The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) seems to be really going green and taking a firm stand on environmental issues. Minister of Housing and Water Dr Horace Chang, who has oversight responsibility for environmental issues, recently admitted that a lot of ‘development’ in the Corporate Area is downright dangerous.
‘Chang predicts disaster for upper St Andrew’ was the screaming headline of an Environment Watch article by Luke Douglas, published on September 28.
Speaking about houses on overdeveloped sites such as Jacks Hill and Long Mountain, Dr Chang made a startling prophecy: “They’re going to come down.” The minister appears to support Mayor McKenzie’s principled position that the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) will not approve further construction on Long Mountain.
This, of course, could be nothing but doublespeak: Say one thing and mean another. Or, even worse, say one thing and do the very opposite. In fact, as reported in Environment Watch, there’s a catch to Minister Chang’s apparent advocacy of sustainable development. You have to read the fine print:
“While declining to clearly state the areas where no construction should take place, Chang said he would be guided by the ministry’s technocrats in this regard, and that the development orders should be carefully examined by the KSAC and relevant entities, such as the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).”
Conflict of interest
Quite frankly, I have no confidence that the ministry’s technocrats are going to guide Dr Chang in the right direction. The fundamental problem is the obvious conflict of interest within the mega-ministry. The agendas of the housing and environment sectors appear to be diametrically opposed.
The Housing Agency of Jamaica Ltd (HAJ) is mandated to find ‘solutions’ to the nation’s housing problems. Shortage of housing is particularly acute in the overpopulated Kingston Metropolitan Area where many environmental problems are concentrated. The HAJ claims that it has no money to do its job properly. It has been given a basket to carry water.
NEPA’s mission is to “promote sustainable development by ensuring protection of the environment”: NEPA promo If a proper balance is maintained between the priorities of NEPA and HAJ, housing solutions should not create environmental problems. But what happens when there’s a Beenie-Bounty clash between NEPA and HAJ? Which agency is more powerful? And who referees the fight?NEPA appears to have the upper hand. Proposals from HAJ have to be reviewed by NEPA.
NEPA consults with a wide range of other agencies to inform its decisions: the Environmental Unit in the Ministry of Health, the National Works Agency, the Water Resources Authority, the Mines and Geology Division. On the basis of these consultations, NEPA makes recommendations to the Natural Resources Conservation Authority to either approve or turn down proposals from HAJ.
Backward PNP government
But all of this consulting can end up being nothing but a farce. Cabinet can completely disregard the recommendations of the various agencies and simply do as it pleases. This is precisely what happened when the environmentally backward People’s National Party (PNP) government, led by P.J. Patterson, shortsightedly approved the development of the Long Mountain Country Club – despite all warnings about the dangers it posed.
The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the scheme – pun intended – carefully outlined all of the risks: possible contamination of the Mona Reservoir and the four wells at the foot of Long Mountain; a 50 per cent increase in destructive surface run-off from the site, soil erosion that could clog National Water Commission pipes and drainage outlets, accumulated septic sewage that would produce quite a stench, traffic congestion in adjacent communities, on and on. But politics prevailed over both scientific evidence and common sense. The development was approved.
On top of that, the PNP government handed over to HAJ more than 200 acres of protected lands on Long Mountain. The agency is now planning to sell off approximately 30 acres, cut up into 54 lots, for a new ‘development’ just below the Country Club. This proposal is in the final stage of review, awaiting the outcome of NEPA’s deliberations.
HAJ expects to rake in approximately $800 million from the sale of the lots. At least $250 million of that will be spent on the infrastructure for the housing development. HAJ also plans to subtract a substantial percentage of the ‘windfall’ to fix the disastrous drainage and sewage problems that have leaked down from the Country Club.
The residents of both the Pines of Karachi and Beverly Hills have long been suffering from the very threats that the EIA identified a decade ago. Many homes in the Pines are regularly flooded with sewage. The main roads in Beverly Hills have become riverbeds because of the high volume of traffic and storm water coming from the Country Club. HAJ ought to rehabilitate these roads.
The agency should also rightfully assume responsibility for completing the approved access road for the Country Club that the developer just abandoned. With twisted logic, HAJ proposes to make money by adding to the environmental problems on Long Mountain. The agency will actually make a mess that it will have to turn around and fix. Where is the profit in this?
The present minister of housing and water has the authority to right some of the environmental wrongs of the last PNP administration. No matter what the technocrats tell him, he ought to believe his own prophecy and veto the proposed development on Long Mountain.
He should also recommend that Cabinet reclaim the hundreds of acres so freely given to HAJ by the PNP and restore Long Mountain to green public space in perpetuity. The environment may very well become a hot election issue. If the JLP fails to show its true colours, orange might just prove to be the new green.