By Horace Helps
KINGSTON, April 1 (Reuters) - The Jamaican government has signed a preliminary agreement with one of China's leading construction companies for the development of a controversial transshipment hub off its southwest coast, Jamaica's state information service said on Tuesday.
The framework agreement with China Harbour Engineering Co(CHEC) seeks to develop the Portland Bight Protected Area southwest of the capital, popularly called the Goat Islands, which are inhabited by insects and small reptiles and covered with wild vegetation.
The area surrounding the islands serves as a breeding ground for fish and other marine species, which has led to stiff resistance to the project from local environmentalists.
"We treasure the preservation of the environment as much as any other group, and we are concerned about the human beings and the plight of poverty, and the impact which that has on the environment," the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) quoted Omar Davies, the cabinet minister responsible for the development, as saying at a private signing ceremony last weekend.
The government said that the project, part of a larger logistics hub, would create 2,000 jobs during the construction phase and 10,000 jobs when it is completed.
"A project which does not harm the environment, and will improve people's living standards, must be explored," Davies was quoted as saying, calling the deal a "win-win situation".
The hub is being planned as an addition to the existing port of Bustamante in Kingston and is designed to facilitate faster distribution of container cargo, mainly from China, throughout Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean region.
CHEC is a global contractor with 50 overseas branches and is a subsidiary of China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC).
The Chinese company has estimated that the project will take five years to complete. (Editing by David Adams; and Peter Galloway)