29 October 2006

Journalism and Other Strange Practices

Common Sense
John Maxwell

If you'd asked me two weeks ago how I thought the US midterm elections would go, I would have told you I expected the Democrats to win the House handsomely and the Senate by a small margin. The catalyst, I thought, was the sudden explosive decompression of Mr Jim Foley, the Congressman from Florida's Gold Coast whose sexual harassment of Congressional pages had just hit the fan.
But of course, I was reckoning without that Hippocrates of Sanctimony, President Bush's confidante, chief adviser and fondly nicknamed 'Turd Blossom' - the ineffable Karl Rove.

And of course, I am hobbled by the sad fact that, as Generalissimo Rumsfeld opined this week, "No one can predict the future with absolute certainty". He too is obviously reckoning without Mr Rove, who told a querulous journalist this week that he didn't expect any real change in the electoral geography of the United States anytime soon, as he, unlike the journalist, consulted 68 polls every day as against the mere dozen or so available to journalists and lesser mortals.

According to 16 of the most trusted US polls, samples taken in October put the generic Republican Party vote no higher than 41% with the generic Democratic vote no lower than 49%. In the polls, the percentage lead for the Democrats varies from nine points in the rightwing Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll to 23% in the USAToday/Gallup poll.

According to the RealClear Politics (RCP) blog, its sampling of nine of the major polls puts the average of the Republican vote at 37.3% - and the average democratic vote at 52.3% an advantage for the Democrats of 15.9%. The RCP sample discloses that President Bush's job approval rating ranges from a high of 40% in ABC and Fox polls to a low of 35% in the Newsweek poll. The average approval rating for Mr Bush in the nine majors polls is 38.4%.

One would imagine that with such substantial leads it would be impossible for the Democrats to lose, but, as the Republicans demonstrated in Ohio, two years ago, and in Florida four years before that, a determined Secretary of State can do wonders with bad numbers and rigged voting machines, with a little help from disfranchisement programmes and other ways of circumventing the democratic process.

Most scholars of the US system are clear that the GOP stole both the 2000 and the 2004 Presidential elections. As General Boykin famously said, it was God and not the people who put Mr Bush in the White House, rather like Maradona's claiming the hand of God that won the World Cup match for Argentina against England in 1986.

The science of opinion sampling has developed to the point that voters' intentions may be predicted with a considerable degree of accuracy. And in 2004, the predicted results were apparently confirmed by exit polls, when voters were asked immediately after voting, to say for whom they voted.

It is a curious fact that the longer after voting the voters are questioned, the bigger the likelihood that the result will swing more and more to the actual winner. When people know who has won, they tend to say that they voted for that person even if they hadn't.

According to the exit polls in Florida and Ohio in 2004, Kerry won both states. In exit polls immediately, after voting, most voters said they voted for Kerry but polls taken a few days later gave the electors' choice as George Bush. This result is so unlikely that statisticians consider it impossible.

Part of the problem, and it is a huge part, is the fact that a great many Americans will be voting electronically, that is, by computers. Unfortunately, every study conducted so far has proved that the machines used in the electoral process in the United States are to say the least, unreliable and easily compromised by evildoers.

The software used in the voting is proprietary, so that the states, the clients who are paying for the process, have no right to inspect the machines to see whether they work properly. In addition, in most states the voter does not get a receipt for his vote, so that it is impossible to check whether the votes were properly recorded by the software.

All of this makes the next elections a potentially explosive issue in the United States.
In Mexico some weeks ago, the candidate of the left was able to attract massive crowds to the capital to protest against what they thought was a stolen election. The anger seems to have subsided and Mexico City's streets are once again open to ordinary traffic. But what would happen in the United States, especially in populations so polarised by the president and the arrogant and corrupt behaviour of his party?

There are important and volatile minorities in several cities which may not take too kindly to the prospect of another two years of rule by Mr Hastert and his cronies and there are even bigger constituencies who are angry at the president for the war in Iraq and the inexorably mounting toll of death and human destruction.

When the swing against a party is as wide and deep as it is against the Republicans, ordinary people have a pretty good idea of who is likely to have won; people talk, exchange stories and are well aware of the possibility for crooked manipulation.

An electorate which is bedevilled by rising unemployment, watching their jobs disappear overseas, losing their capital invested in the houses and oversubscribed to the banks, may not behave like a volatile tropical mass, but they may be even more dangerous.

People realise that a large part of their liberty has been taken away by the president who speaks of distributing freedom and liberty abroad, that the money which could be paying for education and health care is being incinerated and atomised by the minute in Iraq and Afghanistan and that their taxes are being frittered away by corrupt politicians and contractors in an unnecessary war which is costing $2,000,000,000 a day.


