Jamaica going up in smoke

One day last month, there was a pestilence of smoke in my neighbourhood. It wasn’t an act of God. Just one of my selfish neighbours burning rubbish in his yard. And it certainly wasn’t enlightened self-interest. This is an intelligent man who must know that smoke can’t be good for his health.

Soon after I started to smell the nasty fumes, I got a call from his next-door neighbour asking if I’d gone for my walk. I told her I was just about to when I smelled the smoke. She asked me to come and see. That made no sense. When I looked out, I couldn’t believe the density of the smoke. And I was several houses away from the source!

I immediately locked up all my windows, hoping to keep out the ash that was sure to come. I eventually went on my walk after the smoke had cleared. Of course, the ill effects were lingering. There was still the acrid smell and God only knows what was in the air.

dont-let-lung-health-go-up-in-smoke-thumb.jpgBurning rubbish doesn’t make it go away. It just turns into deadly particles of disease that attack your lungs. Why is that so hard to understand? Why do we persist in believing that smoke is harmless? Respiratory problems are a very high price to pay for not getting rid of rubbish.

BURNING OUT OBEAH

I was quite prepared to tackle my neighbour. But he wasn’t at home. Perhaps, he’d left before the fire was lit and I was falsely accusing him of negligence. If yu can’t ketch Kwaku, yu ketch im shut. In this case, it was the gardener. So I asked him why he had lit such a huge fire. He was burning out termites.

According to him, no other treatment was as effective as fire. Not true! Bleach and boric acid are a deadly combination. Believe it or not, a few days later, he was at it again. This time, it was a dead dog. Why couldn’t the dog have been buried instead of cremated?

Another morning, I confronted a gardener up the road who had set a big fire that was sending up clouds of smoke. When I asked him what he was burning, he said it was old clothes. I couldn’t believe it. So I asked why the clothes couldn’t have been put out in regular garbage. His response: “The lady don’t want nobody use her clothes do her nothing.” Words to that effect.

Mi couldn’t even get vex. Mi just had to laugh. As far as I know, that lady is a big Christian. But she was covering all her bases. Christian or not, she knew the power of obeah and was not taking any chances. She was just going to burn it out. Or at least the clothes!

mhyh2qo

I keep wondering if my inconsiderate neighbours don’t know that it is illegal to light fires in residential communities. It’s not just a courtesy to one’s neighbours not to smoke them out. It’s actually against the law.

The problem, of course, is that the law is not enforced. I’ve actually called the police station to report illegal fires. You can just imagine the response. With all the crimes the police have to deal with, you know illegal fires are very low on their list of priorities.

Sometimes it takes a near-disaster to cure some people of their very bad habit of setting fires. A gardener who works in my neigbourhood had the fright of his life when a fire he lit got out of control. He was sure the fire was going to burn down his employer’s house. He ran away, fearful that he would be arrested for destruction of property.

He was very lucky. The fire was put out in time. By then, he was very far from the scene of the crime. You can just imagine his relief when he found out that the house was still standing. And he’s never ever set another fire. He learnt his lesson the hard way.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

We can’t continue with business as usual. We have to start a national campaign to educate Jamaicans about the dangers of setting fires here, there and everywhere. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) is heroically doing what it can to bring the matter to public attention. But there’s only so much that one underfunded NGO can do.

It is the responsibility of the Government to come up with solutions to this persistent problem. In a press release issued last Monday, Diana McCaulay, CEO of JET, called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to use all of the regulatory agencies to deal with the problem of extremely poor air quality across the island. Chief of these agencies is the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

According to its website, one of NEPA’s seven core functions is “environmental management”. This is defined as “Pollution prevention and control; pollution monitoring and assessment; Pollution incident investigation and reporting”. I wonder how much of this is actually done daily.

semi_burning-1

The Government absolutely must enforce the law against setting fires. Both domestic and industrial offenders must be systematically targeted. Until we start prosecuting lawbreakers for setting fires, nothing will change. Jamaica will just continue to go up in smoke. And not even obeah can save us.

Advertisements

KSAC Sells Street to Chinese?

ksacTwo Sundays ago, I got an alarming email: “Having read your article ‘Pearly Beach a no fi poor people’, I found it imperative to make you aware of a troubling situation existing in downtown Kingston. What obtains on Princess Street, between West Parade and Barry Street, are spaces along the roadway marked ‘No parking. RESERVED KSAC’, accompanied by a number of some sorts. These spaces are sold to Chinese business operators by someone at the KSAC at a reported cost of $200,000.

