Jamaica has China to thank for much-needed infrastructure — but some locals say it has come at a price
This story is part of a CBC News series exploring China’s expanding influence around the world and how Canada and other countries are contending with China’s power.
In Mount Carey, a rural district in Jamaica, just south of Montego Bay, two men flag down passing cars while a third shovels concrete into potholes that are overtaking the road.
Joseph, who lives in the community, says the road has become dangerous, so they’re collecting donations to pay for concrete to fix it themselves.
“It’s important, so we do it,” he said. “We’re saving lives.”
Meanwhile, just 100 kilometres east, a gleaming new highway connecting Jamaica’s major cities in the north and the south sits relatively empty.
Construction of the North South Highway started in earnest in 2013, the same year Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the launch of his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It’s a plan to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects to increase the flow of goods, money and people across much of the world, including the Caribbean.
The North South Highway, completed in 2016, was one of the first major infrastructure projects in Jamaica financed and built by a Chinese state-owned company.
Xi calls projects like this a “win-win” that deepen co-operation between the two countries while providing opportunity for development.
But the highway has left Jamaica with a $ 730-million debt to China. And the $ 32 toll for a 66-kilometre, one-way trip —collected by the Chinese developer — means driving the highway isn’t affordable for most Jamaicans.
“Some locals say the Jamaicans have been left paying for a highway that does not benefit them,” said Jevon Minto, a local scholar who has researched the impact of Chinese development investments on Jamaica for the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank based in Washington, D.C.
“The locals don’t drive it and yet they are the ones paying for it.”
That’s why, for some, the highway is emblematic of a larger question surrounding China’s growing interest and investment in the Caribbean:
Who really wins and who loses?
Experts say there are several key reasons why China is investing in the region: to extract mineral resources, to develop strategic ports and shipping lanes, and to provide opportunities for Chinese labour.
To better understand how these interests are playing out in the region, CBC News travelled to Jamaica, the 10th and most recent Caribbean nation to formally sign on to BRI.
Outlet for Chinese labour
Last month, the Jamaican government announced the groundbreaking for a children’s hospital in Montego Bay, the first hospital to be built in the country in decades.
Tian Qi, China’s ambassador to Jamaica, described the project as a testament to his country’s relationship with Jamaica.
“For the past 47 years, we have been working together as true friends and real partners.”
The hospital is a gift from China — one of the perks that comes with doing business with the economic powerhouse.
At first glance, the site is unremarkable. But a closer look reveals workers wearing safety vests emblazoned with Chinese characters, and badges that read, “China Aid.”
The contractor is imported from China, as are many of the workers. This is most often the case when projects are funded by grants, loans and private investments from China.
Such concessions have prompted criticism from members of the local construction industry, some of whom accuse the Jamaican government of selling out their industry to the Chinese.
“The Chinese do not engage Jamaican engineers and Jamaican management on the construction job, they only engage labour,” said Carvel Stewart, a civil engineer and former president of the Incorporated Masterbuilders Association of Jamaica.
“I think it’s shortsightedness. I think it’s a lack of development of the Jamaican construction workforce.”
He says the Jamaican government should have negotiated terms that require Chinese firms to hire locals at all job levels, not just as labourers.
“It is our government’s policy that I’m critical of, not the Chinese. If we could get that break in China, wouldn’t we?”
CBC News reached out to the Association of Chinese Enterprises in Jamaica Limited, whose members include construction companies operating in Jamaica, but didn’t receive a response prior to publication.
Richard Bernal, Jamaica’s former ambassador to the U.S. and pro-vice chancellor for global affairs at the University of the West Indies, says the number of Chinese workers in Jamaica is relatively small compared to other developing countries that have accepted loans from China, and the total has been shrinking over time.
He offers three reasons why Chinese loans are good for Jamaica.
“One, the terms are quite generous — long repayment periods, low interest. Secondly, the Chinese are very competitive in carrying out these construction projects, which they do all over the world. And thirdly, what you find is that it comes with less conditionality than Western aid.”
Bernal said traditional sources of aid, such as funding from the U.S., aren’t as available these days, which helps explain why Jamaica is more receptive to investment from China.
China’s interest in the Caribbean extends beyond loans and labour. Seeking out natural resources is also a key aspect of BRI.
Bauxite, a rock formed from the reddish clay of tropical regions, is the world’s primary source of aluminum. Bauxite mining is also the second largest industry in Jamaica.
The Alpart mine and refinery, one of Jamaica’s largest, is located in the southwestern town of Nain. In 2009, Alpart closed in the wake of the global financial crisis and a downturn in the aluminum industry. It sat dormant until it was purchased in 2016 by Chinese state-owned mining giant Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO).
The reopening brought jobs back to the community, but not without some concerns.
Earlier this year, Jamaica’s environmental regulator issued 16 enforcement orders against JISCO for causing “serious environmental and human health issues.”
The source of the problem, the regulator said, was a 350-hectare residue disposal area that was poorly managed and in breach of environmental permits.
