Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jamaica... Scrap metal ban: a concession to disorder

jamaica-gleaner editorial

We are in sympathy with Mr Karl Samuda's position on the decision by his successor, Dr Christopher Tufton, to shut down the scrap metal industry and ban the export of the stuff.

It smacks, as Mr Samuda says, of "surrendering to the rogue elements". Put another way, the move represents another retreat of law and order.

We, of course, do not presume that the conundrum presented to Dr Tufton, the recently appointed investment and commerce minister, was to be easily traversed or solved. Nor did it develop under his watch.

For Mr Samuda had struggled with the problem of damage to infrastructure and theft by scavengers, who rustle metal of all kinds to cash in on the high price for scrap on the world market.

Indeed, Dr Tufton estimates that utility companies and other legitimate businesses, including government agencies, have lost up to J$1 billion in material over the past three years to metal thieves, who sometimes rip down power and telecommunications equipment, with negative consequences to economic productivity. The problem grew worse as the availability of scrap metal declined, as the price of the commodity hiked and more players entered the business.

Damning Statement on Insecurity

The Government's decision to shut down the sector ought to give the average Jamaican no joy, no matter the spin of the administration, and even if it has the desired effect of curbing the pillaging and defacement. For the decision is a statement about insecurity in our country; a tacit admission by the State of its inability to protect either public or private property.

This is precisely the point we sought to make when Mr Samuda, then the responsible minister, recovered, by private initiative, a stolen priceless bronze sculpture by Edna Manley that was reportedly on its way to being scrap metal export. No one, in so far as we are aware, was ever arrested, charged, prosecuted or convicted for that theft. Mr Samuda, it appears, has come around to an appreciation of the dangerous consequences of this kind of surrender "to the rogue elements".

That, notwithstanding, it is difficult for us to believe that it is beyond the capacity of our Government to ensure, within the context of a system of free enterprise, the orderly operation of a sector of a few dozen people.

Bad signal

If the Jamaican State can't manage this, what ought the mass of the Jamaican people to assume about its ability to preserve their safety and to protect the right of individual property and, more important, the maintenance of law and order, which is the primary responsibility of the State?

But supposing that Dr Tufton's finger-in-the-dyke solution suffices for now, his longer-term proposal for the export of scrap metal seems problematic.

Companies that generate scrap metal will be allowed, according to the minister, to apply for permits to export that scrap. This suggests that these firms will be forced into a line of business outside their core portfolio.

And what of other scrap metal generated by households or by firms that don't have the capacity to organise their own export? We, perhaps, can look forward to there being plenty of scrap with which to block roads while people demand justice.

July 28, 2011

jamaica-gleaner editorial