“I took the liberty of parking in one of the spaces recently and was instructed to move by a Chinese gentleman. I made some enquiries and found out that the business operators received letters with KSAC letterhead offering the purchase of parking spaces along the Government’s roadway. Well, suffice it to say, I did not move, as I don’t think I can buy space on the public thoroughfare in China, and believe Chinese should not be able to do so in Jamaica. I hope you may find interest to investigate this matter and bring some public attention through your column.”

I was interested and called the office of the CEO of the KSAC. He was in a meeting. When I said I was enquiring about the sale of parking spaces on Princess Street, I was referred to another office. But I didn’t want to buy a parking space. I needed information on the policy. It was only the CEO (in the meeting) who could update me.

So I sent an email: “Can you please let me know the terms on which parking spaces are sold? To whom are parking spaces sold? And at what cost? When was this policy first implemented? And how is it managed? I very much look forward to your answer to these questions and to any other pertinent information you can offer.”

To date, I haven’t got a response. If the KSAC operates in the same way as the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), I suppose I’ll get an answer in about two weeks. No matter how long it takes, these questions must be answered in the public interest.

 

PRESUMED RIGHTS

 

The perceptive man who emailed me made a connection between the business of selling parking spaces on the street in downtown Kingston and limited access to Pearly Beach. It appears to be the same issue: The Government of Jamaica selling the rights of citizens to the highest bidder, whether foreigner or local.

e874c2259dbf5ae5c59c44f4e29bdcedAs it turns out, some of these presumed rights are not rights at all. They are figments of our collective imagination as a supposedly independent nation. I was intrigued by the response of Peter Knight, CEO of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), to both my column, ‘No beach for local tourists’, and Diana McCaulay’s excellent article, ‘The problem of beach exclusion’.

First of all, Mr Knight makes an error in reporting the headline of my column. He writes, ‘No beach for local tourist’. Singular. I actually wrote ‘tourists’. Plural. The issue of beach access is much bigger than the exclusion of a single individual. It’s about all Jamaicans who ought to have the right to enjoy well-kept beaches.

And, again, I’m appealing to all Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora to sign the petition to the prime minister launched by the Jamaica Environment Trust: ‘Better Beaches for All Jamaicans’. You can find it at change.org. So far, 1,245 of us have signed. Our goal is 5,000, at least.

Mr Knight’s response was published on January 22 with the deceptively succinct headline, ‘Jamaica’s beaches: access and rights’. I wondered if he was hoping that only a few people would read the long-winded article, especially since the news was not good:

“Ownership of the foreshore is vested in the Crown, except where rights are acquired under or by virtue of the Registration of Titles Act or any express grant or licence from the Crown subsisting immediately before 1956. The portion of the beach above the foreshore may be private or public property. The Beach Control Act did not seek to convey general rights to the public to gain access to and use the foreshore or the floor of the sea.”

 

DOG NYAM WI SUPPER

 

In plain English, this is what Mr Knight was saying: “It’s the Crown (now the Government) who owns the beaches – unless the beach was sold or leased before 1956. So beaches can be either private or public property. The Beach Control Act was not set up to give the public any general rights to beach access.” In other words, dog nyam wi supper.

There is also the even older Prescription Act of 1882. That was passed over a century ago, a mere 15 years after the Morant Bay war. This act allows rights to fish and bathe, based on tradition. But, again, as Mr Knight writes, “There are no general common-law rights over the foreshore, except to pass over it for the purpose of navigation or fishing.”

Why have we held on to these outdated acts? Because they protect the interests of the rich and powerful, especially those who have made major investments in the tourist industry? I suppose we need tourism in much the same way we need Chinese businesses on Princess Street. But at what price? Where is the vision to save us from perishing?

top-10-jamaican-business-stories-for-2016-810x810

Raping Virgin Territory

jamaica“Hold down an tek weh.” That’s exactly what it is. Protected lands on Long Mountain that, by law, should remain virgin territory for the benefit of all Jamaicans, for generations to come, have been captured and are about to be deflowered by the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ).

The Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) are mandated to protect conservation lands. Instead of carrying out their mission honourably, it would appear that the NRCA and NEPA have ganged up and held down the virgin so that the HAJ can have its way, back and front. It’s an all-too-familiar scenario.

images-1According to a report published in The Gleaner on Thursday, May 23, the HAJ “posted an environmental bond, valued at between $30 million and $40 million, as part of the preconditions” in order to get a permit for further ‘development’ on Long Mountain. Of course, no environmental bond would be needed if there was [sic] no threat of environmental degradation.

