Me an’ Phillip Powell

August 4, 2008

So, di one Mr. Powell from Duncans read mi letter di odda day an’ decide fi come trace me. I was gwáin tell im two wud, but I settled for several. ‘Ear im nuh:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dear Editor,
One of the worst curses that human beings have had to endure is jealousy, which our ancestors aptly termed “red eye”. It is a curse that afflicts us here in Jamaica almost as if it were made for us. The clearest example yet of this terrible affliction is a letter in your competitor, The Gleaner, “Sand in our faces” published on July 19.

“Regarding the (illegal) sand mining in Coral Springs, Trelawny, old-time people say ‘tief from tief, God laugh’,” the letter by “Long Bench” says. Maybe I hang out too much with lawyers, but my legal experience tells me that it is libellous to suggest that the investors who lost their sand are thieves, as much as those who stole the sand.

Because The Gleaner is more interested in playing personality politics than in promoting the bigger picture or encouraging national development, it allowed itself to publish this libel against a group of people whose only crime “Long Bench” can pinpoint is their success. The question can be asked, “When has success become a crime?” For crying out loud, we teach our children to strive for success! Should we stop now?

Again The Gleaner allows itself to be used to breach one of the most important journalistic canons – poor taste – when it publishes the letter writer’s bald envy: “Alas, Felicitas Ltd is feeling anything but happy right now. I feel a tremendous sense of loss, but not for these actors.”

That “Long Bench” did not have the courage of his conviction to sign his name to the letter makes it cowardly. The Gleaner makes itself a part of this cowardice and charade, and not for the first time. It scarcely touched the big scandal involving the RIU Hotel when the resort chain illegally built four floors in the direct flight path of the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, putting Jamaican and other passengers at risk.

Maybe The Gleaner isn’t playing God at all. Maybe it’s protecting its directors, if any are involved or taking sides against people it does not like. Maybe its staff doesn’t know news when they see it, or maybe its editors are ineffective and don’t know libel when they see it. Whatever it is, The Gleaner has lost its way.

Perhaps the worst thing about the letter is that it has no sympathy for the people of Trelawny who stand to benefit from one of the most spectacular developments of our time. Thirty-six six-star villas get my vote any day. I am willing to bet that the unemployed people in Trelawny agree.

“Long Bench” is long on diatribe and envy but short on solutions. Perhaps it is the sand in his face that is causing his ‘red eye’.

Phillip Powell
Duncans, Trelawny

But, ah just bite mi tongue, swallah mi spit, an’ used my best henglish fi dress im dung:

August 4, 208

Dear Editor:

As I watch the sand mining of Coral Spring being treated in the press as the mother of all environmental thefts, I am also reminded of Phillip Powell’s response (July 22, “Sand in the face also causes ‘red eye’) to my letter “Sand in our faces” originally published in the July 19 issue of the Gleaner. There, in response to my critique of the complicity of governmental bodies and lack of attention given to private developers’ exploitation of the physical environment, Mr. Powell resorted to some now-familiar personal attacks. The threat of the lawsuit (for libel, no less!) and name-calling (grudgeful, red-eye, no ambition, coward, unsympathetic, et al.) alone led to me think that I had been caught in a cussing match in the street, but over what, it’s not clear.

If I am “grudgeful” of anything as Mr. Powell accuses me of being, it is the ability of the Felicitas investors to have such affluence and influence and to use it only for their personal gain. Already, the cast of characters that have been drawn into the “find the sand” mystery rivals any stage production of the national pantomime. But the one thing that is made patently clear, and which Mr. Powell actively ignores, is that not all Jamaican persons are entitled to this level of “response.” We know this, because at the same time that Coral Spring is getting the royal treatment, there are many other cases of sandmining and illegal quarrying that have never been investigated sufficiently, or at all. Apparently, Jamaican citizens cannot learn the lesson enough: being “successful” ie. having too much money and unfettered access to the halls of power, is the key to being listened to around here. And in this scenario, those of us who dare to demand equitable treatment when balancing the needs of developers and citizens, and who ask for greater accountability on the part of the developers are treated as the problem, not part of the solution. It is no wonder that persons like Mr. Powell become so confused when presented with more than one point of view on this issue; daring to point out the misuses of power or to ask questions is treated as being “out of order” and motivated by ill-will. The only other response that we are expected to have is silence. Here Mr. Powell misses an important point; it is our responsibility as citizens to point out when and where unequal treatment is meted out by our institutions, and to ensure that our institutions are responsive to our collective needs, rather than tailor their accountability based on the colour of our skin, the size of our bank accounts or the content of our social networks. Were we consistent in our demands for accountability, fairness and just protection of public goods, then the sandmining at Coral Spring might not have happened at all!

