WAS PUBLISH ON Thursday 24 December 2015 11.00 GMT
~ Road connecting north and south Jamaica will be lined with luxury hotels and is China’s largest investment in the Caribbean – but not for much longer ~
JAMAICA — Stretching some 67 km (41.6 miles) north to south across Jamaica, the $600m four-lane highway skirts around a mountain and will eventually be lined with luxury hotels, restaurants and bars.
Nicknamed the “Beijing highway” – after the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt reportedly turned down a chance for the road to carry his name – the state-of-the-art tolled carriageway is the most striking sign that the Chinese treasure ship has arrived in the Caribbean.
The red and gold flag of the People’s Republic flutters over the construction site, where hundreds of Chinese workers reside in camps and trucks are lined up in military precision.
When completed early next year the tolled highway, paid for by Beijing, will cut driving times from Kingston to the tourist resort of Ocho Rios on the north coast from nearly two hours to 50 minutes.
It is the single biggest investment by the Chinese in the Caribbean.
In return for expertise and investment, the Jamaican government has handed over 1,200 acres of land around the road to the Chinese, who plan to build three luxury hotels with 2,400 rooms.
In a country in the grip of austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund, and where poverty has doubled since 2007, according to the Centre for Economic Policy Research, the arrival of the Chinese is seen by many as the only hope.
Jamaica has become the hub of the Chinese presence in the Caribbean, and is now home to the regional offices of the state owned Chinese Harbour Engineering Company, (CHEC) which is building the highway link road.
The country’s prime minister Portia Simpson has rejected warnings from trades unionists that the presence of the Chinese will do little to lift Jamaicans out of unemployment, but the government has not said how many local people will be employed on the project.
The Joint Industrial council – a coalition of building and construction workers – has said the Government’s claim that Chinese workers are only brought in to do advanced engineering work is “egregious and misleading” and the Chinese are doing common labourer’s work which could be done by Jamaicans.
Simpson condemns criticism saying discussion of the issue will send the message “do not invest in Jamaica” to the Chinese.
There are also concerns over the route. Simon Mitchell, professor of geology at the University of the West Indies said the lack of transparency around the investment and the building project was worrying. “There is a big issue with the middle section of the road and what is going to happen when there’s an earthquake? That part of the road crosses two faults, there are gigantic soil deposits sitting on top of them and then the road is on top of all that. There is real concern as to how stable it is. The government showed me the plans that the Chinese company used and I am still not convinced that the solution is safe.”
The “Beijing” highway is currently the largest single investment by the Chinese in the Caribbean – but not for much longer.
During a visit to Beijing with her ministers earlier this year, the prime minister announced a project which will dwarf the road in both size and cost. It involves the Chinese building a $1.5bn deep water container port on islands in Jamaica using dredging and land reclamation to accommodate mega ships coming through the expanded Panama Canal.
But the islands – Goat Island and Little Goat Island – are internationally protected ecological sites, home to threatened species of birds, fish and reptiles.
Diana McCaulay of the Jamaica Environment Trust said the plan would involve the destruction of Goat Island, including wetlands, coral reefs and the largest remaining area of intact dry limestone forest in Jamaica. It was being pursued, she said, with no discussion or transparency. “The details of the port project have never been released, no plans have been put forward publicly we have had to use the access to information laws to get what details we have,” she said.
“Our concern is that this is an environmentally protected area, its environmental importance was protected by law internationally and by the Government of Jamaica, so to turn around and announce while in Beijing that this port was being planned, before any discussions were held with anyone in the region, makes a mockery of their environmental protection. They are just selling off our islands not even perhaps to the highest bidder.”
The Chinese Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) did not respond to requests for a comment.