Interviews

Interview with Esther Figueroa filmmaker of the documentary ‘Jamaica for Sale’

Written by Xavier Murphy

This week we interview Esther Figueroa, Ph.D. filmmaker of the documentary ‘Jamaica for Sale’.  Esther is a Jamaican, independent filmmaker, writer, and linguist. She has 25 years of experience in media production including documentaries, educational videos, television programming, music videos, multi-media, web content, and feature film. An activist filmmaker, her work focuses on local knowledge, indigenous cultures, social injustice, community empowerment, and the environment. Her work gives voice to those outside of mainstream media, and aims to counter the dominant values, information and world views portrayed in commercial media.


Tell us about the film Jamaica for Sale?


“Jamaica for Sale” is a feature length documentary (84 mins – first version was 96 mins) about the economic, environmental and social consequences of unsustainable tourism development in Jamaica. Actually, though the film is about tourism, the same things occur with any bad model of development, whereby a lot of money is spent but there is no real benefit to the society in general. Wherever I show the film people say “the same thing is happening here,” and they don’t always mean tourism development, sometimes they mean some other form of development, where people are displaced, there is environmental degradation, corruption, short sighted political choices and bad consequences for generations to come. In the case of Jamaica we have been subsidizing tourism for over one hundred years and the government keeps going deeper and deeper into debt. Jamaica is one of the most indebted countries in the world, and currently under an IMF agreement the government is set to divest just about everything publicly owned. It’s a fire sale and lots of government land and enterprises are being divested for way below their actual worth. It is also done in secrecy and the people of Jamaica have absolutely no say in the matter. “Jamaica for Sale” is a very lively film, has a great sound track and a wide range of articulate people from well-known academic scholars to people on the street who work in the industry. It is an important film because our model of tourism (large-scale all-inclusive hotels) is being exported not only through out the Caribbean Region and being held up as a model for impoverished places like Haiti. but is also being promoted as a saviour for Africa.

Is this your first film?

No I’ve been making many different types of media for over 25 years. I’ve done lots of work in television, documentaries, educational videos, and multi-media as well as most genres and aspects of film making from narrative films to music videos.

Why did you make the film?
I made “Jamaica for Sale” with Jamaica’s leading environmental advocate Diana McCaulay, Executive Director of Jamaica Environment Trust (www.jamentrust.org).  We had made a film together called “Cockpit Country – Voices From Jamaica’s Heart” which was part of an effort to stop bauxite mining in Cockpit Country. JET along with Northern Jamaica Conservation Association, and some other groups and individuals successfully sued the Jamaican Government over breaches in its own laws in granting permits to Gran Bahia Principe that was being built in Pear Tree Bottom, St. Ann. The judge agreed with the plaintiffs but the hotel was already half way built, so was allowed to be completed (and then expanded!). That hotel was just one in a sudden explosion in large-scale all-inclusive resorts being built in environmentally sensitive parts of Jamaican coastline, so we were quite alarmed and decided we needed to bring this to the attention of the public. “Jamaica for Sale” documents the physical transformation that Jamaica has been recently undergoing, while at the same time is trying to turn the tide, trying to get policy makers and the general public to honestly appraise the untenable situation we are in. Whereby we have enormous tourist resorts being built, walls blocking the view to the sea, beach access taken away, communities displaced, informal squatting settlements springing up, mangroves, sea grasses and other fish nurseries destroyed, corals smothered from sewage, run off and other pollution, a rise in cost of living, rise in crime and other social problems, all in the name of jobs which are low paying, dead-end jobs that are very temporary and vulnerable because tourism is a very volatile industry. This type of large-scale tourism is supposed to bring development but it actually has a negative impact on GDP because of high debt burden, the high rate of leakages out of the economy (most tourism money doesn’t even get to Jamaica much less circulate in the local economy) and lack of linkages into the local economy (for example, food, energy, and personnel are imported). The Caribbean is the region in the world most dependent on tourism and so tourism is the sacred cow that one is not supposed to criticize, but it’s important that we have a counter narrative to the ongoing government and tourism industry propaganda that we are flooded with day in day out. It is my hope that people will watch the film and take it as a warning as to what not to do.