Siding with the elite’s consumption and accumulation practices is a time-honoured, well-honed practice in self-deception in Jamaica. We, the ordinary citizens, are simply supposed to sit and look from the sidelines, clap politely, and then run to offer our assistance at the lowest possible value, and even free of charge. That, of course, is Phillip Powell’s purview; like many others, I choose not to participate in such self-destructive delusions. Neither should the people of Trelawny who he believes are the “victims” in this regard.

I do not now, nor will I ever, choose to side with developers who do not have the interests of Jamaicans – in Trelawny or elsewhere – at the center of their plans. Tellingly, I have not heard of any discussion about the place, Duncans; all the chatter has all been about the sand and what money the developers thought they could make off marketing it as some of the whitest, prettiest sand in the world. For this group of investors, they have demonstrated no commitment to the place. There is not a mention of what they plan to bring to the people of Duncans, Trelawny although numerous opportunities have emerged for them to do so. Instead, we are the ones who speculate about “jobs”; those words did not come from the would-be developers. The place Duncans, might as well not exist. Unless, of course, people start speaking up.

The unemployment issues in Trelawny – complex as they are – will not be resolved by any development in Coral Spring. I daresay, whatever happens there will have a negligible effect on the area. In the Gleaner’s July 23 report, Andrew Desnoes was clear about the priorities of the group: “the beach was the essence of the project.” No beach, no project. I don’t know how their intentions could be made more clear. Trelawny residents have no promise or guarantee that they will get the jobs that might materialize. Nor do they have any guarantees that their quality of life will improve significantly over time. And the one thing people are desperate for now is a guarantee of something better. Sadly, if this project followed the models established by other similar schemes since the 1980s – and there’s no reason to suggest that it won’t – we already have a mountain of evidence that shows how this project will, at the end of the day, use the struggling people of Trelawny as fodder for its ultimate goal: more accumulation of capital.

The questions we choose not to ask about this and other projects are also glaring, as the investigation unfolds. And yet, Mr. Powell has nothing to say about these. For instance, the proposed project is adjacent to a protected area, but only with the sand mining do we hear the first murmurs about the environmental impact of anything being done there. Rather, we hear about the problem of the sand mining, but not the problem of the construction, buildings and long-term use of this particular piece of land. I certainly don’t hear that the investors have any consciousness of how their use was going to create any environmental issues that needed to be addressed prior to any development project. Nor, do I hear of any efforts to partner with any nearby school or community organization and provide resources to develop a strong curriculum on managing and making the best use of what’s left of the physical environment. The citizens of Duncans and Jamaica should be able to access all plans that have been approved, be able to voice their concerns in a public setting, and expect to be listened to with respect by both governmental agencies and developers. However, given the general secrecy with which this and other development schemes are treated, in this instance I see my duty as a citizen to point to the ways in which the sand mining is just a tip of the problem; it is the lack of appropriate governmental oversight to private development schemes which have contributed to the destruction of the physical and social infrastructure. The hunger for more sand is just one manifestation of the problem.
Contrary to the news reports and chatter, the well-heeleed ones aren’t the only persons who lost something; however, their “something” has been given a meaning that we think we understand: millions of dollars. What the people of Duncans have lost is much larger in scope. And yet, if they see fit, the investors will take their money and run, as usual to wherever their fancy takes them. These oversights, if I may call them that, are simply amazing for what they suggest about how the investors value the people and the land on which they are building their fortunes.