The pathetic behaviour of the US press is, at least, somewhat counterbalanced by a few brave men and women, some of them even in places like the New York Times but mostly in blogs on the internet. In Jamaica we depend on a few radio and TV stations and even fewer newspapers.

The Star, which claims the largest circulation in Jamaica, has never been a paragon of journalistic virtue. This week however, it outdid itself in crass vulgarity and horrific mischief making.

I have personally never seen anything as bone-headedly stupid and irresponsible as Wednesday's Star, which carried a picture of Prime Minister Simpson, apparently at prayer, hands clasped, head bowed, facing a headline which occupied half a page and proclaimed in 120 point type- 1.5 inches high: "Dreamer woman envisions...Portia in a bloody room".

And on page three the headline was repeated in smaller type (inch-high 72 point Tempo) with an unforgivably stupid and mischievous story about some delusional 'evangelist' who alleges that she has been having bad dreams, starring the prime minister.

The dreamer was asked by the incredibly credulous reporter to interpret the dream and the prophet/dreamer/"anointed messenger of God" obliged with a farrago of superstitious garbage, all faithfully reproduced in the Star.

Like most 'prophets', this woman claims to have foreseen various dramatic disasters, except that there is apparently no record of these prophecies.

People in politics can generally expect to be traduced in all sorts of ways, but invoking witchcraft is probably a new departure for this country's newspapers.

That same day a caller to Wilmot Perkins' talk-show alleged that 'Portia' was responsible for the killing of his relatives 20 years ago, when she campaigned near where the caller lived. This idiocy was permitted by the host, no doubt for good and sufficient reason.

After which, it is almost picayune to refer to the high-minded nonsense being talked about attacks by the government on Freedom of the Press.

Press freedom belongs to the people and is supposedly their guarantee that they will be able to share and receive news, which is in their interest, which is accurate and useful and conducive to their survival and prosperity. Spying on the prime minister is not a part of freedom of the press. The press has no right to make mischief or to behave like a 'Peeping Tom'.

I cannot imagine how all the high-minded hypocrisy about this case can be justified. Long ago, reporters were barred from the Hansard box in Gordon House because they interfered with the work of those who recorded the proceedings. Photographers have to get specific permission to take pictures and their vantage points have always been agreed on generally, in consultation with the Clerk of the House.

Parliament is not a street-corner or a park, and there are rules which must be obeyed. When the media bosses some time ago made a demonstration in Gordon House claiming an attack on Press Freedom they were both silly and ill-advised. The Press more than most, damages its real interests by crying wolf at the slightest hint of a lap dog.


Mr Ken Jones, a man I first met when we both worked at Public Opinion as reporters, delivered himself in the Gleaner this week of some opinions on press freedom. I have time to take issue with only two of his allegations.

First, he regards the JLP government's persistent attempts to silence Public Opinion between 1963 and 1965 as petty stuff, and not really an attack on Freedom of the Press. I beg to differ, since I was in the middle of that issue; one of my contributors, a University lecturer named Bill Carr, was being threatened with deportation, while I was threatened with prison and worse by people like the prime minister, the attorney general and others, in Parliament and outside.

When a government goes as far as prohibiting advertising in a newspaper and forbidding civil servants to buy it for their personal use, that seems to me very much like an attack on press freedom. It certainly was an attack on me and on the jobs of the 40 or so others who worked at City Printery, whose excellent services were proscribed by the government. Government-related institutions such as the UWI and the Jamaica Agricultural Society were forbidden to have their printing done by the printery.

More than a dozen years later - in 1978 - when I was editor of the paper for the second time, somebody burned it to the ground. In the 1960s, equally mysterious forces had also burned down the left-wing Abeng.

Having dismissed the trifling incidents at Public Opinion, Ken Jones tells a story, which defies belief. According to him, during the 1970s, PNP types raided the offices of the JLP Voice and" cut out the tongue" of an employee there before "striking him dead".

I believe Mr Jones owes us all further and better particulars. And I believe that the Gleaner and the Star owe Jamaica and the prime minister some serious apologies.

In the public interest and its own self-protection, I belief the Press needs to discover what Press Freedom really means.

15 October 2006

Poor People's Politics

Common Sense
John Maxwell

More than 40 years ago, when I was editor of Public Opinion, I happened to be present on two occasions when my paper was formally, ritually and publicly torn to shreds. One was in Parliament, when the minister of education, Mr Edwin Allen, tore the latest edition of the paper into small shreds as he attacked me for criticising the prime minister, Sir Alexander Bustamante.