I refuse to use the antiquated subjunctive ‘were’ for ‘was’. I am in no mood for grammatical niceties. The environmental problems with ‘development’ on Long Mountain are decidedly not hypothetical. They are very real. All of the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for the area have clearly identified the risks. It’s not a case of ‘if’ there are going to be problems. And it’s definitely not future tense; it’s present.

ARMAGEDDON MUST BE NIGH

images-3Just ask the leader of the Opposition, Andrew Holness, and his wife Juliet who are building what appears to be a fortress in Beverly Hills. They seem to know something that the rest of us don’t: Armageddon must be nigh. In the recent rains, an avalanche of stones from their property rolled downhill, propelled by the flood waters spewing from the Long Mountain Country Club into Beverly Hills and the Pines of Karachi.

Instead of feeding the aquifer, rainwater from the housing scheme runs off the hill and goes to waste, damaging roads along the way. This specific problem was forecast in the EIA for the country club that was done in 2000. But the unwelcome findings were simply ignored. And now there’s the threat of a new ‘development’ that will only compound existing environmental dangers.

12945495986xm08TThe $30m-$40m bond will, I suspect, prove completely inadequate to fix the environmental damage the new scheme will cause. It’s like those television ads promising cures for all sorts ailments. When you hear the side effects of the miracle drugs, including death, you wonder if you’re not better off with the original disease. In the case of Long Mountain, it’s even worse. The fertile land is healthy. It should be left exactly as it is. There’s no need to manufacture an environmental problem in order to try to solve it.

Furthermore, this new development below the country club is even closer to the Mona Reservoir. The 2000 EIA for both the country club and the additional 30 acres or so that are now up for grabs predicted that “[a]dditional storm water will be discharged into existing drainage channels to increase erosion on the lower slopes facing the reservoir … . From field observations, there are a number of drainage channels on the lower slope that are capable of carrying storm water laden with sediments directly into the reservoir during periods of high rainfall.”

images-5

Mona Reservoir and Long Mountain

The EIA also warned that if a sewage line from the proposed development is broken, gravity will feed the waste directly into the reservoir. Even worse, the lift station for the new development is to be located right across from the reservoir. In the event of an earthquake or even a burst pipe, sewage is likely to flow freely into the reservoir. And sewage from the country club has already been flowing freely into some homes in the Pines of Karachi.

NOT THE WHOLE STORY

images-7The Gleaner story on the HAJ permit reports that “[t]he subdivision, which should initially have seen the development of 54 residential lots on just over 29 acres of land, came under public scrutiny more than two years ago after its upscale neighbours – the Pines of Karachi and Beverly Hills – raised concerns over how it would impact them”. That’s not the whole story. And it’s not a class issue: ‘upscale’ versus ‘downscale’. I expect that the potential investors in the new development are quite ‘upscale ‘.

The impact of ‘backlash’ development on existing communities is, indeed, an understandable concern. For example, as far as I can tell, no new access roads are going to be built for the proposed development. This will increase traffic congestion, especially since one of the access roads on the approved plan for the Long Mountain Country Club was never built. How the developer got away with it, I don’t know. In any case, Pines of Karachi and Beverly Hills have been forced to accommodate additional traffic that would have used the missing road.

images-6The much bigger picture is protecting the environment. The most recent EIA, commissioned by the HAJ, admits that “the proposed development site is zoned for public open space in the 1966 Confirmed Kingston Development Order for Kingston while in the emerging Kingston and St Andrew Development Order, 2008, the proposed zoning is public open space/conservation”. But the two-faced assessment observes that “there has been in the past a relaxation of the zoning restriction”. So because there have been breaches in the past, we should just keep on turning conservation areas into housing!

images-8All is not lost. There is still one last wall of defence against the encroaching development: The Cabinet. That’s where the final decision will be taken. I hope Prime Minister Simpson Miller and her Cabinet will find the courage to halt the ravaging of Long Mountain. It all started with another PNP administration. They need to make amends. “Wat gone bad a-morning can come good a-evening.”

HAJ Building ‘Solutions’ On Sand

The policy makers at the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) clearly didn’t go to either Sunday or Sabbath school.  Or if they did, they weren’t there the week the other children were learning the chorus about wise and foolish builders:

The wise man built his house upon the rock

And the rain came tumbling down

And the floods went up

And the house on the rock stood firm.

