Why is Portland, Jamaica, in such a mess?

I hope the eastern side of Portland will eventually recover.

Six years ago, I wrote an article about the “slow decay” in the parish of Portland, on the eastern end of the island. The eastern side of the parish is regularly described as green, lush, peaceful, off the beaten track, etc. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was our “go to” escape from Kingston on weekends. We would drive home tired, sunburned, and happy. Sometimes, we would stay for a night or two (and often with a visiting family member).

Portland was a “special” place to us, in many ways. It’s hard to put one’s finger on it, but anyone who visited there can feel its allure. The vines hanging from tall trees along the roadside; the magnificent potholes, forcing one to slow down and admire the views; the curve of San San Bay, where we spent many hours with our son, usually the only people there. Our son would commandeer a battered old surf board and steer himself skilfully through the shallows at San San Beach; and we would paddle among darting fish and spot the occasional eel, which we mistook for a sea snake and were careful not to step on. Once, while swimming alone further out in the bay, I was accompanied by two curious dolphins, who checked me out and then moved on. It was a joyful moment. Then there were the many lazy days spent on the beach at Dragon Bay, and Winifred’s Beach.

And then there was Blue Hole (or Blue Lagoon as it is named officially). There is more than one “Blue Hole” in Jamaica of course (St. Ann, Westmoreland have such places) and it is usually where there is a mineral spring, and the water is deep blue. Swimming at Blue Hole in Portland is always delicious, refreshing and exciting, with the cool depths below and the infusion of natural spring water. The colours and the play of sunlight on the water are captivating. And there was once a restaurant, nothing fancy but very pleasant, with a bar where many more hours could be whiled away. Anyone could walk down there, swim, eat and enjoy themselves.

My father bought a necklace for my mother from a vendor at Blue Hole. I remember that moment fondly. In fact, most of all, my memories of Portland are intertwined with my late parents, who loved this place more than anywhere else on the island. I can see my father “chilling” and chatting away under a tree on Frenchman’s Cove beach, or sitting on the verandah of a villa at Fern Hill Club (another incredibly beautiful property, now in ruin) listening to “Mutty” Perkins’ talk show on the radio.

Ah, memories! How things have changed. Dragon Bay, a delightful resort tucked into a hillside with a small beach and a river, has been closed for years. The sign at the top of the lovely rainforest walk down there is broken and illegible, but no one has thought to take it down. There have been numerous fights over Winnifred’s, in the past decade or so. It’s hanging in there – although last year there were major concerns about the theft of sand from the beach. And as for Blue Hole, the restaurant fell down and it has been closed since last August.

I am reminded that it is still accessible “by air or by boat.” Yes indeed, as I write motorboats and kayaks are merrily entering and leaving the Lagoon, charging plenty of money for tours and docking at private villas near the Lagoon – while local people, who cannot even walk down the access road watch in vain. This is wrong, so very wrong.

Dust, glorious dust: Road works in Portland last year.

Since last year, the area has become a dust bowl. There has been no rain, and heavy trucks crash filled with sand along the road, which is being rebuilt under the South Coast Highway “Improvement” Project (my quotation marks). Not only has the “lush, green” description become a misnomer, as hillsides have been carved out and greenery destroyed. The dust has increasingly become a major health hazard. Cook shops, guest houses, and bars along the road cannot do business. People are becoming sick. Taxi drivers refuse to traverse the stretch of road through Drapers and beyond. By the way, before the “improvements” began, there was no public consultation done.

As I write, a protest is under way about the closure of Blue Lagoon – complete with police with “long guns” of course. It was declared a National Monument in 2018, by the way, which is why it falls under the JNHT’s responsibility . A radio interview yesterday evening about the closure of this gorgeous place (still being advertised by the Jamaica Tourist Board as a “must visit” location) went steadily downhill, as Portland’s Mayor obfuscated over who paid the security guards who were denying access to people at the end of the road he had ordered closed. He appeared to be passing the buck to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT), which is apparently responsible for getting the place in order and reopening it (“no timeline” for this). The overall impression during the interview was one of general incompetence and poor governance – almost laughable, if it wasn’t so sad.