A few weeks later, I happened to be present at a meeting of the PNP's National Executive Council (to which I had been elected at the Party's conference) as the leader of the PNP, Mr Norman Manley, ripped the paper into two or three pieces as he denounced "the editor" for my alleged snobbery. The reason was my description of the PNP KSA council as "small men doing small things".

I am reasonably certain that Mr Manley knew perfectly well that when I referred to 'small men' I was referring not to class, but to the petty behaviour of the councillors. He had to say something because I had offended one of the most powerful men in the party, the former mayor and party strongman, Frank Spaulding.

I remember all this because as I watched events unfold over the past two or three weeks, I wondered what Mr Manley would have made of the PNP's recent misfortunes.

He would not, I am certain, have tolerated the behaviour of any minister who managed to bring the party into discredit, as several of them have done recently. He would, I am sure, have used the opportunity to clean house, ruthlessly.

The fact that Mrs Simpson Miller has not done that is probably due to the fact that unlike Norman Manley, she does not yet enjoy the unchallenged authority he did. But it is a missed opportunity because had she fired two more ministers she would have put her authority beyond dispute - at least for the present. The Trafigura affair, no matter how it ends, is a serious indictment of Jamaican politics, not simply of the PNP.

In this country, as in every other, no matter who signs the cheques, the people eventually and inevitably are the ones who pay. Let me explain by an analogy with radio broadcasting. Most people believe that radio broadcasting is a free good, like rain. In fact, the taxpayer/consumer pays at least twice for everything heard on radio. The advertisements are paid for in the cost of the advertised product and the advertising budgets are subsidised by the taxpayer/consumer in the form of income tax allowances.

Similarly, the people who finance political parties do not do it as charitable work, but because they expect some form of return on the money they have invested in the parties. These returns may not be direct benefits to the financier, but may simply result in a friendlier and more profitable atmosphere in which he can operate.

Despite all the hooha, it is clear that all political parties in Jamaican history must have been financed by somebody, and those that survive have been the most successful in attracting contributions.

In the case of the PNP, the group structure does provide some fairly predictable cash for the party, but not enough for the party to survive. The JLP, without any group structure, is forced to rely even more substantially on private donations. The result is that whatever the parties say about what they are going to do for the people, there is built into the system, another set of priorities. Everybody understands this.

What is to me nauseating is the pretence by some politicians that their devotion is totally to the public interest and that the financing of parties should be left to the vagaries of the market. That is a recipe for big man control of the parties. We need to devise a better system now.

The inherent contradiction between the public interest and the private interest has long been recognised in some countries, notably in Europe, India and to a certain extent United States.

But the cost of electioneering in these days of radio, television and the Internet is prohibitive. Most of the people running for office in the United States are millionaires, or nearly so. If they are not millionaires their friends are, and the whole structure of the lobbying industry is based on the 'legal' bribery of politicians as the Abramoff scandal has recently disclosed to those who didn't know.

The people are the ones who pay - either in missing services or misplaced priorities. When planning decisions are made without reference to the public interest, the whole community pays, and in cases like the Spanish hotel-building spree, will continue to pay for generations.

If the people are inevitably and eventually those who really finance elections, I can see no reason for us to interpose between them unelected agents in the form of businessmen who, no matter how high-minded, must put their own interests first. They would be fools not to do so.

It seems therefore clear to me that the people of Jamaica should insist that if they are going to finance the electioneering process, they should have the final say in how it works. It will not be difficult to devise a system which allows controlled private donations to parties while at the same time building in to the process, equity, so that private donations do not swamp the system and end up by buying elections and politicians.

Elections should be financed by the taxpayer/consumer, up front. It will be more economical and certainly more transparent and accountable.

Government and opposition should be allocated the same amount of money based on the number of electors in each constituency. New parties would enter the system if they could prove, by getting voters' signatures, that they have a certain level of support.

Audited accounts of how and where the money is spent must be demanded on pain of swingeing fines and or imprisonment.
All candidates must make public declarations of their assets and income and the successful ones will be required to make such declarations annually. This rule should be extended to the managers and directors of public companies in the public interest.

None of this is new or outlandish. Much of it is already law in the United States, Britain and other countries. Everybody can find out what the pay of university professors or superintendent of police is. Why should it be different for people in Parliament or the private industry?

Ending tribalism

As somebody once said, the struggle for scarce benefits is one of the prime movers of the Jamaican political process. The most vivid manifestation of this is in the formation of 'garrison' constituencies since the 1960s, partisan strongholds which are operated as beachheads from which the party tries to subdue and capture neighbouring areas.