Why did you choose this title?


Jamaica is literally for sale – though in truth it’s more being given away. We the people of Jamaica and our descendents are being sold out by the few who make these decisions for us. They have chosen to give away the future of Jamaica primarily to foreigners and to those who are part of the small oligarchy that runs the country. The title is very flexible – people all over the world tell me that their country is also for sale. For example, when the Bahamas (properties in Nassau in particular) was being sold off to foreigners, a friend went around changing the real estate signs so that they read Bahamas for Sale, Future For Sale, etc. I think there is even a calypso called “Grenada for Sale”.

How many venues has the film premiered? Where is your next premiere?

Jamaica for Sale shows regularly on Jamaican Television. All rights are cleared so that it can show anywhere in the world on Television so anyone who is interested in having it shown on television can get in touch. It has screened at film festivals around the world and is being taught at universities around the world. The film can be purchased by going to our website: www.jamaicaforsale.net. And anyone who is interested in having a public showing can get in touch with me at [email protected].

 Are there any plans to show it in the schools to create awareness in the next generation?
Awareness in the next generation is crucial. There was a plan for JET to show it in schools via their Schools Environmental Education Program but the program was defunded recently and so that outlet is no longer currently available. We will need some form of sponsorship to get it out to schools so if anyone would like to help with that they can get in touch with JET at [email protected]. In terms of the next generation of policy makers the film at least is being taught at UWI, and UTech.

In the film you show damage to the environment by development. What do you see as a happy medium between development and the environment?
Well there is never a happy medium between development and the environment quite simply because human being can’t create water, sky, earth, rivers, the sea, corals, marine, life, etcetc. so once we degrade and destroy the environment we can’t remake it. The happy medium therefore is not to destroy the environment because we and everything else on earth is dependent on the environment.

While filming did you find any good examples of corporate environment responsibility by business in Jamaica?


Not really, some of the local hotels are making an effort (especially smaller ones) but most have a long way to go still.

Why should people care about is happening?


People should care about what is happening because the over development, and the wrong sort of development of the tourism industry will lead to the tourist industry’s detriment. Quite simply too many rooms leads to low occupancy, vulnerable and marginal enterprises and the closing down of hotels (within a year of opening one of Ibero Star’s hotels closed because of low occupancy and those laid off workers have not been rehired even though the hotel has since reopened). Jamaican hotels are currently discounting at 60% and over. Tourists by definition are a mobile lot and once one place is ruined they simply move on to somewhere else. Instead of constructing more and more hotels and ever bigger ones we should concentrate on quality and a unique authentic Jamaican experience. So for those who believe in tourism as a viable industry they need to realize that we are destroying that viability. People should care because if they love Jamaica then they would want Jamaica to have clean air, rivers and sea, beaches available to the public, access to the shoreline for locals. A healthy environment protects from the ravages of climate change, droughts and storms, and protects the fragile island eco-system for generations to come. If you love Jamaica you would want a diversified economy that benefits not just a few but which allows for social development (good education, health, nutrition, shelter, clean and healthy environment, strong public institutions) and benefits the majority of Jamaicans, but a realistic economy that exists within the means of the resources that are actually available to us instead of pretending we can all live like millionaires. 

Did you encounter communities that are concerned about the environment?


Jamaicans are not very attuned to the natural environment. Most Jamaicans believe that “bush” is just wasteful undeveloped land and that wild animals should be killed. We don’t have a good sense of the important interrelationships that take place in nature – we depend on birds, bees and bats to pollinate our food, we need wild swampy areas to control flooding, we need trees for rain, we need clean rivers and groundwater so we have water to drink, we need mangroves, sea grass and healthy corals for marine life to have habitat. etc.etc. We went through a very bad drought earlier this year and with unplanned, uncontrolled, environmentally destructive development we can expect more of the same to come but as soon as the rains came we forgot about the drought and what causes it.

