Writing in the Sand

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For the past few weeks, I have watched the sand-mining of Coral Spring in Duncans, Trelawny being treated in the press as the mother of all environmental thefts. This genuinely amazing heist has been the subject of as much high drama as the current government and its allies can muster in the face of all the other crises looming over us.

I attempted to weigh in on the public conversation by pointing out that an even larger theft has been committed against Jamaican citizens, and which was being roundly ignored by the fuss over the potential loss of money by a group of already-wealthy investors.I argued that government officials – as individuals or on behalf of the government – have been in cahoots with private investors for many years, using backdoor deals to turn much of the beachfront land into perpetual revenues and profit, none of which came back to the people on whose backs and with whose monies such development was realized.I claimed that, regardless of how and by whom the Coral Spring beach is being appropriated for private use, one thing is clear:Jamaican citizens are the losers overall; sand is being kicked in our faces, especially by our current government which cannot see beyond its relationship with the capitalist-minded private sector.

Well, when I said these things in a letter subsequently published in the Gleaner, I guess I was forgetting myself, as my grandmother used to say.To hear Phillip Powell, one particularly irate Jamaican tell it, I was demonstrating the original sin of grudgefulness, of being “red-yeye”. Yes. In response to my critique of the complicity of governmental bodies and lack of attention given to private developers’ exploitation of the physical environment, Mr. Powell resorted to now-familiar personal attacks.He called me all the names he could come up with (grudgeful, red-eye, no ambition, coward, unsympathetic, etc.). He even excoriated the Gleaner for publishing the letter, arguing that the editors’ decision was ideologically motivated, and suggested the article was libellous. Indeed, from reading his response, which was published in the Observer (where else?), I felt that I had been caught in a cussing match in the street, but over what, it’s not clear.

If I am “grudgeful” of anything as Mr. Powell accuses me of being, it is the privileged ability of the Felicitas investors to have such affluence and influence and to use it only for their personal gain. What an utter waste of money, talent and time when there is so much to be done! Already, the cast of characters who have been drawn into the “find the sand” mystery rivals any stage production of the national pantomime.On the front stage, there have been the ‘experts’: geologists, special investigative police units, elected government officials, forensic specialists, and entire governmental bodies involved in tracking down the precious sand, with the print media providing obtuse reports of their move.Backstage, I am certain that the cast of characters has been far less stellar, but no less effective in both tracking down the sand, and covering up the tracks of those other investors and allies who do not wish to have their misdeeds exposed at this moment.

While the newspapers are tentatively reporting that the sand has now been “found” on other properties located on the northcoast, there is clearly reluctance on the part of the government and the media to disclose who those properties belong to. These delay tactics should be very familiar to us. Whenever someone from the elite is caught with their pants down or pissing in the sand, as it were, average Jamaicans are instantly entertained with hearsay and meaningless chatter, while the guilty parties can finish covering their tracks.

And yet, the one thing that is made patently clear in the shoddy reportage, and which Mr. Powell actively ignored, is that not all Jamaican persons are treated as entitled to this level of “response.” We know this because at the same time that Coral Spring is getting the royal treatment, there are many other cases of sand-mining, illegal quarrying and mis-appropriation of public property that have never been investigated sufficiently, or at all. Where is the investigation of the mining going on at Yallahs? This multimillion dollar effort has contributed to the physical decline of the area, the health problems of nearby residents, and undermined various efforts to rebuild the Yallahs bridge which connects the eastern parishes to the Kingston metropolitan area.

Just ask the folks working on behalf of Winnifred Beach in Portland about what neglect and exploitation feels like.Despite existing legislation that prohibits the sale of the beach, the folks at the Urban Development Corporation decided that, being a statutory body, they were free to ignore the laws of the land and to do as they wish.

If rich smaddies want to buy the beach, then to hell with the Jamaican riff-raff who actually use Winnifred Beach, and to whom the beach rightfully belongs. Even as I write this, UDC continues to use both government and private resources to mount a defense of their unethical and illegal behaviour, and uses their dubious authority to (illegally) grant ownership to the private investors.And so, it is now the job of the resource-poor Winnifred Beach grassroots effort to prove that they are entitled, and that the sale should not have gone through.

So apparently, Jamaican citizens cannot learn the lesson enough and have to be taught it over and over again. That is, being “successful” ie having too much money and unfettered access to the halls of power, and a trait admired by Mr. Powell, is the ONLY key to being listened to. In this scenario, those of us who dare(!) to demand equitable treatment say, when balancing the needs of developers and citizens, and who have the temerity to ask for greater accountability on the part of the developers are treated as the problem. We forgot that our only response should be, like Mr. Powell’s, to take whatever amount or quality of milk that we get, no matter how sour and foul-smelling it might be.We who ask for the cows to be counted are definitely not considered part of the solution.

It is our responsibility as citizens to point out when and where unequal treatment is meted out by our institutions.It is also our civic, ethical and moral duty to ensure that our institutions are responsive to our collective needs, rather than tailor their accountability based on the colour of our skin, the size of our bank accounts or the content of our social networks. Were we consistent in our demands for accountability, fairness and just protection of public goods, then the sandmining at Coral Spring might not have happened at all!

I do not now, nor will I ever, choose to side with developers who do not have the interests of Jamaicans – in Trelawny or elsewhere – at the center of their plans. Tellingly, I have not heard of any discussion about the place, Duncans; all the chatter has all been about the sand, the value the investors have assigned to it, and what money the developers thought they could make off marketing it as some of the whitest, prettiest sand in the world. For this group of investors, they have demonstrated no commitment to the place.