Garrison constituencies are important because we depend on the outmoded notion of constituencies in elections which are really national events, dominated by national issues and parties. "Garrisons" are in fact, a form of do-it-yourself gerrymandering - carving out safe seats by force.

We can get rid of the garrisons by a simple expedient: introducing proportional representation in which the entire island is a constituency for which each party submits a list of candidates. This would mean that while individual politicians would still be able to influence voters, they would not be able to blackmail their way into Parliament.

Such a system would have many advantages, among them:
  • Useless candidates with no claim except garrison loyalty could be dropped;
  • Better candidates could be selected, people who would be valuable in policy-making but who may be almost unelectable outside of 'safe' constituencies;
  • Poor people, workers and intellectuals would have a better chance of being elected to Parliament, making Parliament more representative of Jamaica as a whole; and
  • There would be no advantage in fortifying and arming neighbourhoods to defend polling stations.
There would be another, huge advantage; no more lopsided victories based on small majorities in key constituencies, as happened in 1967. Parties would be more willing to talk to each other and to bargain in a democratic fashion to secure the real public interest.

A little history

I have a very personal interest in all of this. More than 70 years ago, a poor Baptist parson with Maroon antecedents decided to contest the elections in Trelawny. His opponent was a man who either owned or was the attorney for one-sixth of the arable land in Trelawny, a man who had been custos of the parish for 15 years and member of the Legislative Council for 25.

He ran the local building society and was chairman of the Parochial Board (Parish Council). He was the only lawyer in Falmouth. His name was Ewen and his opponent was my father. Against all the odds, my father won the election. In those days, electors had to be people who paid a certain amount of tax - '10 shilling voters' and their representatives had to pay even more tax - they had to be people of 'substance'.

When my father won, there was widespread consternation. He was known to have been influenced by Marcus Garvey and although he was supported by liberal 'leftwing' figures like Harry and Vernon Arnett, their support was tantamount to class betrayal.

Mr Ewen launched an election petition seeking to have my father's victory nullified on the ground that he was not qualified to be elected. He was too poor. As the petitioner, Ewen had first choice of lawyers and went to NW Manley, KC. After a trial lasting several days the judge found for Mr Ewen, after hearing lots of evidence, including denials by the tax collector that he had ever seen my father. My father's lawyer was JAG Smith, KC, then nearing the end of his life.

Shortly thereafter Mr Ewen dropped dead, an event popularly supposed to have been mysteriously engineered by my grandmother, Miss Kate, whose African connections were thought to be very powerful. My father won the ensuing bye-election, all his opponents losing their deposits. This time he had made sure he was a recognised taxpayer.

After the trial, Norman Manley wrote to the judge declaring that he could not believe that the people should be prevented from choosing their own representative because he was not a wealthy man. That was Norman Manley's first recorded statement on Jamaican politics and may have contributed to his position later when OT Fairclough and some others connected to Public Opinion persuaded him to start and lead the People's National Party.

08 October 2006

A Week as Long as the Titanic

Common Sense
John Maxwell

The behaviour of the Bush Administration and the US Congress has for the past six years obscured the fact that the United States is home to millions of some of the world's brightest people. And this week, when the US is undergoing one of its intermittent spasms of moral outrage, makes it even harder to appreciate the real torments of a great people.

The paladins of the right, moving effortlessly from equivocation to outright lies, are trying desperately to extricate themselves from a self-made quagmire which is threatening to swallow whole the conservative revolution of Gingrich, Bush and Rove.

It has not been an edifying spectacle. The political scene in the US has resembled a solfatara - a mud volcano - spitting steaming gobs of dark matter all over the pristine blueprints of the neocons and the flat-earthers.

What could not be accomplished by the revelations about 9/11, the disasters of Katrina, the unholy bloody mess of the Iraq war is being accomplished by virtual sex - sexual harassment in cyberspace.

All of a sudden, all the sterling hypocrisies of the American right have turned to dross and the hunt is on for a scapegoat to deflect the astonished public examination of the entrails of an unfeeling, uncaring, neo-fascist corporate state.

Astounding and almost incredible facts have been reported unnoticed: 20 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq in the first five days of October; Congress has given itself nine pay rises in 11 years while refusing even one rise in the minimum wage since 1996.

The average pay of CEOs of top corporations is rising 16 times as fast as the average American's pay; the icons of American manufacturing industry, General Motors and Ford, are unable to compete against Japanese cars made in the United States, and the stock market has made its second successive record level in a week while the housing market - one of the real engines of the US economy - is on the point of popping like an over-inflated balloon. Instead, the serious men and women of the American media are mesmerised by the story of a deflated hypocrite, Mark Foley, until this week the representative of one of the safest Republican seats in the US Congress.

