Peter Espeut: Humanity Versus Private Profit

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An Op-Ed piece by Peter Espeut for Jamaica’s Gleaner.

Having laboured to conserve Jamaica’s natural environment over decades, and encountering powerful opposition, I cannot help but notice similarities with current efforts to protect Jamaica’s population from spread of the novel coronavirus.

There are laws which govern what private-sector entities are allowed to discharge into Jamaica’s rivers, streams and gullies, and into the marine environment. They are there for a good purpose: certain chemicals destroy riverine ecosystems, coral reefs, and both freshwater and marine life, including fish and shrimp (janga). The Government has both the moral and the legal duty to protect Jamaica’s natural environment from these industrial predators, really only concerned about their profits, and about little else; and certainly very little about Jamaica’s flora and fauna. They are prepared to sacrifice Jamaica’s natural patrimony for the sake of a mess of pottage.

Government insiders will tell you that they are torn: between protecting the natural environment, which they know is the right thing to do, because the environment is the habitat for humanity and the source of life for future Jamaicans; and protecting the private sector, which provide jobs (and wages) which keep the present economy alive, and campaign donations, which are the lifeblood of politics.

And so when the private sector is caught red-handed, guilty of environmental breaches, the law allows the Government to shut them down until they put systems in place to comply; standard practice is for the Government to issue Section 7 notices warning them for prosecution, and ordering them to make the necessary changes. They simply carry on; for they know the Government won’t shut them down.

FORMIDABLE ENEMY

The private sector is a formidable enemy of Jamaica’s environment and conservation movement, and over the years it has been a losing battle. The environmental conservation movement cannot hope even to match – never mind surpass (not that we would ever try to) – the political donations of the bauxite industry, the tourism industry, the sugar and distillery industry, and the like. All we have to rely on is moral suasion, pleading with the Government (and with the public) the rightness of our cause.

Like with environmental conservation, in this novel coronavirus pandemic, both human lives and human livelihoods are at stake, but in a much more direct and immediate way. And we see the same tension playing out in real time in front of our faces – not behind closed doors like with environmental concerns.

Just like with environmental breaches, the Government is reluctant to shut down some private-sector entities like the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector, despite evidence of problems with the protocols. Either the protocols are flawed, and are unable to protect workers and customers (in which case the entities should be shut down until the protocols are improved); or the entities are not properly following the protocols, in which case they should be shut down and prosecuted.

The choice is the same: between profits and people’s lives. Despite increases in proven coronavirus infections in Jamaica, the clamour from the private sector is growing louder: open back up the economy; we are suffering losses! And so are our workers!

Just like: Don’t shut us down even if we are polluting the environment; do you want the jobs or don’t you? If we can’t make profit, then we will go elsewhere. It is better that the environment suffers so that we can stay open and do business. And yes, maybe future generations will be worse off, and will not be able to reap the benefits of a healthy natural environment (and maybe some will die from pollution, which is slow poison), but our bottom line now will be better off.

The Government seems to be buckling under the pressure coming from the private sector. Private-sector entities cannot cast votes in elections, but they fund the elections and all but decide the winners.

Let us see how this one will play out.

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