I would hope that when we get around to having an informed conversation about the meaning of “success” we are able to make some important distinctions. That is, perpetuating the idea that having a lot of money and power is equivalent to success in Jamaica certainly accounts for why so many of our activities and interactions – from schoolroom to parliament – are informed by corrupt practices. The ethic of “success” that we seem to salute is what produces the various types of don-manship we encounter everyday – whether via Felicitas or in Southside: it is a play-the-system, lie-cheat-and-manipulate-your-way-to-what-you-want, don’t-let-the-little-people-stand-in-your-way ethic of amorality. I hope that Mr. Powell, and most of us readers, are able to distinguish these sources of “success” from those achievements that are gained through ethical practices that include honesty, integrity, a genuine good regard for those with whom one comes into contact along the way, a sense of humility about what one has accomplished and what remains undone, and a sense of accountability to those whose lives will be touched by whatever has been done. I certainly hope that Felicitas comes out on the right side. However, given how difficult it is to get our government officials to see the interests of ordinary Jamaicans as equivalent in importance to the elites who support them, I won’t be surprised if they choose to maintain the status quo. For that reason, I advise Mr. Powell to put on some goggles, as he will need them. The sand is starting to blow hard!


Long Bench


Apparently, some “enterprising” Jamaicans have figured out a solution to the growing problem of private ownership of our beachfront lands. Here I’m imagining the kind of screwed-up scheming that must have gone into this: just because foreigners dem now come buy up de land, dat nuh mean seh dem affi get di beach to’! Mek we tek it back!

And take back they did — by the truckloads apparently, causing the “value”of the developers’ investment to bottom-out overnight, but also creating one hell of an environmental hazard for the area. Just wait till de next hurricane, yuh will see.

In some ways, this story is almost side-splitting funny – I’m envisioning a Clovis cartoon featuring some white tourists and Mr. Mahfood who come to beach only to see a pit and a sign “Sand for Sale, Call….”, with trucks driving off in the distance. Felicitas will have to go buy back dem own sand! Lord have mercy!

[Apparently, Clovis did not take my advice, although he did offer a new angle on the issue].

It funny don’t it? Now dat dem tief farrin an brown people sand, is national crisis. Even Prime Minister get involved, to backfoot! But when said people dem a tief wi beach from right under wi backside, not a soul a fart pon we. What a prekke! Next ting yuh know, dem gwa’in want back de ‘ole o dem money; den when dem get it back, tun roun’ and buy the SAME piece of land fi much less cause now it supposedly lost all its value, get all kind of government concession including that govament mus’ gi dem back di sand whe did tief so dem cya’ mek up an even fancier hexclusive resort, an den walk whe’ wid one ‘ole ‘eap o’ money. In fact, me starting to wonder if dis ‘ole ting is not a setup, if dem neva tief from demself jus’ fi dis purpose. But yuh see how rumours start, do’ eeh?

But this is really no laughing matter at all. The Observer article has some good “before” and “after” photos. The audacity of these renegade truckers really – dem see sand put dung, so dem go tek it up. Simple. I guess they assume the sand will replace and renew itself; god put it there so god will send some more? This is really a metaphor for how this country operates isn’t it?

The Gleaner July 17 article quotes Mahfood: “Only a month ago, this was a quarter mile of the most beautiful white-sand beach anyone could find in the world, and that is the reason why I invested in the project,” said William Mahfood, one of the infuriated investors.

Hm! I want to say “serve unnu right!” Ol time people seh tief from tief god laugh. After all, the Mahfood types have been so busy sucking up all the property on the northcoast, that it is getting difficult for ordinary people to find a likkle seaside fi go siddung a sunday morning. We simply can’t take public access to our beaches for granted anymore. This, in the land of sea and sun! If this kind of theft weren’t a sign of how actively we are digging a serious hole for ourselves in this country, and how entrenched corruption has become, I would salute the truckers as heroes in this ultimate sabotage.

And therein lies the problem.

First, there’s the disgusting greed on the part of individuals who source the construction companies and who, in this age of privatization, think that if they got to the beach first and undeterred, then whatever they found belongs to them, and which they will gladly sell for a price. As fi dem dyam tiefing truckers, like all how dem go mek di millionnaire dem bex wid dem, well, dog nyam fi dem suppa! Jail is too nice fi dem! Dem shoulda mek dem carr’ back di sand one condense can at a time from whi’che part dem did put it dung. Den sen dem go jail fi go res’.