The foolish man built his house upon the sand

And the rain came tumbling down

And the floods went up

And the house on the sand went ‘splash’!

This catchy children’s song is based on the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 7:24 (New Living Translation):  “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock”.  In this non-sexist translation, the ‘man’ of the King James Version, whether wise or foolish, becomes the gender-neutral ‘person’.  A very wise move.

The HAJ’s reckless policy of converting protected lands into house spots is a classic example of building on sand.  This practice is not at all sustainable.  It’s short-term thinking at its worst.  In fact, the ‘solutions’ the HAJ keeps fabricating to fix the housing shortage in the Kingston metropolitan area often create new problems. An excellent example is the ‘development’ of Long Mountain.  First it was the Long Mountain Country Club.  Now it’s the whole hillside down from the Country Club and right across from the Mona reservoir that’s at risk.

Long Mountain goes ‘splash’

Mona dam

A 2000 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Long Mountain Country Club clearly outlined the potential threats to the reservoir. There was the risk of an estimated 50% increase in surface runoff from the site.  The report warned that if the runoff got into the reservoir it could “negatively impact the water quality.”  The assessment also underscored the importance of protecting the four wells at the foot of Long Mountain which could be contaminated by the development.

Effects of soil erosion

The report documented the risk of soil erosion as a result of “removing vegetative cover to facilitate construction.”  It noted that “a build up of sediment reduces the capacity of the reservoir and could also clog pipes and drainage outlets, increasing the maintenance cost of the reservoir to the National Water Commission”.  The new development (Mona Estate, Section One) that is now being pushed by The Housing Agency of Jamaica was also the subject of that 2000 environmental impact assessment.

Again, the risk to the reservoir was highlighted:  “Additional storm water will be discharged into existing drainage channels to increase erosion on the lower slopes facing the reservoir, particularly where the extensively fractured and fragmented rock is loosely attached to the fine grain matrix and therefore, highly erodible.  From field observations, there are a number of drainage channels on the lower slope that are capable of carrying storm water laden with sediments directly into the reservoir during periods of high rainfall.”

Conflict of interest

P.J. Patterson

That warning about loose rocks running into the reservoir is a reminder that it’s not only sand that’s an unstable foundation for building.  Not all rock stands firm.  Despite all of the warnings in that 2000 EIA, both the Ministry of Housing and the developer, Robert Cartade, simply disregarded the report.  With the complicity of the Cabinet, led by former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, protected lands were degraded to make way for the Country Club.

As part of the application process for a permit for the proposed Mona Estate development, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) asked the Housing Agency of Jamaica (the developer) to commission and pay for a new Environmental Impact Assessment.  I do understand that the cost of the assessment must be borne by the applicant.  But, surely, it would be better for NEPA to manage the process rather than the developer.  This would avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest:  He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Howard Mitchell

This issue was highlighted at a meeting convened last Wednesday by the HAJ to present to the public the EIA prepared by EPN Consultants Ltd. In response to questions about the assessment, Barrington Brown, a civil engineer at EPN Consultants, referred more than once to the HAJ proposal in the first person:  ‘we’ and ‘our’ development. I suggested that this was a Freudian slip signifying collusion of the consultants with the HAJ.  I was rebuked by the self-important Chairman of the proceedings, Howard Mitchell, for speaking out of turn.  But it was worth it.

‘Wa gone bad a morning’

The Housing Agency of Jamaica is on a very slippery slope.  It appears to be operating on the ‘principle’ that ‘wa gone bad a morning cyaan come good a evening’. The latest EIA makes it absolutely clear that “the proposed development site is zoned for public open space in the 1966 Confirmed Kingston Development Order for Kingston while in the emerging Kingston and St. Andrew Development Order, 2008, the proposed zoning is public open space/conservation”.

But the two-faced assessment goes on to say that “there has been in the past a relaxation of the zoning restriction”.  So because there have been breaches in the past we should just keep on turning conservation areas into housing!  The HAJ insists that it’s only 20 acres that are to be captured this time and 200 acres will remain as public open space.

A promise is a comfort to a fool.  Soon it will be another 20 and another 20 until the whole of Long Mountain overlooking the reservoir will be one big ‘development’. Those of us who want to protect the environment for ourselves and future generations must appeal to Prime Minister Simpson Miller and her Cabinet to recapture the lands that were so carelessly given to the HAJ.  Or we will all drown when the rain comes tumbling down and the floods go up.

The JLP Shows Its True Colours

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.

Dr. Horace Chang

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?

Former prime minister Patterson

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.