There is a very beautiful area of Jamaica, often described as “lush,” which we have been visiting for around forty years or so now, in the eastern part of the island. It is in the parish of Portland. I have written, shared photos, brought family and friends to stay, spent many happy hours in the area. Every year, BirdLife Jamaica makes a pilgrimage to the area, enjoying a long weekend of birdwatching and companionship, and taking a dip in crystal-blue seas. The place has magic and mystery.
The main road is bumpy, narrow and pot-holed, and the surface certainly has been in need of repair for some years. In fact, a few years back I wrote about the neglect the area in general has suffered for some years. The elite hide and enjoy themselves in their villas, while employment for local people is scarce – and the environment has suffered from neglect too (for example, the exquisite Blue Hole, or Blue Lagoon). It could be so much more, if it was truly cared for and protected. And appreciated.
Yes, Portland needs development. But it must be the right kind (OK, “sustainable” if you like – if we even know what that word means, any more). Roads need fixing, with good drains (including the smaller farm roads, so that farmers don’t have to struggle to make it to market) and infrastructure improved (better water supply, decent Internet connectivity, and indeed proper power supply).
So, about ten days ago, I had a shock on receiving news from a friend who lives in the area that something terrible had happened to the largely unspoiled beauty of the area. This is San San Hill and very close to the beautiful Blue Hole.
Enter the South Coast Highway project.
The pictures tell the devastating story. The road must be widened. We need more cars, and to go faster, through this peaceful, green area, beloved by visitors and locals alike. This is one of Jamaica’s most beautiful coastlines, with long, trailing vines hanging down alongside the road, rocky outcrops of limestone laced with ferns and mosses (often wet with rain), graceful old trees, and glimpses of the sea and a small island offshore…
Yes, the behemoth that is the South Coast Highway is carrying all before it, inexorably ploughing its way through communities, forests and fields, leaving dust and deforestation in its wake, and with callous disregard for the health and welfare of the communities it drives through. We must not only have roads, it seems – we must have straight roads, cutting off the natural curve of the coastline and the hills.
Please be reminded that the small communities of Fairy Hill, Drapers and the like are places where people have conversations from one side of the road to the other; there are two or three schools on the road; there are small shops, cook shops, and bars; and there are senior citizens and other vulnerable people who would wish to cross the road. High speed roads (with the customary concrete barriers down the middle?) are not suitable.
And anything that gets in the way – mature trees, for example – must go. I understand the glorious highway will be forging onwards towards the town of Port Antonio. Ahead of it is a small area of wetland in a quiet bay, where the environmental NGO Alligator Head Foundation has its headquarters and where we spent a quiet, relaxing weekend among the trees on the hillside at Bay View Eco Resort. Is that hillside to be reorganized by China Harbour Engineering Company and their Jamaican partners in crime, the National Works Agency, also? I shudder to think. I suspect the mangroves might be in the way.
Now, the green is disappearing, to be replaced, I understand, by retaining walls. The top of the hillside has been (IS being) sliced, and the hillside dug out to the bare limestone. They’re not done yet.
I have questions (I don’t know the answers, so am just throwing them out there):
Was an Environmental Impact Assessment done? If so, where can we find it?
Was any consultation at all done with local residents prior to the road works? (Allegedly, there was none).
Did the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) approve this, and if so where is such an approval?
What is being done to protect the springs and water courses in the areas, including the one that feeds into Blue Hole?
Was the owner of the hillside land that is now carved up consulted?
What is to be done to prevent run-off of building materials into the sea, choking coral reefs and marine life (this happened at the end of the North-South Highway into Old Fort Bay in St. Ann)?
Are there going to be concrete barriers in the middle of the widened road?
What provisions have been made for walkers, joggers, pedal cyclists?
And finally, how does this fit in with Jamaica’s avowed climate change adaptation/mitigation plans? Jamaica rails against the developed countries (quite rightly) for the role they play. However, doing so while doggedly destroying mature trees, wetlands and mangrove systems (in the case of Green Island, Hanover, for example) in pursuit of new hotels, new roads, new tourism developments, smacks to me of deception and hypocrisy.
Our Jamaican Government doesn’t love the environment at all, although it professes to. Actions speak so much louder than words.
The young co-host of a programme on Nationwide News Network, Danielle Archer, commented on the situation today, linking it to our illegal trade in wild birds (about which more in a later blog post, I hope) and the need for bird sanctuaries – the hillside at San San is one.
“We need to do more than pay lip service,” stressed Ms. Archer (and I am thankful she raised the issue). Ah, but we are good at talking, aren’t we.
And then there is enforcement of environmental laws. Forgive me if I give a loud guffaw. That barely exists.
Dear China Harbour and Jamaican Government: You have deliberately tainted the beauty of San San. I hope you are proud of yourselves.