Tourism is Jamaica's biggest source of foreign exchange but tourist dollar madness threatens to destroy the Caribbean island. The hotels are closing down turtle nesting sites and hotel excrement and spoil are killing our reefs at an increasing pace. While the government entertains all manner of schemes to lure tourists and separate them from their money, the nation's rivers, streams and beaches are polluted by wastes of all kinds. The tourist industry workforce live in deplorable conditions, because there is no social development to match the commercial development.
In 1989, before the General Elections of that year, the People's National Party (PNP) opposition accused Edward Seaga's government of having a "Going out of business sale" of Jamaica's assets, privatizing left right and center.
That sale was as nothing compared to the present 'madness' sale, initiated by [former Prime Minister] P. J. Patterson and enthusiastically endorsed by (current Prime Minister) Bruce Golding. If Seaga was selling the furniture, Patterson and Golding have been scrapping the house itself, selling the verandah, the doors and windows and the flooring.
The Jamaica Environment Trust and Vagabond Media, two entirely Jamaican organisations, have teamed up to produce a cool, calm documentary examination of the methodical, brutal and unsustainable development of the tourism industry of Jamaica.
What they say is not new: most Jamaicans already have a pretty good idea of what is happening. The wanton destruction of the Jamaican landscape, an integral component of the Jamaican "tourism product," has made the pages of the New York Times, the National Geographic, countless internet blogs and lots of other places. What is new is that the whole horror story is presented about Jamaicans, by Jamaicans, for Jamaicans.
One of the construction workers says near the beginning of the video, "Dem is like ticks 'pon we back" an eloquent expression of the reality of the new tourism, parasitic and dangerous to health. The workers tell of dreadful working conditions, 12 hour days for $800 - below the already inadequate Jamaican minimum wage - and their employers are not poor companies. Their rules and laws are enforced by the Jamaican constabulary whose interest is not justice but "Law and Order."
The people attracted to the worksites and to the tourism development areas find nowhere to live and many become squatters. Even the squatters in the wetlands are turfed off, bulldozers come by night and demolish their miserable dwellings, destroying their furniture, their few personal possessions and wrecking their lives. Their rivers, streams and beaches are polluted by wastes of all kinds. I have taken photographs of human excrement in the sea at the formerly pristine Pear Tree Bottom Beach. What remains of the gazetted public beach and public fishing beach is now off limits to the public, by the illegal order of the National Works Agency which has erected a sign warning that trespassers will be prosecuted.
In Negril there is a new development afoot that will reconstruct the coastline, building artificial inlets and beaches al la Dubai - to maximize their profit at the expense of the Jamaican environment which, in this area, is largely unexploited and unspoiled.
One Negril hotelier, a Jamaican, with tears in his voice, describes the plight of workers whose children have no schools and who have to take two or three buses to get to work, spending up to a third of their meager wages on transportation. There is, he laments, no social development to match the commercial development.
All this despite the alleged fact that tourism is Jamaica's leading earner of foreign exchange.
But where does this foreign exchange go? The craft vendors complain that hotel guests are warned off the Jamaica outside the hotels: they will be robbed and murdered - they are told. So the few who venture outside are mobbed by vendors and others wanting a piece of the action, terrifying hotel guests who have been comprehensively warned of the badness of the people they will meet outside.
The video was shot before the tourist mecca of Ocho Rios was overwhelmed by mudslides and human excrement from the unplanned squatter settlements above the town. No one seems to have learned anything from this disaster. There are no plans to build a new town for the thousands of people who need accommodation, many of whom work in the hotels but who live in subhuman conditions or have to travel miles to work every day.
The current worldwide economic disaster will eventually catch up with the lunacies of fantasy development. The price of oil will increase rapidly as it becomes more scarce and will put airlines and cruise-ships out of business. But, sadly, not before we transform beautiful Jamaican towns like Falmouth into tourist only communities - "attractions" a la Colonial Williamsburg and Disneyland. These guys are not only stealing beaches, they are stealing whole towns.
In the meantime the burgeoning people-processing industry is busy destroying the foundation on which its real attraction is built. The bozos who are building the monstrous concrete ramparts by the sea were attracted to Jamaica because it is Jamaica, but they are determined, like other uncivilized people, to distort and deform what is natural but foreign to them to suit their tiny-minded fantasies of "Treasure Island" and similar mythical European versions of paradise. They will mistreat wild animals like dolphins and killer whales until they go extinct, like the tigers which now mainly may only be found in zoos.
On the hotel coast there is another serious threat to the Jamaican environment. Imported foreign workers have discovered that we have snakes and turtles and they are eating them to extinction. The hotels are closing down turtle nesting sites and hotel excrement and spoil are killing our reefs at an increasing pace. In the video, fishermen from all along the north and west coasts are complaining that the reefs are dying, fouled by over-fertilization from the hotels or other land-based sources of pollution.
The beaches themselves are going, either stolen by the truckload by night or destroyed by interference with the sea-floor or the wetlands that nourish the beaches. In the video one man testified to what I know from personal experience. Even a few years ago, the beaches in Negril, alone in all Jamaica, extended up to a hundred meters into the sea. Today, the sea-floor at Negril is no longer sandy but mainly mud. As we told the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) more than 30 years ago, most of Negril's sand was made by argillaceous algae, "seaweed" that absorbed calcium from the water and crystallized it as flakes of "sand" which gave Negril's beaches their unique powdery feel. If these flakes of calcium carbonate are not constantly refreshed by the algae, the beaches will die - as they have died.
Part of this problem arose from the UDC's determination to use the Negril Morass as a sink for hotel sewage, poisoning the South Negril River which nourished the argillaceous algae.
Another problem with Negril is that the UDC - unlike King Canute - refused to believe that they could not control the tides. We at the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) told them thirty years ago that they should not build a groyne at the point on which Hedonism Two (then Negril Beach Village) was sited. At that time, NRCA had an oceanographer on staff, a Jamaican who became so fed up with the bureaucracy's unwillingness to listen to reason that he gave up and went off to study law instead. The illegal UDC groyne interrupted the flow of sand from the north of the seven mile strip, thus interfering with the supply of regular sand that provided the foundation for the powdery flakes from the south. Between these two deficits, Negril's famous beaches are now reduced to thin, mostly muddy strips, attracting hosts of sandflies (sandflies, paradoxically, prefer mud to sand).
Now, on the North coast, hoteliers who do not steal sand from other beaches dredge it from beyond the reefs that guard the coast.
Since the living corals preserve the integrity of the inshore beaches, subtracting sand from the seaward side of dead reefs will eventually undermine them and destroy them. At that time, the beaches built by theft or by illegal dredging will disappear and "Jamaica - No Problem" will become "Jamaica - Big Problem."
Unknown to the foreign hoteliers, Jamaica was always more than a beach. In a few years they will discover what life is like without beaches. The vulgar people-processing plants on the cutting edge of unsustainable development will be besieged by rising seas in their lobbies and storm surge on their third and fourth floors.
Then perhaps, we can build a sound tourism industry on the rubble of our fantasy hotels, new reefs, manmade and offering accommodation to starfish and swarms of jellyfish.
The video Jamaica for Sale, is much more polite than this column and its producers are not responsible for my comments. But I urge you to see the video when it is next shown on television sometime in December. Before that there will be a special fundraising showing at the Red Bones Cafe in Jamaica. You should look out for notices in the press.
Walk Good and take care where you swim.
*John Maxwell is a veteran Jamaican journalist. He has covered Caribbean affairs for more than 40 years and is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.