The painted motorboat cuts its engine, and we drift up the mouth of the narrow river. The seawater darkens, settles and becomes a jade sheet of glass. On both sides, spindly mangrove fingers weave themselves into a thick barricade, as if to remind us we’re only visitors. A white egret glides into view, dips low over the water and finds its nest, hidden in the silty forest. Way above our heads, three black crows sail on the warm thermals, keeping watch. Gentle ripples betray an unseen crocodile, annoyed at being disturbed. And a tree crab sidles along a fallen branch. This is the Portland Bight, home to the Goat Islands.
Twenty-five kilometres east as the crows fly, another ecosystem is full of life, this one featuring cranes without beaks and whales of iron. The Kingston seaport is the busiest in the Caribbean, close to the Panama trade routes and blessed with a large natural harbour, the perfect habitat for container ships. Conditions are so favourable that the port has enjoyed near-constant expansion for decades, a boon in our stagnant economy.
These two neighbouring environments — one organic, one synthetic — are connected by a thread running halfway around the world. China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) is building a regional operations port, and our government wants the investment. (The courtship isn’t new — CHEC is building Highway 2000, despite a record of unethical behaviour and the objections of the former Contractor-General.) And last year, they found the perfect spot for their new venture — Goat Islands.
Goat Islands is caught between the economists and the ecologists
You can predict what’s happened since. Politicians and businessmen, led by Minister Omar Davies, have argued the economic case — US$1.5 billion injection, 10,000 jobs, 21st-century competitiveness, etc. Environmentalists, led by author Diana McCaulay, have argued the ecological case — endemic species, hurricane buffers, irreparable damage, and so on. And the rest of us, uninformed and apathetic by default, have written off the battle as a lost cause.
Here are the facts. The Portland Bight wetlands, lakes and forests are a Protected Area (PBPA) under the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act. In addition, the Fishing Industries Act created three Special Fisheries Conservation Areas in its waters. It is a Ramsar site by treaty — ‘a wetland of international importance’. Birdlife International considers it an Important Bird Area (IBA). And the isles themselves are game reserves thanks to the Wildlife Protection Act. With its shores, shallows, reptiles, fish and fowl all wrapped in overlapping layers of legislation and protection, the Goat Islands are as off-limits for development as it can possibly be (given nearby human cohabitation).
But money doesn’t grow on endangered West Indian mahogany trees. The shipping industry is immense, profitable and predictable, keeping pace with the world economy. And a major bonanza is beginning. Cruise ships, container ships, and oil tankers are only as wide as the locks on the Panama Canal. That single measurement, known as Panamax, has been a giant restraining rubber band for a century, but it’s about to pop. Panama will open a brand new set of locks in 2015, and the rest of the world is scrambling to capitalize.
Ports everywhere will need bigger cranes, to reach across the wider decks of post-Panamax ships. Harbours, including ours, will need to be expanded and deepened, since larger ships sit lower. It’s a gold rush for seaports like Kingston Container Terminal, and firms like China Harbour Engineering. Crane assembly? CHEC. Harbour construction? CHEC. Seafloor dredging? CHEC — they’re the second largest dredger in the world.
We need to balance moving quickly against the cost of paradise lost
China, who owns CHEC, is willing to drop US$1.5 billion into our coffers because it stands to make way more obscene fees in the coming years. But we can have our lake and compete, too. There are other sites for the port complex (the original proposal was Fort Augusta). In determining the fate of Goat Islands, we need to balance the benefits of moving quickly against the costs of industrialization (see, literally, Beijing’s unbreathable air) and of paradise lost.
Precisely due to unrelenting pressure to develop, virgin sanctuaries will only become rarer and more valuable in the future. Ecotourism is growing by 25% annually, far outpacing the rest of the tourism industry, fueled by the increasing scarcity and innate appeal of nature. If the government is genuinely interested in Jamaica’s long-term prosperity, the smart money may be on leaving the crocodiles to swim in peace.