|Posted by Diana McCaulay on November 29, 2012 at 1:35 PM|
On Thursday last week, I finished the review of the 387 page Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the North-South highway link, Caymanas to Linstead leg. For non Jamaican readers, this is a long-planned modern road link between Kingston and the north coast of the island. It cannot be denied that the existing road is problematic at various points – the Rio Cobre gorge which narrows to the single lane Flat Bridge and floods regularly, sometimes trapping people and even drowning them, the winding road over Mt Rosser, where, if a large vehicle breaks down, motorists can easily be delayed for upwards of three hours, and the impossible-to-keep-repaired Fern Gully. It’s clear that the road from Kingston to the north coast needs to be modernized.
The Government of Jamaica started with the middle leg – the Mt Rosser bypass. There were murmurs of geological problems at the time, but these were ignored. The road was built – except for a section in the middle, where the GOJ and the road contractor could not agree on a price or an approach to the geological problems – and there that almost finished road has sat, unused, for perhaps 18 months. As you drive on the old road, you can see the major scar of the new Mt Rosser bypass – and at one point where it slices through a hill, you can clearly see why limestone forests should never be removed – there is so little soil on which to reestablish anything else. I feel the Mt Rosser bypass was designed by someone with no respect for aesthetics or natural resources, but I also felt it was necessary and hoped it would not become one of Jamaica’s many white elephants.
Fast forward to the December 2011 election of the People’s National Party. Large national infrastructural projects were announced, including the North-South highway link, which was to be taken over by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). There were media reports of commercial developments associated with the road – no details or location – promises were made that this road would not cost the Jamaican people a dollar, and assurances given that all environmental due diligence would be done.
Through the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET)’s legal programme, with the help of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), and with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, JET has reviewed some 40 Jamaican EIAs over eight years. As I finished this latest one, I sat back in my chair and wondered if there was any point in continuing. For eight years we have been sending written submissions to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) describing the same deficiencies – failure to adequately evaluate alternatives or cumulative impacts, failure to adhere to the Terms of Reference issued by NEPA, poor and unscientific collection of baseline data, inadequate assessment of environmental impacts and downplaying of risks, lack of detailed monitoring plans and failures in the public process. Yet this latest EIA for a major road project crossing low lying areas in the flood plains of five rivers, susceptible to landslides, posing risks to ground water and requiring the removal of an unquantified amount of forest contained many of these same deficiencies. It was late. I was tired. I attached our review to an e-mail to NEPA and hit the ‘send’ key.
The next morning, I read a letter to the Editor of the Gleaner from Zhongdong Tang of CHEC stating that the “commencement ceremony” for the North-South link would be on December 5th, 2012. Here is a link to the letter so you can judge for yourself what I understood from this, what anyone might have understood. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20121123/letters/letters5.html
Angry that the public process for this leg of the road was only just completed, there yet had been no time for a decision maker to review any of the public comment but a ground breaking celebration was already planned, I slapped out a press release objecting to this evidence of the “done deal” syndrome and describing my frustration with a bankrupt EIA process.
This was followed by:
A reporter from the Gleaner called to ask, among other things, whether JET would file legal action over this latest perceived breach to the public process. I said we could certainly consider it, but JET had already filed two successful legal cases on this very point and they continued to happen, so I had to question the effectiveness of this course of action. Naturally, the reporter’s story led with “Court battle looms over Highway 2000 North-South link.” http://jamaica-gleaner.com/latest/article.php?id=41358
The CEO of NEPA called to explain that he could not possibly be blamed for the holding of a ground breaking ceremony and that NEPA would be rigorous in their process. I pointed out all the many problems with Jamaican EIAs, described over many years, which continued. He heard me, but had to take another call.
Emails and phone calls to JET arrived, stating various versions of “tek wey oonu self, we waan di road.”
The Managing Director of the National Road Operating and Construction Company (NROCC) called to explain there was a “misunderstanding”. The ceremony which had been in the newspaper was only the “recommencement ceremony” of the Mt Rosser link, which had already been given a permit, and in fact was nearly completed. I expressed the view that there was little to celebrate about this particular leg of the highway, but of course, we are addicted to such ceremonies. (I remember being invited to one to celebrate the export of expired pesticides which had been in inadequate storage posing serious risks to public health for 30 YEARS!)
I spoke to the lead scientist of the EIA Consultants to object to the downplaying of the environmental and public safety risks in the summary pages – all but one rated as “minor” - while they were described in full in the pages of this substantial document which will be read by few. He promised to get back to me.
