A Licence for Malingerers
The Man from Ham Walk
Jacob Taylor was a short, thick man with the face of an amiable pugilist, the sort of guy children immediately adopt as a sort of honorary uncle. He was the epitome of the Jamaican civil servant, a man who did his job diligently, without hope of recognition, without fear, favour or any interest except that of the public he served.
I first met him in the newly established office of the Beach Control Authority ( BCA) on Beechwood Avenue, just about opposite to the present headquarters of the Jamaica Observer. I was the first reporter to check out the newly established BCA, I went to interview the Secretary and Chairman of the Authority. Unfortunately the Chairman, Mr H.D Tucker, was not there but I spoke to the secretary, Mr Dujon and I met a lifelong friend in Jacob Taylor, then his assistant. He was proud of the fact that he was born in Ham Walk, near Linstead and without doubt its most notable citizen.
For the next forty years Jacob was to devote himself to securing rights of access to Jamaican beaches for the Jamaican people. Some beaches were easy – nobody was interested in building hotels on them. One such was the Winniefred Rest Home beach at Fairy Hill in Portland. That was then.
Other beaches had to be fought for. Jacob was the unassuming general in a guerilla war against private interests that had recently heard about the attractions of beaches for tourists and were trying to incorporate them into their estates as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible.
Most of Jamaica’s beaches had until then been of no interest to landowners. Ordinary people beached their fishing boats or went for dips in the sparkling waters when they chose – often innocent of clothing. My father, a Baptist parson, often baptized people at Derby beach, now Silver Sands. In the early 1950s it suddenly became clear that beaches were desirable properties.
Within a few weeks of taking up his job Jacob could probably have recited by heart the Beach Control Act, Law 56 of 1955,. He was to become the very personification of justice for thousands of Jamaicans, fishermen and others whose free and easy access to the sea was now threatened by people hoping to make fortunes from tourism.
Jacob took the law seriously, and when he became Secretary of the BCA, aggressively defended the prescriptive rights of poor people to the beaches despite expensive legal challenges from such as Teddy Pratt of Mammee Bay and Lady Price of San San. Laughing Water is a public beach reserve, according to the law but not according to the powers that be.
What Jacob could not prevent, was the wholesale annexation of north coast beaches facilitated by the government of Sir Alexander Bustamante. The first government of independent Jamaica pushed people off the beaches by the simple expedient of relocating the highway which had until then, run along the coast. The relocation removed the sea views as well as the access to the beaches. Prospect Beach (‘Reggae beach’), Llandovery and San San were among the more egregious examples. At San San, before the road was moved, the aptly named Coldhardour Ltd, promoters of the development, put a fence in the sea beside the road, as I reported in Public Opinion forty years ago. The so-called car park at San San is in fact, the remains of the public highway and a monument to land capture by the rich.
In the seventies Jacob renewed his efforts to secure the beaches, introducing training, examination and certification for lifeguards, and building changing rooms and toilets.
By the time he retired in 1995, he had ensured that of Jamaica’s 488 miles of coastline, there were 20 miles of public beach to balance the 20 miles of privately licensed beach.
Since then a new breed of public official has emerged, particularly in the UDC – an entity that I describe as the Ultimate Devastation Conglomerate. Another disaster is the new National Environmental Protection Authority – NEPA – which some environmentalists describe as Never Ever Protect Anything.
Jacob’s legacy is being destroyed by the erosion of the public’s rights to the beaches. The UDC fought strenuously to take away the Hellshire beach from the fishermen – claiming to own the beach when the fishermen did – and bulldozing the houses of the fishermen calling them squatters.. They have also in my view, cheated the fishermen of their inheritance by restricting them to a smaller than agreed area and by continual harassment which makes cooperative development of the beach impossible. The UDC wants the beach for an upscale exclusive private development.
NEPA, which in Jacob’s day was the NRCA, was asked to do its public duty to protect the public interest in the prescriptive rights of access to Winniefred beach. They appeared to agree and then, without notice to the people who petitioned them, withdrew from the case without warning or giving any reason.
Beaches and open space are essential for the leisure and recreation of the people. Those who would deny the people their rights are putting a rod in pickle for themselves. Hellshire and Winniefred Beach in Portland are two of the last remaining public recreational areas in Jamaica. – areas where people can bathe without danger.
Ninety Days to Perdition
The government's headlong pursuit of the Great Development Myth is going to land all of us in serious trouble before we are much older.