Indeed, there is not a mention of what they plan to bring to the people of Duncans, Trelawny – besides more traffic and related social problems – although numerous opportunities have emerged for them to do so. All we hear about is the sand, and even explicit threats of not following through on their plans to create high-end tourist ‘product’.

The papers report that Felicitas planned to build “six-star” luxury accommodations – spa, amphitheatre, marina etc. in the first phase of their project.Instead, we the onlookers are the ones who speculate about “jobs”; those words did not, and have not, come from the would-be developers. The place Duncans, might as well not exist! Unless, of course, we the “out of order” people start speaking up and asking some questions like, what does the second phase of the project entail? And in which phase will they include the people of Duncans?

The unemployment issues in Trelawny – complex as they are – will not be resolved by any development in Coral Spring. I daresay, whatever happens there will have a negligible effect on the area.In the Gleaner’s July 23 report, Andrew Desnoes was clear about the priorities of the group: “the beach was the essence of the project.” From the concerns about ‘contamination’ if sand should be retrieved, to lofty pronouncements that it would take at least a century for the sand to be replenished naturally, we get the message. No beach, no project.

I don’t know how their intentions could be made more clear. Most striking is that nobody, not the media which is responsible for bringing to light all the issues related to such development, and certainly not Mr. Golding who actually deigned to weigh in on the sand issue (but not on so many other things) early on by designating special police units. Clearly, he saw this as an opportunity to make good on his election promises to give preferential treatment to the wealthy (maybe you need to go read the JLP election manifesto again).

Ever since the national government has been busy auctioning and giving away Jamaican resources to the lowest bidder or the closest friend, we have been saddled with all the consequences of shoddy and poorly executed business contracts. Nowhere in the fine or large print is there a single clause that promises tangible improvements in the lives of Jamaican people. We constantly are hoping for something good to come our way, but one cannot eat hope, take it to the supermarket, or drive it to work.

The questions we choose not to ask about this and other projects are glaring, as the investigation unfolds.Indeed, many come to my mind: Why has sand-mining not been given national attention until this particular case? Who determines which beach is valuable and which is not? How exactly do these governmental bodies concerned with the physical environment deter, investigate and punish such mining practices? What is the role of the police and citizenry in preventing environmental theft? Why are such deals entered into by the government treated as private transactions rather than as matters of public interest?What is the penalty for accepting and using stolen sand? What is the responsibility of private investors in managing the impact of their projects on the physical environment? What is the responsibility of private developers to the communities in which they are located? What are the stipulations about conflicts of interest that govern politicians’ participation in various transactions? Why aren’t elected politicians expected to provide full disclosure of their financial and real estate holdings in Jamaica?

The proposed project is adjacent to a protected area, but only with the sand mining do we hear the first murmurs about the environmental impact of anything being done there. Rather, we hear about the problem of the sand mining, but not the problem of the construction, buildings and long-term use of this particular piece of land. I certainly don’t hear that the investors have any consciousness of how their use was going to create any environmental issues that needed to be addressed prior to any development project. Nor, do I hear of any efforts to partner with any nearby school or community organization and provide resources to develop a strong curriculum on managing and making the best use of what’s left of the physical environment.

The citizens of Duncans and Jamaica should be able to access all plans that have been approved, be able to voice their concerns in a public setting, and expect to be listened to with respect by both governmental agencies and developers. However, given the general secrecy with which this and other development schemes are treated, in this instance I see my duty as a citizen to point to the ways in which the sand mining is just a tip of the problem; it is the lack of appropriate governmental oversight to private development schemes which have contributed to the destruction of the physical and social infrastructure.

Every time we see a new hotel or building being erected adjacent to our shores, we should ask what sources will be plundered to feed the growing hunger for more sand.Bad policies, poor decision-making and unmitigated greed have helped create this ravenous monster we call “development”; bulldozers and dumper trucks are simply the tools of the trade.

Finally, I would hope that when we as Jamaicans get around to having an informed conversation about the meaning of “success”, we are able to make some important distinctions and set some productive standards for ourselves and our children. That is, perpetuating the idea that having a lot of money and power is equivalent to “success” in Jamaica certainly accounts for why so many of our activities and interactions – from schoolroom to parliament – are informed by corrupt practices.

The ethic of “success” that we currently salute is what produces the various types of don-manship we encounter everyday – whether via Felicitas or in Southside. I certainly hope that most of us – and maybe Mr. Powell – are able to distinguish these sources of “success” from those achievements that are gained through ethical practices that include honesty, integrity, a genuine good regard for those with whom one comes into contact along the way, a sense of humility about what one has accomplished and what remains undone, and a sense of accountability to those whose lives will be touched by whatever has been done.

I want to believe that Felicitas will come out on the right side. However, given how difficult it is to get our elected government officials to see the interests of ordinary Jamaicans as equivalent in importance to the elites who support them, I won’t be surprised if the Felicitas folks choose to maintain the status quo. Indeed, they are expected to, if Mr. Powell is right. For that reason, I advise all of us to put on some goggles, as we will need them while we decide whether we will fight an uphill battle to retain access to our land and birthright. The sand is really starting to blow hard!

Long Bench is a pseudonym. She can be reached at longbench@gmail.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AbengNews.com

     

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