There was no such attention given to the meltdown of integrity represented by the indictment of the former majority leader, Mr DeLay, or the collateral disclosures attending the exposure of his sidekick, Mr Abramoff, whose antics caused the transfer of millions of dollars into the hands of DeLay, Cunningham, Ney and those white-haired boys of American fascism, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed.

And the odd thing about the latest scandal is that it appears to concern only the indiscretions of one hypocrite who lusted after young men while pretending to be their protector. It is hypocrisy that has brought the US to this pass, not the high crimes and misdemeanours of the cold-hearted scoundrels at the heart of the American democracy. And the reason is perhaps both simple and complicated.

It is simple because one set of unwise but hardly criminal actions has exposed, more cruelly than any indictment, the rot at the core of the capitalist counter-revolution. It is complicated because, as in the collapse of any house of cards, it is almost impossible to discern where the weakness lay.

Paul Weyrich, one of the gurus of the rabid right, compares what is happening today to what happened in 1974, when the Democrats won a landslide victory, not because their vote increased, but because embarrassed Republicans were too abashed to support the rascals who had led them - the Agnews, Nizons, Haldemans, Ehrlichmans and the ineffable Charles Colson whose immortal dictum was "When you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." It is Colson's principle which has got the Republicans into all this trouble.

Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their megalomaniac accomplices never calculated that anyone would have the guts to say out loud that the Emperor had no clothes. The press was squared, the media were all prepared for the triumphant Thousand Year Reich. Mr DeLay gerrymandered Texas, the biggest and one of the most populous states in the contiguous US, and got away with it.

Two weeks ago, Dr Rice had arrogantly dismissed President Clinton's claim that he had tried manfully to catch Bin Laden. Dr Rice retorted that her crew had done more in 8 months than Clinton in eight years about catching Bin Laden. Yet, one week later she had to confess that she could not remember an emergency briefing by Tenet, head of the CIA, who was close to a panic in trying to focus Dr Rice's attention on Bin Laden just two months before the terrorists hit the fan.

The administration has denied that it was even considered that generalissimo Rumsfeld should get the boot, and, despite his continuing disasters, he has got yet another vote of confidence from his president.

Bob Woodward's book has confirmed what was suspected by many of us and revealed by various people, including former Cabinet member Paul O'Neill and security chief Richard Clarke among others. They had reported that whatever Mr Bush's virtues, his were not a safe pair of hands - as the cricketers say.

A year ago when Cindy Sheehan bearded Bush in his Texan desert, it appeared to set in motion some Sisyphean rock which kept threatening to squash Mr Bush. There was Katrina, which was the sort of emergency that Jamaica and Cuba deal with regularly. A year after the disaster the real recovery effort seems to be just beginning.

And above all, there is the continuing bloodletting in Iraq, a civil war concurrent with an insurgency which is killing Iraqis at the rate of 30 thousand a year and killing hundreds and maiming thousands of American youth in a war that is unwinnable.

The problem with getting the hearts and minds to follow is that the grip on the gonads has to be consistent, firm and inexorable. No human apparatus of government, not Hitler's, Stalin's nor Franco's or any other has proved to have the sheer remorseless will to maintain the pressure. And when there is the slightest relaxation, whenever people realise that their masters are human after all, there is hell to pay.

It is interesting to note what has happened to one piece of the democratic process in the United States. According to Congresswoman Sanchez, the Republican leadership presented the Congress with just one copy of an omnibus National Security Bill and gave the house one hour to debate and pass it. Naturally, nobody noted that there was in this bill an item of 20 million dollars for a celebration of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the impending collapse of the coalition war effort in both countries, it would seem a little premature to be setting aside millions for victory celebrations. The problem, of course, is that if no one gets to read the bill, a document of hundreds of pages, no one will ever notice even 20-million dollar mistakes.

But even if anyone had noticed, would it have made any difference?

The Army fired Bunny Greenhouse because she had the temerity to discover billions (with a B) in fraudulent transactions related to the Iraq war. The press and public ignored hair-raising stories of millions of dollars in cash being shipped round Iraq like remaindered books. A million here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are being tiresome.

What will stick in the craw of the average American is the simple callousness revealed by the official inattention to reports of Mr Foley's indiscretions. Billions are being wasted, hundreds of young men are being killed, and now they hear that their kids are being sexually harassed in the Congress!

Somehow, this is the straw that has broken the elephant's back and made even Mr Bush irrelevant. While he is trying to scare the day-lights out of his people by dwelling on the Democrats inability to shoot straight, his speeches are falling into the wind, as irrelevant as flypaper in an igloo.

