Earth­quakes, choco­lates, pineap­ples, and death

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Peter Espeut Peter Espeut is a ru­ral devel­op­ment sci­en­tist and Ro­man Catholic dea­con. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­

LAST SUN­DAY morn­ing, I was shaken out of my bed by the strong­est earth­quake I have ever felt. My room on the top floor of my ho­tel in Rome, Italy, swayed like a rock­ing chair from a 6.6 tremor cen­tred 170km to the north. It was fright­en­ing un­til I re­alised that the struc­ture was in­tact. I would have had no time to run down­stairs. There would have been noth­ing I could do to save my­self.

Italy has a his­tory of ter­ri­fy­ing earth­quakes, and they have a strict build­ing code. My ho­tel was struc­turally sound. It swayed and it waved, but did not crack. The Ro­man Colos­seum, completed in 80 AD, cracked some more.

Ja­maica has cen­turies of his­tory with earth­quakes, ac­com­pa­nied by liq­ue­fac­tion (which sank Port Royal) and tsunamis (the 1792 wave re­flected at least eight times off the south coast of Cuba). But what of our build­ing code? You would have thought that after the 1907 earth­quake that lev­elled brick-built Kingston, the gov­ern­ment would have been stirred into ac­tion to en­act one. But it has proven hard to bind the strong man. As in other ar­eas, suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have been re­luc­tant to com­pel the pow­er­ful pri­vate (con­struc­tion) sec­tor to be bound by a code. Ja­maica has no legally bind­ing build­ing code, only rec­om­men­da­tions and guide­lines.

Yet an es­ti­mated 70 per cent of Ja­maica’s build­ings are de­signed with­out pro­fes­sional in­put, which sounds like a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen. But maybe we have other more im­por­tant pri­or­i­ties to deal with.

The Ital­ian quake did not pre­vent many tens of thou­sands from gath­er­ing later in the day at St Peter’s Square to lis­ten to the weekly an­gelus ad­dress of Pope Fran­cis. He left Rome the fol­low­ing day for Malmo, Swe­den, to mark the 500th an­niver­sary of the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion with a call for church re­uni­fi­ca­tion. The prayer of Je­sus the night be­fore he died, “that all may be one”, has not yet been ful­filled. In fact, many work hard in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Pope Fran­cis asked those of us gath­ered in St Peter’s Square last Sun­day to pray and work for church unity.

Hav­ing vis­ited Hol­land and Bel­gium over the last two weeks, I am struck by the pride these coun­tries take in their choco­lates. Dutch cho­co­late, Bel­gian cho­co­late (and the same would be true for Swiss cho­co­late) are iconic national sym­bols, sold ev­ery­where, and make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the GDP of those coun­tries. But what is of great in­ter­est to me is that none of these coun­tries grow one pod of co­coa.


They buy our co­coa (and from Africa) and make a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try out of it by com­bin­ing it with milk and sugar, which we also pro­duce. I know that dur­ing colo­nial times, we were not al­lowed to add value to our pri­mary agri­cul­tural prod­ucts; that – with its re­sult­ing megaprof­its – was the sole pre­rog­a­tive of the metropole. But why, I ask my­self, since In­de­pen­dence, have we not de­vel­oped our own suc­cess­ful agro-pro­cess­ing in­dus­tries us­ing our own lower-priced labour?

I like my food spicy, and na­tive Euro­pean cui­sine is al­most uni­formly bland. When I ask for salsa pi­quante (hot sauce), I am in­vari­ably of­fered Tabasco, the ubiq­ui­tous US prod­uct. Why can’t our hot pep­per and other ta­ble sauces – which are so much bet­ter – break into the Euro­pean market in a big way? Is it that we are just a na­tion of sam­ples, stuck in low-pro­duc­tion mode?

If you say ‘pineap­ple’ to the av­er­age per­son in the world, they are likely to say “Hawaii”. I have driven for hours in Hawaii through pineap­ple plan­ta­tions on the is­land of Oahu. The in­dus­try adds US bil­lions to the state GDP. When Colum­bus came to Ja­maica in 1494, he found pineap­ples, one of our few en­demics. In 1905, W.H. Grif­fith, a large pineap­ple farmer in Hodges, St El­iz­a­beth, (who also brought the first mo­tor car to Ja­maica), sold 3,000 pineap­ple suck­ers to a group in Hawaii, which was the be­gin­ning of Hawaii’s pineap­ple in­dus­try, the largest in the world.

Why do we im­port pineap­ples from Hawaii? Why since po­lit­i­cal In­de­pen­dence has the Ja­maican busi­ness sec­tor not taken full ad­van­tage of our agri­cul­tural re­sources, in­stead leav­ing it to oth­ers to ex­ploit? Are we – mim­ick­ing our former colo­nial masters – a na­tion of shop­keep­ers?

I re­gret the un­timely pass­ing of Nicholas Fran­cis. He was a faith­ful al­tar server at the Church of the African Mar­tyrs of Uganda in Bull Bay, where I served for sev­eral years. Nicholas is gone to a bet­ter place, but he had many more years to give to his church and his coun­try.

My sym­pa­thy goes out to his fam­ily and to his church com­mu­nity.

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