RJR Journalist Dionne Jackson Miller requested an interview on her radio programme Beyond the Headlines on Monday, November 28th. I was to be “on” with the Minister of Transport and Works, the Hon Omar Davies.
During the interview, an unnecessarily aggressive Dr Davies (isn’t his Ph.D in Geography?) was most interested in hammering home the point that I had been wrong about the ground breaking ceremony. He repeated this at least three times, despite Mrs Jackson Miller’s attempts to suggest that this ground had already been covered. He fell back on the hollow assurances, heard so many times in the past, that nothing would be done in advance of receiving the NEPA permit, and all work would be carried out in accordance with the environmental permit. A man then texted the radio programme to ask why his area near the start of the new road was already crawling with Chinese workers. The Minister felt that they might be surveying; he did not see this as any evidence of any “done deal” syndrome. He did concede that bulldozers would be another matter. (There must be a frantic scramble this morning to find heavy equipment that cannot be described as a bulldozer. Can’t you hear it? Yes, the Minister said that bulldozers on the land would be evidence of a breach of the public process, but this is not a bulldozer! It is a BACKHOE! TOTALLY DIFFERENT! THE MINISTER SAID NOTHING ABOUT BACKHOES! In the commercial break yesterday, I entertained myself with images of the land clearing being done in reverse. But it is not funny).
On the question of inadequate monitoring, the Minister said we should not be so untrusting as to assume that all the monitoring failures of the past would continue in the future. He deplored my “adversarial position.” I didn’t manage to respond to this on air – Minister Davies said he had hardly been given the space to say two words – but really, Minister, what is wrong with an opposing view, especially one well supported by scientific references? Isn’t that why you have a public process? And isn’t review and comment on the EIA the appropriate method? Are you saying only admiring and supportive views will be tolerated? That we should wait until the environment HAS BEEN destroyed before sounding a warning? Or are you objecting to the views being aired in public? I would like to point out that they are only being discussed because they are made public.
Later that night, I was unable to sleep. This always happens to me after media interviews, I feel I could have done better, why did I not say this or that, how tired I am of the whole fight, how hopeless it is, how badly we are being led, how short term our thinking. I mean, you’d think given recent events in Pt Maria, we’d be concerned about flooding possibly related to highways, you’d think given that we now have a climate change ministry and we are supposed to be all exercised about climate change, we’d care about removal of forests. My thoughts turned to Dr Wayne Kublalsingh, a man I do not know, a lecturer in literature at UWI St Augustine campus, who is now on hunger strike to protest a highway in Trinidad. His unequivocal act of resistance is not the path I have chosen – mine is the endless reviewing of piles of paper, the futile meetings, the useless committees, the circular public arguments. But I know with a certainty I do not possess the resolve needed for a hunger strike. I remembered a comment about American environmentalist David Brower – he successfully resisted a dam in the Grand Canyon and lost the Sierra Club their tax exempt status as a result – Thank God for David Brower, he makes the rest of us look so reasonable. And I thought about some of the early actions of Greenpeace – the little zodiacs skimming a grey sea between the harpoons of whaling ships and the whales themselves, the youngsters scaling the stacks of industry to let fall their protest banners – oh for an environmental radical or two in Jamaica! I fell asleep thinking about a 50-odd-year-old man facing organ failure and death over the re routing of a road.
And this morning, Annie Paul posted a link to this short video of Dr Kublasingh’s position on the road. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUhguG92uuQ
In case he seems too reasonable, there is also this one of him using – gasp! - “bad language” to the Minister of Health. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-K0as6uUGOY
(The sound is bad and the "cussing' starts at about minute 4..)
I also heard him interviewed on the radio here on Jamaica Speaks on Hot 102. He sounded strong, for someone who had not eaten or drank in 14 days. The internet is full of support for him as well as questions about his sanity. To me, he just seems brave. A man risking death for his convictions. As I ponder what else I should be doing, what else we all should be doing about the relentless risk and sacrifice of Jamaica’s natural resources by an unholy alliance of politician, civil servant and citizen, I find no answers. I look at my watch. I’m late for yet another meeting.
(As I always do, I send this blog to my husband for his editing eye and his response is terse. So what, I e-mail back, bored in the meeting, you didn’t like it? Not much, he says. It’s your familiar environmental lament. He's right. Should my form of resistance be a vow of silence then?)