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Goat Islands – Eco-row over Chinese plan for cargo hub

It may sound an improbable name for a proposed logistics hub, but Jamaica’s Goat Islands are being lined up as the location for the Caribbean’s next major container terminal project – or at least they will if the Chinese get their way.

In fact, so improbable is the Goat Islands name that the scheme is also referred to as Portland Bight. But whether it’s called Goat Islands or Portland Bight, it is proving a battleground for those in Jamaica pitted for and against the highly controversial US$ 1.5 billion mega project. 

goatThe China Harbour Engineering Co (CHEC) wants to construct a new port complex on Little Goat Island and Great Goat Island which together make up Goat Islands. These small islands are located just around the headland from Kingston and off the Hellshire coast in Old Harbour Bay – that is, about midway between the Port of Kingston and the Jamalco terminal at Rocky Point.

The project is heavily backed by the Jamaican government and has been supported by new Port Authority of Jamaica president and CEO Prof Gordon Shirley.

Opinion

Yet outside the comparatively narrow confines of the maritime sector, opinion in Jamaica is deeply divided over the merits of the planned scheme. Many welcome the prospect of investment and the jobs that would follow; others caution against growing Chinese influence in the Caribbean and express concern about the impact on the environment. In particular, local conservationists are staunchly opposed to the plan, while opposition politicians criticize the government’s handling of the whole process. 

Despite these objections, the Jamaica government in late March pushed ahead and signed a framework agreement with CHEC. 

The nub of the controversial decision to press ahead with the project is that the Goat Islands form part of the 1,876 sq km Portland Bight Protected Area (PBPA). The two islands were once a habitat for the critically endangered Jamaican iguana. In fact, the nation’s last surviving colony is still there on the mainland and within the PBPA. At the same time, the PBPA remains Jamaica’s largest mangrove system and is home to 53 endemic plant species plus birds, snakes, skinks and frogs not found elsewhere.

Group

Those against the project (and they are many) have organised themselves into the ‘Save Goat Islands’ group. Diana McCaulay, chief executive of the Jamaica Environment Trust, told CM: “Our main objection is the secrecy which has surrounded and still surrounds it. Environmental stakeholders, including the protected areas manager, read about it in the newspaper – along with the rest of Jamaica. Development, especially major development, in protected areas should be approached with care, transparency and full study.”

Ms McCauley wanted to know how a protected area could even be earmarked for development. “It was the government that declared Portland Bight a protected area and after considerable study,” she said. “It was declared protected because of the important natural resources it contains. Millions of dollars [Jamaican, not US] have been spent on conservation projects in the PBPA. So what does it mean for all other national parks and protected areas in Jamaica if the government can just change its mind about the use of land?” The objectors say that they are not against a logistics hub on the island as such and are happy to see such a facility built in Jamaica, but not in the PBPA. 

Ms McCauley said: “We have asked from the beginning what other sites were considered and why they were rejected. The government has not responded. We are not opposed to other sites…”

Another factor is that this is a purely Chinese idea, in which the Chinese have arrived with a detailed plan and the money to finance it. This is contrary to the more traditional development model whereby the Jamaican government might have made the case for such a project, carried out various studies and evaluations, consulted widely and then sought finance from banks or other lending institutions. 

On the other hand, the government cannot just ignore such an idea and has to consider the positive impact the project is likely to have on jobs in a country that has long suffered from high unemployment.

Explored

Jamaica’s Minister of Transport, Works & Housing, Omar Davies, says that a project which does not harm the environment, and will improve people’s living standards, must be explored.  

This general view was supported by Prof Shirley: “Jamaica must capitalize on its unique position of having the most favourable location in the region, particularly with the impending expansion of the Panama Canal.” 

He also recognized that the planned logistics hub, with space for additional activities, offered good prospects for employment: “We have to move in a direction of adding greater value to the cargo which comes to Jamaica and at the moment this is the single largest opportunity to do so,” he added. 

When contacted by CM in mid April, Prof Shirley politely declined to comment further about the project.

But Ms McCauley claimed: “I don’t think the government is living up to its own commitments [in regard to] sustainable development and openness...” 

As it is, around 2,000 jobs are expected to be created during the construction phase and perhaps 10,000 permanent jobs when the project is fully operational at some point in the future.

Whether or not the project goes ahead (or retains its odd name), Chinese interest in Jamaica only confirms what many others in the shipping industry having been saying for some time: the island clearly has the best location in the Caribbean.

The Fleming effect…

In the very first James Bond movie, ‘Dr. No’, shot on location in Jamaica and released in October 1962 just after the country gained its independence, the eponymous character was a wealthy Chinese businessman who had acquired an island off the coast and was using it as a base from which to expand his private empire.

Of course, ‘Dr. No’ is a work of fiction and there is absolutely no suggestion that every foreign investor who buys an island off Jamaica is secretly plotting to shoot down American space rockets. But there are some uncanny parallels. Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, was so fond of Jamaica that he built a house at Oracabessa in the late 1940s and spent much of his time there.