environmental Impact Assessment.
Port Goat would be big stuff. It would reportedly cover 12 square kilometres. Estimates for the capital cost run to US$1.2 billion, or around one-tenth of Jamaica’s annual GDP. How much of that cash stays in Jamaica is anyone’s guess. Most will go on large-scale construction equipment, operated, perhaps, by migrant Chinese workers.
The new port would take huge post-Panamax container ships which will from 2015 glide through an expanded Panama canal. That project is almost two-thirds complete. Last Tuesday, four enormous gates arrived from Italy for its giant locks. Kingston’s existing port is too shallow for the big new ships. Jamaica’s lucrative transshipment business could be threatened.
The Panama project was announced in 2006. Seven years on, Jamaica is now deciding where to put its new port. Naturally, there is no ideal site. Fort Augusta on Kingston Harbour was rejected in April as too confined. Its historic buildings leave little room for container stacks. The proposed Goat Islands alternative is hot-news and not-news. Jamaica Environment Trust has for months been hearing tip-offs about Chinese plans.
So, what’s there now? Great Goat Island has a rugged 300-foot limestone hill. It is home (well, yes) to a few hundred hungry goats. Little Goat Island was a base for US Navy seaplanes during the Second World War. President Franklyn Roosevelt dropped by in 1940. A few centuries earlier, Columbus sheltered his galleons nearby.
Between the two islands is a mangrove wetland. But the real natural riches are the marine wildlife—seagrass meadows and coral reefs, since 1999 part of the Portland Bight Protected Area. There are two fish sanctuaries, and two game reserves. Conveniently, the land is already state-owned. There is no public proposal outlining how two small islands totalling four square kilometres could house a port three times that size.
The talk is that Great Goat Island would be blasted flat, and the rubble used to reclaim some of the surrounding sea, with a causeway connection to Jamaica’s lone highway a couple of miles to the north. Some serious dredging and blasting would be needed to clear a shipping channel to the 15-metre depth required by post-Panamax ships. Says China Harbour’s parent company “we will take the full responsibility for environmental and social liabilities.”
The US Navy dredged happily in the 1940s. Today, we’re supposed to be environmentally aware. Just three months ago, at a Caribbean business summit, Pickersgill promised to have one-quarter of Jamaica’s marine and coastal area under environmental protection by 2020. He said the existing fish sanctuaries showed Jamaica’s progress.
Portia Simpson Miller says she had a fruitful and rewarding trip. A Chinese loan will fund a US$353 million Major Infrastructure Development Programme—but add to Jamaica’s burdensome foreign debt. A smaller US$14m grant will fund two infant schools and other projects. Jamaica’s economy badly needs a big, new boost. The central bank last week announced a fifth successive quarter of economic contraction. The IMF reported on Thursday that “Recent economic developments mostly confirm the challenges.” Dead right.
Unemployment is over 16 per cent. Inflation is clipping ahead at ten per cent, while wages are frozen and the Jamaica dollar worth less than one US cent. Carlton Davis, Jamaica’s special envoy, says “there is no perfect universe.” Dead right, again. He continues “it is how you can balance and use engineering to correct things.” Just engineering? And then “if a project promises to employ 10,000 people…you can’t just simply lose it.”
It’s not immediately clear where that 10,000 figure comes from—Hutchison Whampoa’s huge container port at Freeport on Grand Bahama employs just a few hundred; and 10,000 jobs at Port Goat would require some serious long-distance commuting.
There are hopes that a cement plant and other industries would follow the port. The industry and investment ministry talks of a “multi-dimensional logistics hub” with “clusters of global businesses operating from special economic zones, technology parks, logistics parks and industrial parks.” That sounds lovely. I have always liked parks. “Can we get ourselves out of our economic problems by destroying our land?” asks McCaulay.
Environmentalist Peter Espeut says there are other, less sensitive sites. They need to be identified fast. This is starting to sound like a replay of T&T’s ill-fated smelter project.
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