As usual, it is the people of Portland who are left out in the cold. Their livelihoods are in jeopardy – whether it’s a craft vendor at Blue Hole, or a bar and hangout spot on the main road engulfed in dust. And essentially, this is what is wrong with eastern Portland, and has been wrong with it for a very long time. This beautiful place is a place for the “haves” (i.e. “special interests” and their friends) and the “have nots” (that is, everybody else). There is so little opportunity for the average Portlander, it is pitiful. Attempts at eco-tourism have mostly fallen flat. And, just to note here that this situation is not unique to Portland, sadly.

The dreaming, deep waters of Blue Lagoon. (My photo)

Here is the press release from Portland Environmental Action and the Jamaica Beach Birthright Environmental Movement (JaBBEM), who organised today’s protest along with the Blue Lagoon Alliance (representing local people who have worked at the Lagoon, I understand). It is really worth a read. I have highlighted some important parts of it myself in bold. The JNHT has responded and I will post their release separately, since this one is so long.

Their cause is a just one. Perhaps, one day, Portland will become the beautiful, happy place I once imagined it was and most importantly, where the people of Portland are not completely marginalised and disregarded. What is going on in Portland?

Blue Lagoon, Portland (Photo from Twitter, 2021).

For Immediate Release Portland, Jamaica

Mr. Wilbourn Carr (PEA, PRO)
876-290-7150; portlandunited876@gmail.com Dr Devon Taylor (JaBBEM, President) 876-293-5835; info.jabbem@gmail.com

March 4, 2023

The Lack of Public Access to the Blue Lagoon (National Monument) and the deafening silence around its protracted closure has heightened concerns among the citizens of Portland

Portland Environmental Action (PEA) and Jamaica Beach Birthright Environmental Movement (JaBBEM) are more than concerned about a threefold problem that the Jamaican public is experiencing at the Blue Lagoon in Portland Jamaica. These include the protracted closure, operational transparency and most importantly the lack of public access to this world renowned National Monument, the Blue Lagoon. These concerns are adversely impacting leisure, health and wellness, cultural practices, economic livelihood and are also fueling an atmosphere of corruption. The inability of the government to address these issues have led to anxiety, confusion, and mistrust of the government among its citizens.

Public Access to the Blue Lagoon

PEA and JaBBEM are further alarmed at the continued pattern of beach access loss across Jamaica with the recent access restriction at the Blue Lagoon now in its sixth month of closure. While the “National Monument” statute offers the citizens of Jamaica continued public access protection, it does not necessarily protect against restriction based on commercialization and land rights. Both commercialization and restricted access by land rights have been successfully used across the island to deny access not only on socioeconomic grounds but on the refusal to provide easement over land to access the beach and use of the sea.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights further states that “Land is not a mere commodity, but an essential element for the realization of many human rights.” It is the view of PEA and JaBBEM that the current restriction of access to the Blue lagoon constitutes an attempt to develop commercialization plans to restrict access to the Lagoon in the near future. Furthermore, the lack of public land around the lagoon was an intentional act over time by the government to transfer wealth to its donors while enriching themselves with power or assets at the expense of the peoples rights of access. These are the hallmarks of a corrupt democracy. We would like the authorities to know that the people of Jamaica are deeply troubled by the failure of the government to protect land rights against special interests that are necessary to their access rights to the lagoon. Public access to beaches, rivers and the Lagoon are essential rights that are enshrined in the ecological heritage of the Jamaican Constitution Sec 13(3)(I) and must be protected at all costs.

Protracted Closure and Lack of Government Land Rights

PEA and JaBBEM were extremely disturbed and distraught on the behalf of the Jamaican public to learn from the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) that the Government of Jamaica does not own any lands surrounding the Lagoon. None of the watershed properties, none of the barrier island, none along the parochial road leading to the Lagoon and none adjoining the beach at the Lagoon. The government has devoid itself of “Land Rights”.

This begs the sovereign question as to how current and past governments privatized the supportive ecosystem of a national treasure. This is gross mismanagement or complicity in the transfer of the country’s natural resources to private interests. The plans of the JNHT for a site upgrade have now become a problem of its own design. The JNHT and Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo) should have known and solved this issue before embarking on a project of this scale. With no land owner to date willing to cede property for sanitation, office and parking infrastructure the project is stalled and the humiliation of communicating this colossal blunder to the public has created confusion for JNHT, TPDCo and the Jamaican Government with gross uncertainty around the opening of the Lagoon.

