The Municipality of Portmore in St. Catherine is the second largest city in Jamaica after Kingston. The dormitory town’s population was officially 182,000 in 2011, but many say it is now closer to 300,000. I’m not sure quite why this figure is in dispute; but I know there are some boundary issues. It’s also the only town where a Mayor is directly elected. I ventured recently for a special event in the Municipal Offices (the new Mayor was not present). The offices are so unobtrusive (up a flight of narrow stairs in a nondescript shopping plaza) that one could almost miss them; this also makes them inaccessible to disabled members of the public. I hope they will eventually get better accommodation.
Having said all that, Portmore is very different from the dusty little town we used to drive through on the way to Hellshire Beach in the 1980s. There are smooth, new roads, new housing developments and many new shopping plazas. It definitely has a suburban feel. However, there are also several informal settlements in the Municipality. One of these is Naggo Head. It is one of three communities (the other two are Gregory Park and Newlands) where BRACED has been working for the past two years.
We were at the launch of the second phase, or extension of this project called BRACED (Building Resilience and Capacities for Emerging Disaster), led by JamHabitat for Humanity and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Phase 1 will end in March. The project in Naggo Head will continue.
Now, after all those acronyms, what immediately struck me was that the project is a true partnership among a number of organizations and individuals. As each person in the room stood up and introduced themselves, I realized how many were actively involved. It was not one of those meetings where most people sat silently; almost everyone in the room had something to contribute. I took this as a good sign.
Students from the University of Technology (UTech) Faculty of the Built Environment and students from the University of the West Indies (UWI) were there. They’re involved in engaging residents and out there in the field, learning on the job; a UTech student is actually an officer on the Municipal Council’s Disaster Committee). Several government agencies were present, including the Social Development Commission (SDC), the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), the HEART Trust skills training agency, the Housing Association of Jamaica (HAJ), The Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) and the Land Administration and Management Programme (LAMP). Most importantly, representatives of citizens’ associations and women’s groups are integrally (and I would say, enthusiastically) involved. Non-governmental organizations involved include the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC), which works with a women’s group in Newlands, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, the Jamaica Council of Churches and Carib Cement.
It’s a neighborhood approach. This will make progress towards a more united community, with less crime, more employment opportunities and better infrastructure. One expects that the good work done during the project will continue to have its positive effects long after the grant funding is done.
What is BRACED all about? Well, it has several layers. Strengthening “informal settlements” is not an easy task. We often call them squatter communities, although there is nothing temporary about them as that term may imply. The aim of BRACED is to reduce the risk of disaster and environmental hazards in these most vulnerable of communities; and literally, to strengthen the homes to make them more resilient in case of flood, hurricane or other natural disasters.
So, one part of the project has focused on the actual structure of people’s homes, which were assessed in terms of their vulnerability. Many of the homes are built with various pieces of wood and zinc; they are literally unsafe. Altogether 550 homes were rehabilitated and made safe using disaster risk reduction methods. When I visited Naggo Head last year, trained community members were building a new bedroom for an elderly blind gentleman, so that he would have a safe and dry place to stay. Thanks to the efforts of BRACED’s Field Operations Officer Damien Williams, he also received a new mattress and donations of food. Note this is not mere charity; 51 community members (including one woman mason) were trained in the three communities in plumbing, carpentry and masonry during the first phase. They can now earn money while being a skilled community resource.
The second, vital aspect of the program is Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (the acronym is WASH). Many of the homes do not have their own toilets. BRACED has built 21 eco-friendly latrines, each to serve 32 people in one yard, called VIDPs (Ventilated Improved Latrines). These dry latrines will eventually produce fertilizer (there were a few wrinkled noses when this was mentioned). Here again, training was a critical factor; a number of residents are now trained in vector control and healthy housing – and will now be able to teach their neighbors and residents. Control of solid waste was also addressed – it’s a problem that afflicts neighborhoods that are unreachable by regular garbage trucks. Concrete garbage receptacles were built for collection on the main road in Naggo Head and Gregory Park – a real blessing for residents.
Perhaps the most critical of all BRACED’s goals is to create strong partnerships that will last. In the face of climate change, this is vitally important for the survival of any community, where infrastructure is so weak, with extremely narrow lanes and crowded yards. Three Community Resource Centres were established, and “social capital” (that is, those things that bring people together) is an important element. There are fun days, Christmas celebrations and children’s treats.
The second phase of BRACED has ambitious goals. As Member of Parliament for South St. Catherine Fitz Jackson noted at the launch, land tenure is a huge issue (as it is in all such communities) that threatens the stability of neighborhoods. People argue over boundaries and have no incentive to improve and develop their properties because they don’t have ownership. According to Sherece James, the GIS Specialist at JamHabitat, 85 per cent of the approximately 240 parcels of land in Naggo Head (which consists of an estimated 500 houses on 33 acres of land) are unregistered and not on the tax roll. Just a few are family-owned.
A major objective of BRACED II is to work closely with community members (who have provided much valuable information on ownership etc) to explain land tenure issues, and to assist in applying for titles for the land, wherever possible. This is, of course, a hugely complex and tedious process – but so necessary. Boundaries will be clarified, proposals will be made to the various agencies for redevelopment, titles will be applied for…and GIS mapping will greatly assist with all of this. Ultimately, Dr. Carol Archer, Associate Professor at UTech told us, the aim is to create a Community Redevelopment Plan for Naggo Head that will fit into the Portmore and St. Catherine plans, working closely with the Municipal Council’s planning people, the National Land Agency (NLA) and LAMP. The National Housing Trust and HAJ will also be involved. JamHabitat is now busy determining what land belongs to whom, consulting with and informing residents as the process continues. A community-based Disaster Risk Reduction Plan for Naggo Head will be developed and householders will continue to learn how to cope with the impact of any future dangers that may beset them. All of this area is low-lying, and not far from the coast.
“People are now taking BRACED more seriously,” said Damien Williams. JamHabitat workers and the residents are learning from each other. At first they thought it was a bit of a joke, Naggo Head citizens who were at the meeting agreed.
“It’s not a housing project,” Williams stressed. JamHabitat had to tell people it was not a question of building a new house for them. This is a much more holistic approach: not only improving physical infrastructure but also helping to build in a different way… Pride in the community, taking ownership, collaborating and working together – and learning. Training programs are ongoing, and as we all know (to coin a hackneyed phrase) “knowledge is power.”
I have to say “big up” to the Naggo Head community, led by the Citizens’ Association. At the meeting, I could feel their optimism – and determination to move their 33 acres of land forward into a more resilient, more empowered future. They are confident and organized. We are learning from them every day, said Williams, who works daily in the neighborhood. “We see the residents as the experts.”
Strong partnerships, indeed.
P.S. What would I like to see for these three areas (especially Naggo Head, since I have been there)? Personally, I would love to see a “greening” of the area. Despite the extremely cramped conditions in which people live, there are spaces where trees could be planted and perhaps urban gardens and small farms created, growing crops (not animals). A green space for the children to play would be very good for the health and wellbeing of the residents. A widespread solid waste awareness program – reaching every man, woman and child – along the lines of Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica would be excellent; and how about a regular Community Clean-Up Crew of young people, encouraging some civic pride. A plastic bottle recycling program would be ideal and might even generate a little income.