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Peter Espeut | Mining in the Cockpit Country

Published:Friday | June 7, 2019 | 12:00 AM

“There will be no mining in the Cockpit Country” has been the mantra of politicians of both the orange and the green persuasions in recent decades, but it is an undertaking that they will not deliver on, because too much money is involved.

On the face of it, it should be a simple task: define what is the Cockpit Country, draw a line around it on a map, and then declare it protected from mining and other forms of unsustainable activity. Boundary markers can then be erected on the ground so that passers-by can know when they are in and when they are out.

But when you begin to define the boundaries of the Cockpit Country, you quickly see that it includes acres and acres of land rich in bauxite, from which alumina may be extracted. And big money does run behind dat!

But is that the only valuable resource in the Cockpit Country? And is bauxite the most valuable resource in the Cockpit Country? Decidedly not!

The Cockpit Country is the source of about 40 per cent of Jamaica’s water resources; rainwater trapped here replenishes the aquifers of six major rivers: Black River, Great River, Martha Brae, Rio Bueno, Montego River, and Hector’s River. These rivers are the major sources of water for the parishes of St Elizabeth, Hanover, Trelawny and St James.

We are told we only have about 30 years of bauxite left, and after that it will all be gone. But we want Jamaicans to be able to live in western Jamaica for the next 200, 500, 1,000 years. If we destroy the water-harvesting ability of the Cockpit Country in the process of extracting a few hundred tons of bauxite, this could reduce the quality of life in western Jamaica forever. Is it worth it? A cost-benefit analysis will reveal that it is decidedly not worth it!

Mandeville sits on thousands of tons of bauxite. Why don’t we just move Mandeville to get at the valuable ore beneath? Because it would cause too much visible dislocation. Mining in Mandeville is unthinkable!

TREMENDOUS DISLOCATION

But destroying the Cockpit Country will also cause tremendous dislocation, and should also be unthinkable. In addition to damaging the complex (and not-well-understood) underground aquifers below the cockpits, stripping away the surface topsoil to get at the subsurface bauxite will destroy thousands of acres of wet limestone forest cover.

The Cockpit Country is Jamaica’s most important refuge for endemic plants and animals; over 100 endemic species of plants are found here (and nowhere else in the world), some restricted to a single hillock. Over 500 species of ferns can be found, more than any other rainforest in the tropics.

The Cockpit Country is a large feeding and nesting area for some 79 species of birds, 22 species of reptiles, 16 species of amphibians, and the largest butterfly in the world [the extremely rare and elusive Giant Swallowtail Butterfly ( Papilio homerus), with a wingspan of six inches]. There are areas yet undisturbed, and more species are being discovered.

The stakes are high. Patriotic Jamaicans want our island to be habitable by humankind for centuries to come – and also by these species which have been here longer than any humans.

And where exactly is the Cockpit Country? The Government contracted the University of the West Indies (UWI) to do a study to determine the boundaries! And then promptly ignored their findings when they recommended that some areas with good bauxite deposits are in the Cockpit Country and therefore should be closed to mining.

I was in Gordon House when the prime minister announced the creation of the Cockpit Country Protected Area, which omits extensive areas of the Cockpit Country which contain bauxite. And I criticised it at the time.

And so the government has decided that there WILL be mining in the Cockpit Country, but no mining in the Cockpit Country Protected Area (CCPA); make sure you understand that distinction. Except for a few pockets, the relatively small CCPA has no bauxite worth mining.

I believe that the Government has broken its solemn promise to the people of Jamaica.

Peter Espeut is an environmentalist and a development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com