In the past few weeks, Americans have been startled and saddened by the slaughter of children in schools and I believe that this fact is of powerful importance in the breakdown of confidence. It is a short jump from Lancaster County and the slaughter of little Amish girls by a sex-crazed milkman to the depraving of little boys by one set in authority over them and all America. But is this a sort of unconsidered trifle that sparks revolutions.


I was disappointed in the presidential speech at the recently concluded PNP annual conference. I am not alone.

There are a great many Jamaicans who had looked to the prime minister to blow a fresh wind of change through the politics of Jamaica, as she had promised in the speeches before her election. Instead, the prime Minister declared forthrightly that she proposed to continue with the heavy metal development which is now destroying what is left of Jamaica.

In the first place, as someone who says she treasures the Jamaican countryside, Mrs Simpson must know that these developments have never been properly examined before they were put on track. The government of Jamaica is continuing the trend started by Mr Patterson in disobeying, disregarding and ignoring its own rules. What is worse is that if as they say, Mrs Simpson Miller and the PNP are serious about sustainable development, they do not seem to understand what that means.

Last week I reported on the government's intention to destroy the Cockpit Country in the effort to scrape the last pound of bauxitic earth from Trelawny. And there are apparently plans to create some mad theme-park based on the Maroon heritage, no doubt in carefully packaged, plastic and concrete monstrosities built on the bones of some of our heroes.

Mrs Simpson Miller has welcomed Mr Patterson's parachuting himself back into the electoral direction of the PNP. That sends the wrong signal to those who support the new prime minister across party lines. And when Mr Patterson claims to be the dean of election winners in Jamaica, Mrs Simpson should not forget that while she won her seat against the odds in 1980, Mr Patterson lost his - the seat of FLB Evans - to an unknown.

The egregious disclosure of the financing of part of the PNP's campaign by Trafigura SA is another bad sign. I don't care whether Trafigura does not expect a quid pro quo. No foreign body has any business in Jamaican politics. That was my position when the CIA inserted itself into Jamaican politics in 1975 and it is my position now.

And it does matter that Trafigura is currently involved in a noxious affaire in the Ivory Coast in which several people have died. Since Trafigura is not unconnected to Glencore - which mines bauxite in Jamaica, and both are not unconnected with Marc Rich - I find it even more difficult to stomach any connection between them and the governing party of this country.

Political parties should not accept gifts from people with whom they may have to deal later. Whether the dealing is honest or not, justice will never appear to have been done.

Coincidentally, the German word for poison is gift.

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01 October 2006

The Land of Look Behind

Common Sense
John Maxwell

There are some places which should be left untouched, some wild places, some serene and tranquil places, some mountains, some forests, some lakes, woods, some ruins.

In the Treaty of Rio Agenda 21, all the countries of the world agreed that there were, in effect, sacred places which should be preserved for the sake of the human spirit so that we can wonder at them, meditate in them, lose ourselves in their spaces and reconnect with the world of nature, of life outside of ourselves, a world from which we are so desperately trying to isolate ourselves in the name of progress.

The United Nations has a programme which designates such sites for protection. They are so special that they are part of the heritage of mankind, not simply of the people living next door. These places are places of refuge from the clamant world outside, the rat race, perhaps even the cell phone.

One such place is the Cockpit Country, or more poetically, The Land of Look Behind. The story is that when the British were trying to subdue the Maroons their soldiers were mounted two to a mule, one facing forward, the other riding shotgun as they used to say in the Wild West.

It is like nowhere else on Earth. The geologists say it is the type or paradigm, the perfect example of its kind, the nec plus ultra. It is a place of wild unearthly shrieks, strange subterranean rumbles and the most numbing silences. It is a place of purple, blue and pink rock, of rugged tortured peaks and the most placid, green and peaceful pasture at the bottom of a precipice miles below you, it seems; a place of echoes and of ghosts, of valiant struggle, of lying and treachery and death. It is a place where you might come upon a plant or animal previously unknown to science or a prehistoric rock carving. It is magic.

It is a place I've been in love with all my life since my father told me stories of our ancestors who fought and died here and of how he, himself, had hidden out from the bailiffs up here, until he could find a way to get to Kingston to be sworn in as a member of the Legislative Council (1935) and therefore immune to the claws of the debt collector.

Nobody has ever asked me where I'd like to be buried, but I believe if I had my druthers, I'd rather like to have my ashes scattered on the Burnt Hill Road, over Barbecue Bottom, so my voice can join the echoes there and my spirit the ghosts of some of my forefathers.