Residue from bauxite can contain concentrations of harmful metals and low levels of radioactive elements.
Some Nain residents who spoke with CBC News said they were grateful for the work but also worried about the potential impact on their health.
Of primary concern is bauxite dust, which can contaminate drinking water and cause damage to the lungs, nose and throat, as well as exposed skin.
One resident said she was concerned about the dust that would cover the fruit trees outside her home. Another resident said her skin breaks out in rashes when it’s windy outside.
Some said they have been in talks with JISCO about possible compensation and help relocating but are still waiting to hear back from the company.
Bernal cautions against assigning all the blame to China.
“Guess what? The residue from bauxite plants have been here since they were established 50 years ago by Canadians and American firms,” he said.
“I’m not exonerating the Chinese. I’m just saying it’s not something unique to the Chinese.”
Last month, JISCO decided to shut the mine for two years. Jamaica’s Ministry of Transport and Mining said the closure will allow time to make upgrades and for the price of aluminum to recover.
WATCH | Highways, mines and hospitals — CBC visits some of Jamaica’s infrastructure projects bankrolled by China:
This year Jamaica became the 10th Caribbean country to formally sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s investments have brought much-needed infrastructure to the region, but with that has also come some friction. CBC News took a road trip through Jamaica and asked who wins and who loses when it comes to China’s Belt and Road. 7:40
Another reason for China’s interest in the Caribbean is its proximity to the Panama Canal, a strategic shipping route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
“The Panama Canal is critical for trade in the Americas,” said Scott MacDonald, an analyst of China-Caribbean relations for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think-tank. “It’s also critical for the movement of trade and products out of Asia to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.”
He suspects that’s one reason China showed interest in building a port at Goat Island, located off the south coast of Jamaica and directly north of Panama. It’s part of Jamaica’s Portland Bight, an environmentally sensitive and protected area.
Five years ago, the Jamaican government announced that the state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company would lead the project.
When Ingrid Parchment heard that Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller announced the plan during a trip to China, she was shocked.
“I thought, ‘Why are we giving away one of our major resources to somebody? Because they have an idea?'”
Parchment is executive director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, which is responsible for preserving the area.
“They were going to be levelling the island, removing all of the trees, which is habitat for birds, and also the mangroves, in particular, which are where the baby fish and crabs grow.”
Construction of the port would have also required dredging around the island, which would leave the local community more vulnerable to damage from hurricanes.
In an effort to dissuade the government from going ahead with the port, Ingrid’s group commissioned a study from the Conservation Strategy Fund, a California-based environmental consultancy, that looked at the environmental and economic impacts of the project.
“It determined that the cost of the port at Goat Island, both the development and operation, would be far greater than at least two or three other sites in Jamaica,” Parchment said.
She shared the findings with members of the Jamaican Parliament, and then-newly elected Prime Minister Andrew Holness. She also took him on a tour of the island.
Soon after, Holness announced the port project was cancelled.
China has since financed new ports in Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and the Bahamas.
“This allows China to make a poke at the United States in its soft underbelly, because this is right in their backyard,” said MacDonald, who is writing a book on the topic, with the working title: The New Cold War in the Caribbean.
“The U.S. and China definitely have marked out a new competitiveness — a rivalry, if you want — that does look like a Cold War in some aspects,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see sharper elbows over the issue of who has influence in different regions on the planet and who doesn’t.
“And that includes this region.”
MacDonald is far from alone in seeing this dynamic.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has been ringing the alarm bells over China’s growing influence in the region, which is particularly concerning, he says, given its proximity to the U.S.
“China reaches out to interested nations with promises of hefty investment. After reaching an agreement, Beijing hijacks the country’s resources and infrastructure, often dramatically ramping up the lending terms after initial negotiation,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Miami Herald back in September.
MacDonald says the U.S. has a point about China’s potential leverage over some BRI countries.
“If you’re one of the biggest holders of that country’s debt, you may have a little more say in the processes and policies that get enacted.”
Bernal, Jamaica’s former ambassador to the U.S., remains cautiously optimistic about Jamaica’s involvement in Belt and Road.
“Four per cent of Jamaica’s debt is owed to China — not a huge amount,” he said.
Even so, Bernal said he has told officials in the U.S. that if they want to maintain their country’s influence in the region, the U.S. needs to step up.
He said the U.S. approach has been to tell countries not to engage with China, but that’s a tough sell.
“It’s very difficult to tell a poor country that’s looking for investment and trade, not to engage with the second largest economy in the world.”
So, Jamaica is left to strike a balance.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Holness spent eight days visiting China. When he returned home, he announced that Jamaica would not be negotiating any new loans with China and would instead focus on private-sector partnerships and reducing Jamaica’s debt.
CBC News requested an interview with Holness but was told he wasn’t available.
History repeating itself?
Looking out at the shores of Goat Island, Ingrid Parchment wonders if this is all just history repeating itself.
“You know, there have been lots of different discussions … that the Chinese are trying to take over the world,” she said. “But I don’t know if I really think it is any different from when the British came out, or the French came, or the Spanish came.