This is certainly not the first beach to be mined in this way; in fact, in the 1990s, there was a stretch when it seemed as if beaches were disappearing overnight. These folks have been ravaging the country, and there is nobody who has the courage to stop them. And I am quite sure the Mahfoods and the like have been participating in the trafficking of sand, marl and the like; when they are building their mansions and what have you, indeed, when its time to build up the hotel etc. on this property, where do they think the cement and building material is going to come from? Sand and marl illegally obtained and sourced from somewhere else, of course.

The media reportage keeps emphasizing the point that “local investors” were involved. Well, I can tell you that it wasn’t the churchpeople who supposedly put their hard-earned offering money in Olint. Indeed, it is a virtual roll call of “who’s who” involved in mass acquisition of coastal lands, and whose rampant speculation have helped to drive up property values while getting all kinds of government concessions so they don’t have to pay their fair share of property taxes. These are also folks who give practically nothing back to the society, except glamour shots of conspicuous consumption. These investors provide employment, you say. Yep, they sure do. Jobs that they would never, ever do, for one thing, and which barely put food on people’s tables. I can assure you that what these folks earned on just the deal itself and the monies that continue to roll in for years to come is far and above what any employee could make if they spent their entire working lives (16 – 70 yrs) spreading beds and smiling at the tourists during the high season. Nope, I don’t feel sorry for them one bit.

Then, there’s the political factor: don’t tell me the MP’s and local councillors are not being paid off in some way, and are not benefiting from these bold efforts to move entire parts of the country from one part of the island to another? Day and night, you can hear and see the trucks rumbling on the likkle piece o’ road dem and ready fi run yuh offa di highway. Is me alone noticing that the new big moneymaker especially among young men, is to buy a 16-wheeler or dump truck, hire oneself out to various companies, and to haul all kinds of material – some not so legal – for a set price? Where is the research and surveillance that links the importation and sale of these vehicles with the annihilation of the physical environment? Where is the police and highway patrol who suppose fi know seh if yuh see truck a come from dung a di seaside wid a load a san’ yuh suppose fi detain de driver until yuh have proof of ownership o’ di land and proof of permission to mine the land? Or is mek me mek up dat? Dat nuh exist a Jamaica? Why not? This haulage thing is big big business these days; the developers need the truckers to create their expensive monstrosities, and the truckers need the developer to keep the money rolling; one han’ wash de odder, and everybody go home wid dem belly full.

Then notice how fast this reach the Police High Command and the ears of Karl Samuda, Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce. Hear ím nuh?

“They’re thieves and a thief is a thief is a thief,” Samuda said. “And if you’re a little man trying to hustle and you steal, you’re a thief. And you’re a big multimillionaire and you steal, you must suffer the consequences,” he warned.

Don’t you find it weird when people start to talk about themselves in the third person? After all, this is a deal that was brokered through his ministry and personal connections; using the public purse to support private acquisition of national resources is his specialty after all. Samuda, the shameless cur that he is, fresh from his recent spending “spree” in New York, is now actively lobbying on the part of his monied BFF and bedfellows to dispatch as many national resources as possible to find out who the culprits are. Disgraceful and bald-faced! I would not be surprised if he has also personally invested in this venture that he is using his political clout to save. What does this smell like to you? I’ll give you a hint: It rhymes with “bit”, not with “nose”. Ah bwoy!

Frankly, this is a call for much stricter regulation and coordination of how the physical landscape is to be managed. But you know where that’s going to go – absolutely nowhere. In fact, I noted that the CEO of National Environmental Preservation Trust has taken a hands-off approach to this Coral Springs drama. Is that a sign that he knows this whole cass-cass is really for private/political interests and has taken an ethical stance? They’ll probably fire him or pressure the hell out of him. Watch for that.

Meanwhile, see the letter “Sand in Our Faces” that I sent to the editors of Observer and Gleaner. They probably won’t publish it, but if they do, you can say you saw it here first. [The Gleaner did]