Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Peter Espeut | Where is the Cockpit Country?

Published:Friday | September 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM

More than 15 years ago, Robert Pickersgill, then the minister of water, land, environment and climate change, declared that there would be no mining in the Cockpit Country. In his contribution to the 2012-13 Sectoral Debate in Parliament, he reiterated that position.

"This area [the Cockpit Country] is far too important to the country's cultural and environmental heritage to have it jeopardised in this manner. Mining in the area could essentially destroy the resources found there." The minister pointed out that the Cockpit Country is the second-largest expanse of contiguous forest remaining on the island, and supplies 40 per cent of the island's freshwater resources.

The Cockpit Country has significant deposits of bauxite that foreign mining companies wish to exploit, but doing so would destroy the forest cover, which is both watershed and wildlife habitat. The promise by Minister Pickersgill that no mining would be permitted there was very welcome.

But several persons suspected ginnalship. It would be a simple matter for the minister to define a very small area (maybe with no bauxite resources) as 'the Cockpit Country' and forbid mining there. Promise kept!

The environmental community saw through that strategy early.

A wide boundary was proposed to the Government that enclosed the majority of the cockpits in central Jamaica. [Isn't it logical? The Cockpit Country is where the cockpits are?] Using this boundary would bring mining to an end in central Jamaica.

Predictably, the Ministry of Mining proposed a narrow boundary that excluded the majority of the known bauxite deposits, but which also excluded valuable forest, watershed and wildlife habitat that mining would destroy.

Where does the Cockpit Country really begin and where does it end?

In 2006 - more than a decade ago - the ministry contracted the UWI Department of Geography and Geology to undertake a study to define boundaries and the area that should receive legal protection. The consultants divided the Cockpit Country into three distinct zones: the core, the transition area, and the buffer zone. The core is largely undisturbed, and worthy of the highest level of protection; the transition area has high ecological value and is worthy of protection, but has experienced some historical disturbance. The buffer zone is the most disturbed, but it is still essential to protect the buffer zone to insulate the core and the transition area from further disturbance (that is why it is called a buffer).

It is important to make clear that the core, transition and buffer areas are all part of the Cockpit Country, and, therefore, the promise that "there will be no mining in the Cockpit Country" would apply to the core, the transition, and the buffer areas of the Cockpit Country.

I find it amusing that earlier this week, Opposition spokesperson on land and the environment, PNP Senator Sophia Frazer-Binns, scolded the Government for not declaring a boundary for the Cockpit Country. During the Sectoral Debate last year, Opposition Spokesman on Energy and Mining Phillip Paulwell called on the Government to urgently address boundary issues in the Cockpit Country.

For several years, Paulwell's government had in front of it all the information it needed to declare Cockpit Country boundaries, but failed to do so (out of cowardice, I assert). Now that they are in Opposition, they have the bravado to call on the present Government to do what they were afraid to do. What comedy!

 

JAMAICANS PREPARED TO ACT

 

The rumour is that, despite all promises to the contrary, with new players in the bauxite-alumina sector in place, the Government is planning to allow mining in the buffer zone and transition areas of the Cockpit Country.

Just the thought of mining in the Cockpit Country has the Jamaican public up in arms, and the petition hosted on the OPM website calling on the Government to announce a boundary and to keep its promise was oversubscribed with more than a week to spare.

This is supposed to trigger 'a response' from the prime minister. Anything less than an appropriate boundary will cause further controversy and further public action.

Propaganda coming from the Ministry of Mining alleges that should a wide boundary be drawn, Jamaica would lose billions of US dollars in investment, and hundreds of millions of US dollars in income. In reality, there are no losses here, only unexploited resources.

Should the bauxite in the Cockpit Country be mined, the real losses would be the reduction in water supply to St Ann, St Elizabeth, St James, and Trelawny, and less water for agriculture, aquaculture, industry and the residents of those parishes (not to mention the forest cover, wildlife habitat, the wildlife itself, and the ecotourism revenue that would be lost). Is it too much to expect the Ministry of Mining to do full cost accounting?

- Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and a development scientist.

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