Wednesday 26 February, 2020

Phillips calls on Auditor General to probe Bernard Lodge land issue

The controversy over the Government’s alleged secret, or pending sale of hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land in the Greater Bernard Lodge area of Portmore, St Catherine is deepening.

Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips has asked the Auditor General to probe the matter.

The lands are slated to be part of a new township to be developed over several years, and which will boast over 17,000 houses, hospitals, schools, light manufacturing plants, and other infrastructure. More than half of the land in the development area is reserved for agriculture.

However, the Opposition has long argued that the farmlands on the St Catherine plains, represent some of the best agricultural lands anywhere in the country and should be reserved for farming. The Opposition has also argued that the ecologically sensitive area is home to one of the best aquifers anywhere in the country and that the water supply for Portmore and beyond could be permanently compromised.

Currently, more than 100 small farmers have leases for plots ranging up to 30 acres in the development area but, as first reported by Loop News in February, more than 45 of them who farm in the Dyke Road area were blocked from entering their farms. It subsequently emerged that some 300 acres had been sold to a consortium representing the principal of Megamart, Gazan Azan. The farmers threatened to take the matter to court and the Opposition Leader, during his contribution to the Budget Debate in March, said that the farmers had asked the Opposition for its support.

Dr Phillips formally wrote to Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis on April 30,  requesting that a “comprehensive audit of the operations and performance of the Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings Limited (SCJ) and its subsidiaries, including its governance arrangements be commenced.”

Phillips is also calling for a performance and compliance audit of the processes and procedures employed by the SCJ in the divestment of lands under its control and particularly in relation to the Bernard Lodge project.

The Opposition Leader, in a statement Friday, said he was “compelled to write to the Auditor General as the Government of Jamaica’s proposed review of the plan for the Bernard Lodge New City Project was not far-reaching.”

Phillips pointed out that numerous concerns and complaints about the transparency and fairness of the divestment process have been expressed by the farming community, including farmers who previously occupied the Bernard Lodge lands, and the wider public.

The Opposition Leader told the AG that he "strongly believes that these concerns and complaints require urgent attention, particularly having regard to the scale of this undertaking and the irreversibility of the impact that will inevitably accompany a land development project of this type."

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