Mon | Sep 23, 2019

Peter Espeut | We did protest Cockpit boundaries

Published:Friday | August 16, 2019 | 12:24 AM
Prime Minister Andrew Holness in Gordon House.

I was present in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, November 21, 2017, when Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced the boundaries of the proposed Cockpit Country Protected Area. In his speech, PM Holness said: “Mr Speaker, the goal of defining the boundary is to ensure forest conservation, protection of biodiversity, preservation and improvement of traditional livelihoods, and the creation of new economic opportunities from heritage, health and wellness tourism, and ecotourism.” I fully agree!

In my column three days later, I wrote: “After bigging up the Government for their announcement (and we have learnt to hold the applause until implementation), I must say that there are some inadequacies in the announced boundaries. The vast majority of the bauxite that the industry would want to mine is available to them in northern Manchester, northern St Elizabeth, and western St Ann – all part of the Cockpit Country but outside the protected area declared by the prime minister. I don’t think the bauxite lobby will be too unhappy with the announced boundaries, for the quality of the bauxite closed off to them is poor and expensive to extract.”

From day one, environmentalists – including myself – expressed our dissatisfaction with the boundaries announced that day, which were proposed by Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr, whose father once headed the Jamaica Bauxite Institute. The boundaries proposed by The University of the West Indies and the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group – which would have protected the interests of Jamaican residents/voters and the environment – were discarded. I was right to hold my applause. It was, and is, clear that the Holness Government is in the pockets of mining interests whose families do not live here.

Low MP attendance

All the protests we made at the time were drowned out by other events that took place in Gordon House that day. I stayed on to watch what would happen with the controversial National Identification (NIDS) legislation being rushed through Parliament with indecent haste. From my vantage point in the gallery, I observed that the Opposition PNP members in attendance outnumbered government MPs present by five; if the NIDS bill came to a vote that day, the Government would lose and be profoundly embarrassed.

So I was not surprised when the acting leader of government business in the House, Everald Warmington, proposed that the vote on the 168 amendments made to the NIDS bill in the Senate be deferred to a later sitting.

Then Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips moved a motion that the NIDS bill be withdrawn and sent to a joint select committee of Parliament for further review. If that motion came to a vote, with the extant PNP majority at the time, it would have passed. And so in the best tradition of Jamaican politics, the bewigged House speaker refused to put the motion to a vote.

This caused uproar in the House as the Opposition protested the speaker’s ruling. Speaker Pearnel Charles announced a 20-minute recess. Upon resumption, the PNP staged a walkout of Parliament, which left the Government side with the majority it needed to pass the NIDS bill. Which they quickly did! How naïve of the PNP!

For the following months, the media and civil-society activists were preoccupied with fighting the NIDS bill, and protests by environmentalists and others about the improper Cockpit Country boundaries were drowned out. Those boundaries need to be reviewed quickly. Irreparable damage may soon happen. The fall in alumina prices on world markets may only save the Cockpit Country from an uncaring Jamaican Government in the medium term.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and natural resource manager. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.