Apart from its magic, the Land of Look Behind is one of the wonders of the world, except that most people do not yet know of it.

The Cockpit Country/Land of Look Behind plays a starring role in Jamaican history. It was one of the last places where the few surviving Arawaks (Tainos) sought refuge from the Spaniards and where the Africans seeking freedom joined them and took shelter from the English and intermarried with them. It was the strategic base from whence they sallied forth to meet and defeat the British from time to time.

Our ancestors thought they were dealing with an honourable foe when they signed treaties with the British. The army might have been honourable, but the governor and the Jamaican elites were certainly not. The land the Maroons thought was theirs by treaty was unceremoniously recaptured by the British in the High Court somewhere about 1957.

The Cockpit Country is not only a historical treasure, it is a geological and biological treasure as well. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has, for years, been classifying crucial resources of the world for their intrinsic value to humanity. It considers the Land of Look Behind one such place.

Here in Jamaica, the Land of Look Behind is set for a modern makeover, if the technocrats of the Bauxite Institute have their way. They will be destroying a 15 million-year-old landscape of surpassing beauty and utility so that Airbus and Boeing can build more planes to cause more global warming.

The problem is simple. Some people have a one-dimensional view of development. To them, development means bulldozers, steel, concrete and no mosquitos.

Aluminium and Jamaica

I was a very young reporter at The Gleaner in 1952 when the first shipment of Jamaican bauxite left for the United States aboard the SS Carl Schmedeman, an ore carrier built for Reynolds Jamaica Mines. Since that time, we have exported hundreds of millions of tons of bauxite and alumina, we have lost mountains, valleys, churches , graveyards, houses, and schools to the inexorable bite of the bauxite draglines and we've sacrificed children's lungs and the roofs of houses to the pollution from alumina refining.

We don't have much to show for it except some suspect foreign exchange earnings figures and a small class of specially privileged people who are supported by the industry.

One would have thought that in 50 years an industry as profitable as this might have clubbed together to donate a trade school to one of the communities they ravage. Only Kaiser, under Don Tretzel, ever seemed conscious of its community responsibility. The others have simply gone their merry way rejoicing at the fools who let them have their bauxite cheap and do not insist on the proper restoration of mined-out lands as specified in agreements and licences since 1944.

The aluminium industry is one of the worst polluters on earth, and in Jamaica their record is dismal. Alcan, the Canadian twin separated from Alcoa when Alcoa became too big even for the USA, has bequeathed to us two environmental time bombs in the form of red mud lakes at Mount Rosser and Mandeville. There is evidence that the St Catherine groundwater has, for some years, been polluted by Mount Rosser.

In Manchester, bauxite mining has changed the course of underground water supplies and Porus now, from time to time, is the site of a brand new lake.

The problem is that Jamaica, west of the Wag Water River, is either limestone or bauxite and the character of the landscape is determined by these two substances.

I believe, without one shred of scientific backing, that Jamaica was created by the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. I think that masses of the sea-bottom were pushed up against a small volcanic island (now the Blue Mountain Range) and that over another 40 million years or so, the limestone gradually rose to the surface to become western Jamaica.

The impact of the asteroid had deformed the limestone to produce a feature that puzzles geologists to this day: how come in Jamaica we find older rocks on top of younger rocks? Nothing but an enormous impact could have so distorted the geology, producing the effect of a layer cake thrown against a wall.

This limestone island was relatively level, but some parts were made of denser material than others, and the rain dissolved the softer parts, leaving the harder parts to form what we now see as the characteristic hillocks of the Cockpit Country rising out of terra rossa, red earth bauxite, to which the limestone had degraded.

Whether my fanciful speculations make sense or not, the fact is that the largely karstic landscape of western Jamaica was formed by the dissolution of limestone by rainwater, and this process took place not only above ground but also below it. The result is that Jamaica has an internal plumbing system, with underground rivers and lakes storing and distributing water in a way that is now predictable and dependable. When one of these subsurface conduits becomes blocked we get sudden lakes, such as at Exeter and Chigwell and Newmarket in 1979 and Moneague.

But the Cockpit Country is special; it captures rain from St Ann, Trelawny and St James and this water, cubic miles of it, is stored underground and released through numberless underground caves or conduits. Some of this water goes to the west to the Queen of Spain Valley and provides the water for some of the rivers there, but most of it goes apparently to the Martha Brae, which runs north to Falmouth, and the Black River, which runs south. Some of the water also goes to the Dunn's River and Roaring River in St Ann.