What can the average citizen do?


The average citizen needs to be conscious of their own daily behaviours regarding how they eat, consume, dispose of their garbage, travel etcetc and understand the consequences of our actions. The average citizen needs to realize what are the impacts of the policies and practices of their government, corporations, and the entities that control the global and local economies and not be fooled by Public Relations spin and advertisements. The average citizen can stay informed and get involved by volunteering, donating time, money, expertise, sharing solutions. Above all the average citizen can care and then act based on that caring. 

How has the film been received?


The film has been very well received. There is always a very strong response. People always thank me for making the film. They often say “I didn’t know!” Sometimes they are very upset and want to know how Jamaicans have allowed this to happen. They often want to know what they can do. Diaspora Jamaicans in particular have a very painful visceral reaction. Outside of Jamaica lessons are always quickly learned from the film. Unfortunately within Jamaica this is not the case and there is still a lot of resistance to facing reality. But hopefully we are making a little headway … one one coco….!

What was the most challenging part of doing the film?


Well we had almost no funding to do the film so that was probably the most challenging part but we made do with what we had and are very grateful to the participants and our supporters who helped in a variety of ways.

Has there been any push-back from businesses in Jamaica?


Not really, some from the tourism industry officials (those who are actually in the industry and not just apologists for the industry agree with the facts in the film though they might not like the tone of the film) but pushback has mainly come from the government. Some individuals in the film have had repercussions for saying what they say in the film and I am very upset about that.

Do you have any new projects in the works?


I have been working on the question of our over fished and abused fisheries in Jamaica. With The Nature Conservancy I made a film that you can see on youtube called “Massa God FIsh Can Done” and I hope to keep working to educate us on that subject. Fresh water issues are important. Again with TNC we made a film to stop river poisoning in the Rio Grande Area (can you believe in Jamaica fishing methods include, poisoning, dynamiting and using mesh so small it catches everything?!) and I made a film about the Hope River upon whose banks I live in Gordon Town and I watch being abused every day (Hope River the major source of drinking water for Kingston!). I have been documenting the incredibly stupid development of Falmouth with the government paying for a new cruise ship pier and 35 acres of newly created land for Royal Caribbean when there are two cruise ship ports half an hour away (Montego Bay and Ocho Rios). The first ships are arriving in November and none of the development is ready, and as always none of the promised development for Falmouth itself is taking place instead people have been displaced (the market removed, fishermen removed, small businesses removed) and the promised opportunities nowhere to be seen. We are not very good at delivering promises and we’re not very good at details but we are very good at talking big and making big claims as to the benefit of any new development. The latest is Font Hill in St. Elizabeth. 3.000 acres to be divested supposedly for mass tourism, housing, golf course, airport – jobs, jobs. jobs – the usual. It is one of the last remaining places with an intact coastal eco-system with mangroves, clean sea water, healthy reefs and fisheries, ponds with crocodiles, habitat for endangered species, over 150 birds endemic and migratory – all this will be destroyed forever to have yet another all-inclusive hotel that will be just like any other hotel in the region. There are so many places on the verge of destruction that it is hard to keep track of them all but we do try.

What do you see as the logical outcome in the next 10 years if Jamaica continues along this path of development?


The logical outcome if Jamaica continues like this we can expect more debt, economic stagnation, higher cost of living, even worse disparities in wealth and opportunities, more crime, social problems and community and family dysfunction, a dependent nation with an even weaker government that owns almost nothing, and a degraded environment that produces almost nothing and cannot protect us.

If you had the power to make changes to save the environment in Jamaica what would you change?


