Sun | Dec 8, 2019

Peter Espeut | A Jamaican Brexit

Published:Friday | November 15, 2019 | 12:45 AM

Last Saturday I attended the world premiere screening of Fly Me to the Moon, the latest product of Jamaican film-maker Esther Figueroa. This very informative documentary on the bauxite industry in India, Suriname and Jamaica showed in living colour the negative social, economic and environmental impacts of both strip-mining and the manufacture of alumina, with its toxic caustic waste. It is a must-see for all Jamaicans who love their country.

Rare until relatively recently, the light but strong aluminium metal allowed the allies to win World War II through superiority in the air, the film shows; post-war, it revolutionised the kitchens of the world, and allowed both the Soviet Union and the United States of America to conquer outer space, and the latter to land humanity on the moon and return to Earth alive.

The extraction of bauxite and the manufacture of alumina and aluminium have made mining, refining and smelting companies wealthy, but after a cost-benefit analysis, have bauxite-rich nations really benefited? The well-attended film premiere exposed the human displacement, disease, distress and environmental degradation caused by bauxite mining in India, Suriname and Jamaica – all in the name of progress and development.

Following the screening were two panel discussions on the future of the bauxite-alumina industry in Jamaica. One of the most enlightening presentations was from Dr Patrece Charles, who, over 20 years ago, studied the effects of bauxite and alumina dust on the health of persons living within six miles of mining and processing facilities at Halse Hall, Clarendon.

I first heard Dr Charles present her findings about 15 years ago; her study of 2,559 people, using rigorous scientific methods, found a connection between bauxite and alumina dust and a significantly elevated incidence of asthma, sinusitis, and allergies among the residents. Treating these conditions is a charge on the public purse, and any cost-benefit analysis must offset these health costs against the country’s earnings from the industry.

Caustic soda mist (highly corrosive sodium hydroxide) destroys zinc and aluminium roofing, laundry hanging on the line, and damages furniture and appliances, in addition to human lungs. These costs are borne by Jamaican householders.

I am sure that when all the costs are totted up, the benefits will fall short – for the nation, and for ordinary Jamaicans.

BAUXITE IS NOT FOREVER!

Knowing these impacts, and all the negatives, successive Jamaican governments have bent over backwards to facilitate the bauxite-alumina industry. History will not absolve them!

With only 30 years of mineable bauxite reserves left (they are not brave enough to propose relocating the whole town of Mandeville), the panellists concluded that we should be in bauxite-exit mode: our own Jamaican Brexit.

Peter Bunting – member of parliament for a bauxite area – proposed that no new prospecting and mining leases should be issued, leading to a total shutdown of the industry.

Wesley Hughes, formerly head of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute, proposed closing all the mines and processing plants, except those associated with JAMALCO in Clarendon.

Bauxite is not forever! Sooner rather than later, bauxite mining and refining in Jamaica will be history. Our economy will have to adjust, and it will, because we Jamaicans are resilient.

Whatever the country might earn from the industry in the next few years will not be much, if anything at all in net terms; and we have a lot to gain from banning bauxite mining now: like those areas of the Cockpit Country in Trelawny and St Ann still in their natural condition.

The trouble is that certain special interests do have a lot to gain from the continuation of mining, like the political parties and persons who might get political donations from the mining companies. Our anti-corruption infrastructure is too miasmic to detect and expose this kind of national betrayal and treason.

More Jamaicans need to see Esther Figueroa’s film, and then take to the streets, if necessary, to bring this rape of Jamaica’s countryside, natural resources and people to an end.

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