Dust upon dust: Jamaican rural dwellers continue to suffer from highway construction

We often use the words “justice” and “environment/climate change” (depending on the situation) together – not opposing each other, but closely linked. In my last blog post, I shared Professor Carolyn Cooper’s thoughts on the closure of a very popular beach near Kingston for the past two years. This is an environmental injustice. The quality of life of the average Jamaican – who has suffered enough during COVID lockdowns and the ensuing economic stress – has been set aside, because the company that leases the beach does not want him/her to have access. Those who want to reach their favorite family beach have to sneak across from an adjoining beach, like a thief in the night. They may or may not encounter a surly security guard or two as they make their way.

I will write more about the inequity and injustice of beaches in Jamaica at another time. Jamaica’s Charter of Rights says that the nation’s citizens have the right to enjoy their environment – to be exact:

The right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage

Unfortunately, the rights of private companies, government agencies and their contractors, and tourism interests often supersede citizens’ rights, and there have been many examples of this. Is Fort Clarence being earmarked for overseas tourists’ consumption, as part of the “Kingston attraction”? Time will tell. Meanwhile, Jamaicans are excluded.

As the south eastern side of our island is poised for a land grab of sorts, with the South Coast Highway “opening up” what our Tourism Minister sees as a new frontier, we can expect more of the same. Favorite spots that have been enjoyed for generations by local people may soon be snapped up as “boutique hotels” and exclusive villas owned/rented by our elites may sprout along the coast. Watch out for the barbed wire and “no trespassing” signs. You have been warned!

Well, let me climb down off that particular soapbox for now!

Then Finance Minister Audley Shaw signs a USD$326-million, or JMD$42-billion agreement with the China EX-IM Bank for the South Coast Highway Improvement Project in February, 2017. (Photo: Nationwide News Network)

While rural residents angrily protest the terrible state of their roads, and farmers continue to suffer from possibly the worst roads in the country, our political leaders continue to focus on the intoxicating vision of another new highway, the South Coast Highway – the price tag for which was upped by another US$133 million last year, for increased “consultancy and project management services” (you know, those men in hard hats with clipboards in their hands). The budget for 2022/23 includes J$20.74 billion for the Highway.

A screen grab from a video of a protest along the Tucker main road in St James last year.

The South Coast Highway continues to cause misery for rural residents all along its length. It will now include a 17-kilometer, four-lane bypass around the small town of Port Antonio, increasing the urban sprawl, and cutting into the lush green surrounding the town’s beautiful double harbour. Is a bypass really necessary? How will it affect the town and its citizens? Who will benefit?

Inequity is a word used in a wide variety of contexts. Here I am talking about the environment. And specifically, dust.

The coastal road around the eastern end of the island is (or was) among our favorite leisurely drives. As you turn one corner, you find yourself among the mangroves (to one side of the road) and the calm expanse of the bay at Bowden on the other. There is a bar there, where I once stopped with my parents for a refreshing Red Stripe. I was driving them to Portland from Kingston, and we enjoyed ourselves along the way. Round another corner, and descending a steep hillside, you are surprised by the lavish vista of Long Bay, with its white waves crashing onto the blue (the sea is not to be bathed in) and its strip of white sand. In St. Thomas, we stopped with my brother and his wife at the Quaker Church in Amity Hall, comfortably perched by the roadside, and chatted with a young man.

Clouds of dust rise when you try to drive along the road.

Then, as you reach East Portland, you are driving along a narrow, winding road. It is impossible to drive fast, because the road surface has always been bad – really bad. But along the way you can enjoy the occasional glimpse of the sea, where it is not blocked by villas; and on the other side, the banks laced with green and veiled with long vines, hanging from the tall trees above.

Yes, the road surface has been awful for years, pitted with potholes and even worse when it rains. It “need to fix.” There is no argument about that.

The landscape around such beauty spots as the famous Blue Lagoon (Blue Hole) has changed.

