According to the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) the most recently completed showpiece of Chinese engineering in Jamaica, the North-South section of Highway 2000 is 66 kilometres long and allows motorists to travel from the capital city Kingston to the resort town of Ocho Rios in less than an hour. The US$600 Million project was undertaken through a public-private partnership (PPP) agreement between the Jamaican Government and China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC).
The scenic roadway, which has been lauded as an example of engineering genius, meanders through once densely vegetated mountains that form the backbone of the country. Initial concerns about environmental damage were amplified when large volumes of silt deposit were noticed in the waters off Old Fort Bay, St. Ann, raising questions about the threats to marine life. Peter Knight, CEO of the country’s environment and planning agency, admitted that the construction company “had been in breach of the permit all along the way”.
The new roads have been welcomed by many Jamaicans because of the shortened travel time to major towns across the island but there are some who question the scale of deforestation that has accompanied the projects. Additionally, the toll rates which were recently announced were found to be unaffordable to many Jamaicans and environmentalist Emma Lewis foresees ‘duppy highways’ as commuters will not be able to travel on it.
Civil society groups, particularly environmental groups, trade unionists and political pundits have questioned China’s interest in the region. References to soft-colonialism and neo-imperialism have been made by those critical of the Chinese funded stadium in the Bahamas, hospital in Trinidad and Tobago and bauxite mines in Guyana. In fact, some commentators have suggested that China’s growing presence in the region, also regarded as the US’ backyard, was the impetus for President Obama’s visit to Jamaica last year to reaffirm the diplomatic ties between the US and the Caribbean.
Jamaica has become the core of Chinese operations in the region through the Chinese Harbour Engineering Company and is poised to gain further importance as Ziyu Sun, Vice President of China Communications Construction Company, recently announced that the company will build its regional headquarters in Jamaica. Some are hopeful that the company, which will provide marine engineering, dredging and bridge building will make a dent in the high rate of unemployment by employing skilled Jamaican workers. If past projects however are anything to go by, most of these labourers will be brought in from China. A former Chinese ambassador justified the preference for Chinese labourers on the basis that Caribbean workers ‘prefer to party than work’. Former Caribbean diplomat Sir Ronald Sanders argued that the comments showed little appreciation for the history of slavery and indentured labour in the region, the exploitation of workers, and the rise of the trade union movement to establish and protect workers’ interests and their conditions of work.
The case of Goat Islands which was being eyed to form part of the logistics hub was met with opposition by lobby groups, fishermen and residents of nearby communities. Goat Islands forms part of the Portland Bight Protected Area which remains Jamaica’s largest mangrove system and is home to 53 endemic plant species plus birds, snakes, skinks and frogs not found elsewhere. Government representatives at the time defended the project on the basis that it would generate employment and much needed economic revenue. Environmentalists questioned the rationale behind building a port in a nationally declared protected area on which lots of money had been spent for conservation.
Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Andrew Lumsden, notes that the government bills its engagement with China as a chance to improve infrastructure, create jobs, and stimulate economic growth on the island. Unfortunately, the government demonstrates no clear understanding of China’s record in previous dealings with developing nations, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, and the socio-economic and environmental consequences brought on by engagement with China. Similar concerns have been raised about China’s infrastructural expansion in South America.
Across the Caribbean, Governments are being accused of ‘selling out’ without careful consideration of the long term impacts on the natural environment and people of their countries. Additional concerns have been raised about the flouting of labour laws by some Chinese companies and a questionable political agenda.
There is a well-established need for transparency in revenue streams, for controls to prevent corruption, and for measures to set and enforce environmental standards. Caribbean governments should not relax environmental regulations in order to attract Chinese investments, nor should labour and tax laws be disregarded. As a small island developing state, our natural and human capital remain the key for sustainable development.
Greater scrutiny needs to be included in any project that will directly or indirectly affect the natural environment. Foreign governments who have exploited their resources should not be allowed to act without impunity in our shores. It is important that interested stakeholders are made aware that Jamaica is not for sale, its people are not pawns to be exploited nor is it a pollution haven.