Tourism is seen as the magic bullet for "Development" and this means destroying the environment of Jamaica and taking away public rights in order to build cruise ship piers and exclusive resorts for foreigners.
The energy crisis, global warming and the coming worldwide depression will soon put paid to all the dreams of cruise ship heaven and artificial attractions.. Our frenzied pursuit of tourist-factory-farming will bequeath to us expensive white elephants in the shape of hotels on beaches ravaged by super hurricanes, cruise ship piers without cruise ships and a population having to pay for expensive 'developments' which are unable to pay for themselves.
The government, in an effort to cut through red tape and speed up 'development' is proposing to institute a mandatory 90-day turnaround time for approval of new projects by NEPA.
This will not even allow time for an effective Environmental Impact Assessment. It seems that developers are constitutionally unable to give adequate notice of their projects although most of these projects have been months and years in conception. They wait till the last minute and blackmail civil servants by claiming massive loss of profit if permission is not granted immediately.
The Jamaica Environmental Action Network (JEAN) – of which I am proud to be a member – has taken objection to this proposal on the ground that the new rules will open the development process to anarchy.
JEAN is concerned by two things: one is the inability of the NEPA to make up its mind and to make effective rules for developers and the other is the fact that when NEPA does make rules it takes no action when these rules are defied, ignored, or broken.
One example, supplied by JEAN will explain the point;
"… the environmental permit granted by NEPA to Hoteles Pinero Jamaica Ltd. (HOJAPI) to build the Gran Bahia Principe Hotel requires that :- (a) the sewage treatment plant (STP) be built in accordance with submitted designs; (b) the Ministry of Health be advised before commencement of construction of the STP, at 50% completion, at 90% completion and on commissioning; and (c) that the effluent from the plant must confirm to NEPA standards. What in fact happened? The sewage plant was not built according to the specifications, we are unaware whether or not the Ministry of Health has ever issued an approval letter for the "as built" plant, only one notification was done at 50% construction, and following tests … the effluent was not in conformance with standards. None of the three government agencies that could apply sanctions to the hotel – NEPA, the Ministry of Health and/or the Water Resources Authority – has done so."
If NEPA wants to 'speed up the process of development approval" the simplest option is simply to do nothing. That is, simply follow their Standard Operating Procedure.
Theoretically, new mining operations require an Environmental Impact Assessment. As far as I know NEPA has never asked for any, and one result is the new mining pit which will destroy part of the Spur Tree Hill Road out of Mandeville (see photograph) The people of Mandeville were never given the opportunity of deciding whether they wanted their landscape disfigured and their road destroyed. They are allowed to watch it happening, without the intervention of NEPA or any other government authority.
NEPA's demonstrated preference is for what Jacob Taylor described to me years ago as the ultimate deterrent to action by civil servant: "Masterly Inactivity" – a process made into an art form by NEPA. The procedure is simple: documents are simply passed from one functionary to another, each declining responsibility, until one day the file ends up on the floor of some secure vault, an archive of blasted hope and frustrated initiative. Under the new rules, this is the way forward.
I believe that the Prime Minister and his Minister of Health and Environment should meet urgently with members of the environmental and public interest lobby. If we Jamaicans do not understand the rules and procedures of sustainable development we will find ourselves in a political and economic backwater, drifting aimlessly in a sea of pollution, erosion and despair. The environmental lobby is not against development, it is simply opposed to unsustainable, destructive and expensive “Development”.
There are numberless examples of the perils of uncontrolled, unmonitored and unregulated development, from Times Beach and the Love Canal, to Minimata and the poisoned rivers and flattened forests of Amazonia.
All of those disasters happened in places with lots more land space than ours, yet their effects have been horrendous. Our small size means that our mistakes will be magnified. The sewage from the houses at San San will eventually destroy the swimming there. The sewage in the sea at Bahia Principe (see photo) will poison not only those to the windward – the people of Pear Tree Bottom – but everyone beyond. The sewage from Portmore and Kingston Harbour is now being exported to Hellshire and points west. Fertiliser from sugar estates and sewage from hotels is ending up on Negril’s corals and beaches.
Jamaica is a small place and we cannot afford to make even small mistakes. The world is a small place and every mistake we make is added to every other mistake made by everyone else.
That's why the Arctic icecap is melting and the beaches are disappearing at Negril.
We have only one Earth, one Jamaica. And we have one duty, not to leave the world a worse place than we found it and in fact, to make it better for those who follow us.