The most noticeable characteristic of all of these rivers is that their volumes are nearly constant all year round, regardless of how much rain falls during the year. The reason is that the Cockpit Country is a huge reservoir with possibly a volume of water greater than Kingston Harbour, and while the level of the aquifer may vary, because of its huge size, the volume of outflow hardly varies at all.

When these conduits become blocked you get lakes such as at Moneague, Chigwell, Exeter, Newmarket and other places. And it seems that the lake in embryo at Porus may have something to do with the operations of the bauxite mining companies. They, of course, are denying all liability and they will continue to deny liability even if Porus disappears with a giant sucking sound.

Porus would be bad enough, but the aquifer underneath the Cockpit Country is vital to the entire North Coast, and not least, to the tourism industry. All the experts on karstic geography agree that it is very dangerous to interfere with karstic landscapes. There are many reasons.

Mining, for instance, brings with it the threat of severe pollution from the activity itself. The red earth, which has stabilised over millions of years, acts as a filter for the water. But when the red earth is disturbed, as it has been in a river in the southern Cockpit Country, you may find the water turning blood red. If bauxite mining were to produce this result, in even one river there would be, as my grandmother used to say, Hell to pay!

Imagine, if you will, the cruise ships being told that our water is perfectly drinkable. It just happens to be red today. Imagine the tourists in the hotels come to Jamaica for an instant tan and imagine the Jamaicans in their homes, washing their clothes in red water. This eventuality may be unlikely, but it is possible. The point is that no one can say for sure. And then, of course, there is hydrogen sulphide, which gives rotten eggs their characteristic aroma. That's sequestered down there too.

There is, of course, much more to the karst topography. The isolated hillocks are in themselves, little islands of biodiversity where the less mobile life forms may mutate to their hearts' content untroubled by any considerations of incest or endogamy. Much the same is true of the caves and sinkholes which are not all connected to each other. Because of this, the Cockpit is a riot of biodiversity for small creatures, and because of its relative inaccessibility, for larger creatures as well.

According to cockpitcountry.com, the place is a rugged, inaccessible area of inland Jamaica:
These very characteristics have given it special importance and it is proposed that it be designated a World Heritage Site. It is an island-within-an-island of specially adapted biodiversity found nowhere else in the world and is a last refuge for some species driven from the rest of Jamaica by humans.

Jamaica's size and diverse physical features presented a wide range of micro-habitats that facilitated within-island radiation and speciation. The present composition of species, both floral and faunal, represents some of the highest rates of endemism in the world, recognised particularly for ferns, birds, reptiles, frogs and land snails. cockpitcountry.com
Snails may not grab your attention or excite your admiration, but apart from those who simply cannot resist them, there are others who understand that the more diverse life is, the more likely we - humans - are to survive.

In a field with 15 crop varieties, an epidemic may kill one or two, it won't kill all because bacteria have their preferred hosts. Similarly in human society, diversity may actually save lives, as in 1724 when an epidemic of smallpox in Boston was defeated by the fact that African slaves understood the rudiments of vaccination before Lister, and saved dozens of those who were crazy enough to trust themselves to the tender mercies of the slaves.

In this connection, remember when I wrote a few years ago about an insignificant little animal known to its friends as Ectinascidia turbinata? This tunicate species produces a class of chemicals called secondary metabolites which have been shown to be effective anti-tumour agents. This squirt is likely to play a starring role in the fight against cancers, having been found to inhibit the growth and even kill certain tumours.

It was seriously threatened by the dredging of Kingston Harbour. If scientists do not succeed in synsthesising the active compounds, we could probably make millions from allowing Ectinascidia turbinata some lebensraum. And who knows whether one of the 500 species of snails found in Jamaica may not have the answer to AIDS or cancer?

Information on the plant species composition and distribution of the Cockpit Country is incomplete and many years of concentrated work will be needed to begin to approach a comprehensive evaluation of the flora. At present, 106 species of vascular plants from 43 families have been found only in the Cockpit Country. This includes 101 Cockpit Country endemics. The remaining five species are not endemic, but in Jamaica occur only in the Cockpit Country.

Scientists say that the features of a karst landscape depend on the interaction between the components of this system: water, air, soil, rock, life, energy and time. The integrity of karst systems depends on the preservation of this interaction. If the balance is upset by sudden changes in one or more components, the whole system may be disrupted.

One of the principles agreed to by the whole world at Rio in 1992 was the Precautionary Principle. It means that in any development, nothing that appears dangerous should be done simply because there is no direct scientific evidence that it is dangerous.

We know that mining the Land of Look Behind is dangerous. The scientific evidence exists. But the geniuses of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute and the Natural Resources Conservation Authority are going to do it anyway if we let them.

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