But, in the name of the glorious South Coast Highway, it now has to be not only fixed, but widened (road-widening has turned into a national pastime, and it will make absolutely no difference to the volume of traffic, if that is the purpose of it). So, we have had to say goodbye to those graceful vines; the roadsides have been hacked away and are bare, ugly – and dusty.

The hillsides are dusty. The road is dusty. Every single building on each side of the road – family homes, a school, cook shops, bars, tourism villas and guest houses – is dusty. And I don’t mean a light coating of dust. Dust can be intense. It can be deep. It can be insidious, working its way into car engines, air conditioning units, kitchens with cooking pots on the stove (cook shops have to move their pots to somewhere safe in the back, to avoid the dust), water storage tanks, clothes hanging on the washing line… people’s eyes, and people’s lungs, young and old.

This is the situation now in Portland, in a string of small communities along the must-be-widened road. It has reduced the residents’ quality of life to a constant battle with an ever-worsening environment. Those with asthma are suffering in particular; besides the elderly and infirm. But, the highway must go on – for another year or more from now (six months have already passed). Pipes are being laid and all the hillsides are being dug out to make the road wider.

Bulldozers at work near Blue Lagoon. (Photo: Jamaica Environment Trust)

There is also noise pollution. It begins early in the morning and continues until dusk. Heavy trucks and bulldozers rule over the dust – especially in the afternoon, with many trucks passing through carrying away what has been dug out of the hill. If there is no rain, it simply gets dustier and noisier. If it rains at all heavily, the banks wash into the road.

Parked water trucks that are supposed to sprinkle the road, in Dolphin Bay where the contractor’s office is. Not really a priority, it seems?

Everywhere is white and smothered in dust. However, the main hazard is to the residents’ health.

There have been protests, and complaints (Portlanders are generally peaceable people, and don’t like to make a fuss, so this is quite unusual). There is a petition (more than one, I believe). Further back, as the highway ploughs its way through the hills and forests, there have already been quite loud protests in other parishes. Now, it seems the people of Portland may be reaching the end of their tether. A petition is in the making.

This is only a temporary situation, those in their comfortable upper St Andrew homes far away would say – a mere inconvenience for a while. Our politicians will retort (to coin an election slogan from a previous administration) “Don’t stop the progress!” But then, they are not experiencing it, like the cook shop operator who has to clean all her pots and utensils and wash down her entire kitchen several times a day, only to find the dust creeping in the next day. And they are not facing eighteen more months of swathes of dust and waves of crushing noise.

A somewhat blurry photo I took years ago of Blue Lagoon, which is directly below the main road. How have the road works affected this beautiful environment?

Token efforts have been made to assuage the overwhelming dust. Sprinkling the ground with water from trucks is one way. This was supposed to happen twice per day, according to the National Works Agency. However, the water trucks are often parked up for days and watering happens at very irregular intervals – not even twice per week.

Speaking of water, the residents are not getting water every day in their pipes. The residents themselves try to water the road – when they have the “precious commodity.”

And how are local schools enduring this? Happy Grove has been particularly badly affected, I understand, because many taxi drivers refuse to ply that route due to the ongoing work. Students come back home very late, and they cannot cope; they are so exhausted the following day. Their education is suffering.

I know. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, as the saying goes. However, the abuse of the residents’ rights is what concerns me. There has been very little consultation with the people who live, raise families, and work there. They just have to put up with it, in the name of “progress” and “development.” Will this stretch of the road benefit the residents in any way, when it is eventually complete, perhaps in 2023? That remains to be seen.

Perhaps, however, it will enable the better-off residents to reach their seaside or hillside villas five or ten minutes faster than before. Because we are all in a great hurry, these days.

A peaceful scene along the main road in East Portland (I think around Zion Hill) a few years ago. I suspect this has been transformed. And yes, the roads DID need fixing. (My photo)

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