The problem is further exacerbated by the refusal of a fellow government agency namely the Portland Municipal Parish council to approve opening of the Lagoon on plans submitted to them and despite the fact that they are a member of the working group that initiated the closure of the Lagoon. The Portland Parish Council is yet to communicate to the public their reservation to its own government’s plan. This also summons the question, is the Parish council subjected to external forces that are influencing its ability to find a workable solution with its former partners in the interest of the public access to the Lagoon and the economic livelihood of its citizens?

We were also made aware that there are existing permanent sanitary facilities with changing rooms and utility space located behind the walls along the parochial road very close to the Lagoon that were available to the public in the past. These facilities are the same ones the JNHT and TPDCo are trying to construct. PEA and JaBBEM is questioning why the public lost access to these amenities which are still present on the site. The government has a duty to safeguard the country’s ecological heritage and to protect the public’s right to a healthy environment which cannot be achieved without land rights. It is unacceptable for special interest groups to control such sensitive ecosystems and for government agencies to display such dysfunction in synthesizing a strategy to protect the interest and rights of its citizens. This is very alarming.

Operational Transparency

PEA and JaBBEM are very concerned regarding the lack of operational transparency around the maintenance of a security outpost blocking public access to the Lagoon. There are significant inconsistencies around the maintenance of the barrier restricting public access to the Lagoon. The barrier was originally erected and funded by TPDCO, a member of the Blue Lagoon Closure Working Group – consisting of the JNHT, TPDCO, Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF), the Parish Council, Alligator Head Foundation (AHF) and the Blue Lagoon Alliance (BLA). However, this is no longer the case as confirmed by the Lagoon working group and reaffirmed by the Mayor of Portland, TPDCo representative and the chairman of JNHT that they no longer fund or maintain the barrier currently manned by private security personnel.

It is therefore our interpretation that the barrier to the Lagoon is maintained by private special interests who continue to restrict the Jamaican public access rights to the Lagoon. The conditions that exist regarding the Blue Lagoon road closure present an obscure power relations with legitimate order unclear and undetermined in the eyes of the law. This is akin to gangsterism. It is important for organizations responsible for managing national monuments to be transparent in their operations and decision-making processes. This can help build trust and accountability with the public.

PEA and JaBBEM are willing to have further meetings with JNHT to help in providing suggestions on issues of sanitation, parking, logistics of sustainable upgrade of the space and waste management – but is equally troubled that its administrative government agency cannot find the necessary technical solutions among inter-governmental agencies.

PEA and JaBBEM is asking the Government of Jamaica to:

  • immediately reopen the Blue Lagoon to the public with adequate security in place to protect the public and an interim sanitation plan (portable lavatories)
  • use its constitutional powers to reclaim lands adjoining the Lagoon in the interest of conservation and improvement of public access
  • immediately release the developmental plan with timeline for reopening to support public education and transparency including addressing any privatization plans for the Lagoon
  • communicate to the Jamaican people any intent to charge entrance fees and subject the Lagoon to daily visiting quota and hours of operation.
  • declare the full scope of economic activities to support livelihood that will be permitted and the timeline for commencement.
  • exclude any government official who may have conflicts of interest around the lagoon due to personal business operations from any decision making regarding the upgrading of infrastructure.

We urge the government to take immediate action to remove all barriers to public access to the Lagoon and to ensure that the people of Jamaica can enjoy their beaches without restrictions. We are also calling on the government to hold special interest groups accountable for their actions and to ensure that they do not infringe on the public’s rights.

In conclusion, while we are particularly concerned with the restriction of Lagoon access, the protracted closure and operational mismanagement, we are urging all Jamaicans to stand up for their rights and to demand that their public beach access rights are respected. In addition, all Jamaicans must also demand rights of access to safe and sustainable water supply including the protection of watersheds. We must all work together to ensure that Jamaica remains a democratic and equitable society where everyone has equal rights and opportunities.

Mr. Wilbourn Carr and Dr. Devon Taylor
(PRO, PEA, instagram@east_portland_jamaica) and (President of JaBBEM, JaBBEM.org)

An aerial view of Portland near Blue Hole.

3 thoughts on “Why is Portland, Jamaica, in such a mess?

  1. The most distressing thing about the latest fuss over Blue Lagoon, Portland is that many local people don’t give a damn. It’s a kind of chronic, seductive fatalism.

    Liked by 1 person

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