Tourism has long been the leading economic sector in Jamaica, bringing in half of all foreign revenue and supporting 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 in the nation’s largest natural protected area.
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. 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.
“It sends a really poor message to the international conservation community—that an investment in Jamaica is not a good investment, that it can be wiped out in the blink of an eye,” said Byron Wilson, a herpetologist at the University of the West Indies. Wilson warned that a proposed causeway from the Goat
Islands to the mainland, and the likely development of a community of workers, would consign the mainland iguana population to re-extinction. “Any place you put a lot of Chinese workers around the world, the wildlife suffers—it’s pretty clear.”
“Everything is for sale in Jamaica,” and not just the Goat Islands, added Rick Hudson, a herpetologist at the Fort Worth Zoo who has long collaborated on the iguana project. “They’re committed to developing every inch of the coastline for high-end hotels and resorts. There’s going to be no natural environment left.” Thus not much reason to visit Jamaica in the first place.
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.”
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.”
“We live on a small island,” she added, “and it’s hard to believe anything universal is happening here. But it’s this whole idea that we should have more consumption. We already don’t know what to do with our wastes. We know we’re going to see sea level rise, and yet we just keep building more. We’re not stopping at all. And then you have players like China come in, who don’t care at all.”
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.
Contributed by Richard Conniff
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