Jamaica is developing, but at what cost?

Photos of Montego Bay by Emma Lewis, taken from Doctor's Cave Beach looking towards the lagoon, used with permission.

Several recent announcements about large developments along Jamaica’s idyllic north coast, a popular tourist destination, have local environmentalists concerned. On January 26, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie's Letter to the Editor was published in the Jamaica Gleaner, in which she called for greater transparency and public engagement in such developments.

Noting that although ground has already been broken on The Pinnacle, a series of 28-storey luxury high-rises that sit on approximately 17.5 acres of waterfront property, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not yet been done, and community stakeholders have not been engaged in any meaningful way, she added: “According to the development’s website, all government approvals were received as of August 2023. They have already started to market the project to potential homeowners/investors. This approach highlights several recurring issues observed in environmental decision-making in Jamaica […] JET has long argued for mandatory EIAs for projects which pose significant environmental risks.”

EIAs in Jamaica are conducted at the discretion of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), but it remains unclear why some projects require an EIA and others do not. Rodriguez-Moodie also believes that all types of environmental assessments — not simply EIAs — and environmental permits should be publicly available on NEPA’s website, saying, “Engagement should go beyond simply seeking public acceptance (which is often the method used in EIAs), and should include consensus-based public dialogue aimed at reaching better decisions.”

A critical concern with The Pinnacle location is its proximity to the Montego Bay Marine Park, Jamaica's first marine area which includes a five-square kilometre park and two special fishery conservation areas. While the Jamaica Environment Trust says the project is not located entirely within the Park, some of its amenities, including the marina, are, and “land-based impacts to the marine environment can come from all adjacent lands, whether protected or not.”

The development is driven by LCH Developments, which describes itself as “a significant real estate investment, development and management group […] committed to delivering positive change through sustainable, high-quality developments that improve and enhance the communities in which it operates.”

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the development on January 20, Prime Minister Andrew Holness boasted that the property would contain the tallest buildings in the region. The target market for the purchase of units at the property seems primarily geared toward non-residents, however, again raising the issue of limited beach access for locals.

Writing on Petchary blog, Global Voices contributor Emma Lewis noted that an 800-unit housing development is to be built by the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) in the north coast parish of St. Ann. After a “rather contentious public meeting held by CHEC,” the Jamaica Beach Birthright Environmental Movement (JaBBEM) live streamed a community meeting on January 28 aimed at saving the Roaring River watershed.

Meanwhile, the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) issued a statement expressing concern about the CHEC development’s environmental footprint, saying, “Part of the proposed development will impact critical watersheds for ecologically sensitive areas such as Dunn’s River, Roaring River, Bogue, Mammee Bay and surrounding communities in Ocho Rios. We staunchly oppose the granting of any environmental permit that will harm local residents and jeopardize the delicate environmental balance of the region.”

On X (formerly Twitter), founder of the Jamaica Environment Trust Diana McCaulay expressed worry about another large-scale tourism project, Harmony Cove, which is pushing to break ground this year:

Petchary says the development is a partnership between Nexus Luxury Collection and the Jamaican government, and added, “It will consist of a 26-storey building (just two storeys lower than The Pinnacle — oh my!) as well as a large casino, a golf course, and of course a beach area (none of the above for locals, I am guessing).”

While financial journalist Al Edwards called Harmony Cove “a boon for Jamaican tourism” that would take Jamaica “closer to Monte Carlo, The Bahamas and the Cayman Islands” and “[up] the ante considerably,” Petchary posed several questions that she believes need to be addressed by such developments, including whether Jamaican nationals will have access to the coastline on which these properties will be built, what the carbon footprint of the properties is and who will be living in them, and what benefits — apart from “mostly low-paid jobs” — will these all-inclusives bring to the community.

She also felt the impacts on water supply and traffic to the surrounding communities needed to be addressed, as well as key environmental questions such as how much natural habitat — including important mangrove forests — will be damaged during construction, how many endemic species of birds, plants and animals will be destroyed, and what the effects on beaches and coastal habitats will be, especially for protected environmental areas.

Despite these concerns, an additional three north coast developments appear to be moving ahead, plus another that Jamaica's tourism minister, Edmund Bartlett, is “excited” about, claiming it will bring “more than 700 new rooms and thousands of new jobs” to the island. Like The Pinnacle, these new projects are being primarily funded by foreign entities.

For a few years, there has been discussion over whether the island has become too reliant on international investment, with professor and columnist Paul Golding observing, “The World Investment Report 2018 indicates that Jamaica has had the greatest foreign direct investment inflows regionally since 2012, [attracting] more than USD 4.2b over the six-year period, by far the most in the region.”

To Petchary, all these developments have one thing in common: “These huge lumps of concrete could be anywhere in the world. What happened to the ‘Jamaican vibe'? Isn’t that what visitors come to the island for? What happened to Jamaican-style architecture, and our own special culture? No, these foreign developers are going for the ‘Miami vibe,’ and we seem to love it. How very sad.”

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