I would change the development model, the values and expectations of the nation. I would make the environment the priority so that economic and social development was in accordance with the health of the environment so that there can be longevity.  I would change the incentives that exist in the current government structures – all the perks (the big SUV’s, the big houses, the foreign consumption) that currently go with being in government would be stopped so would all the subsidies, tax breaks, and all the rest that put the government in debt. I would concentrate on building up local agriculture, local manufacturing, local creative industries, and alternative energy and technology solutions. 

What do you do when you are not raising concerns to the environment?


Raise concerns about social justice issues – the two concerns are often related.

Is environmental awareness is a tough sell in Jamaica where most people probably welcome new jobs over the repercussions to the environment?


Yes jobs is the number one issue and so everyone always says there has to be a “balance” by which is meant forget about the environment we must have jobs. This is why we start “Jamaica for Sale” with the workers building the Fiesta Hotel in Lucea. These workers were working under miserable conditions including death and injury. The question is where are the jobs that are always promised? Most of the time they don’t go to the people in the community. Most of the time they only last for a very short period of time (the construction phase comes and goes and then what?). The workers are poorly paid and have to travel long distances to get to work or live in squatter communities. In these squatter communities there are no schools etc. Jobs and real development are not the same thing. We need to honestly do the math. If we did we’d see that this sort of development costs us more money than it brings into the economy if that wasn’t the case we would be developed by now rather than falling further and further behind. So we have to come up with alternative forms of development and different type of investment models. As long as profit is the sole purpose of doing business then there will never be real social development because if you follow that to its logical conclusion (the most profit with the least amount of monetary output) you end up with slavery. For each development if there is a public hearing Jamaicans are promised jobs, jobs, jobs. If you question these statements ask for specifics you are booed, told to shut up and sit down that you are against development etc.etc. but soon enough people realize they have been lied to but by then it is too late. It is a very cynical way of doing business and leads to a very cynical and corrupt society where everyone is out for themselves because there are no due processes, no transparency, no democracy and no repercussions for those who sell Jamaica out while they personally benefit.

Is the government doing enough?
The question is doing enough of what? They have environmental laws that are not enforced. We are signatories to many international conventions that we don’t conform to but aren’t required to do anything but fake claims as to what we are doing to comply. We have autocratic paternalistic governments who think they know best and one minister makes decisions for the rest of us that we have to live with forever but we aren’t supposed to ask questions and we aren’t to complain because Massa knows best for us. And anyone who really takes their job seriously and gets in the way of certain interests will find that they are soon in serious trouble. We have a political system that is not just corrupt, doling out patronage based on which party you belong to, but which has crippled the country’s ability to function, instead petty tyrants fight over power because with power comes the spoils of governing. It is really a truly depressing situation as we approach 50 years of so-called independence.

Since the release of your film has there been any effect on how the businesses featured in the film operate?


NO

What do you do as an individual to contribute to saving the Jamaican environment?


Well I try and raise awareness by making films about the environment. I buy about 80% of my food locally, (I love Coronation Market – long live Coronation Market), I try and keep my energy use to a minimum, I don’t have a car and take public transportation. I compost and would recycle if there was a real way to do that so since there isn’t I try and keep my consumption of non-recyclable materials to a minimum. Wish there was more I could do.

What is your biggest pet peeve?


Politicians, public servants and private-sector leaders who blatantly lie, dissemble and take from the public coffers, and we the public who will murder someone for stealing a goat, but happily support those who lie to us and steal on a grand scale, and we look away and pretend that everything is okay when it is not and damn anyone who insists that we stop pretending and face reality. That and people who throw garbage everywhere and who don’t see it as long it’s not in their car, or in their yard, or their business. In Jamaica we are choking in waste of every sort.

Thanks for the interview any closing thoughts?
Many thanks for the opportunity and congratulations and thank you for doing the service you do in providing such an important outlet for information about Jamaica. I encourage other film makers to make documentaries in the Caribbean and journalists to do investigative reporting and expose what goes on. And I encourage everyone who loves Jamaica to be aware and be involved because this little island is the only one we have!

About the author

Xavier Murphy