Thu | Aug 22, 2019

Esther Figueroa | Cockpit Country still under threat from bauxite mining

Published:Sunday | July 28, 2019 | 12:26 AMEsther Figueroa - Guest Columnist

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong ­became the first human to walk on the surface of that beautiful celestial orb we watch wax and wane from our home Planet Earth.

On July 22, 2019, there was a protest rally in Albert Town, Trelawny against the imminent threat of bauxite mining in the Cockpit Country. Though 50 years apart, the moon landing and the protest rally are connected. To get to the moon was a remarkable feat that required immense sacrifice: the lives that were lost in previous missions, those who dedicated countless hours to solving the many challenges, but also the sacrifices of people and places not often thought of when one thinks about the United States’ shining moment of greatness.

The Apollo 11 capsule was primarily constructed of ­aluminum which is made from bauxite, the rich red soil strip mined and shipped out of South America and the Caribbean for over 100 years. Jamaica was the world’s largest producer of bauxite when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. By 1969, the powerful ­multinational aluminum ­companies in Jamaica had accumulated huge amounts of land, and tens of thousands of rural Jamaicans were ­displaced, resettling in ­expanding urban centres like Browns Town, Mandeville and Kingston or migrating to the UK and North America.

NO EXIT PLAN

Jamaica has exported bauxite and processed alumina for almost 70 years, and new 30 year mining leases awarded or pending would project Jamaica into at least a ­century of extraction. The ­aluminum industry in Jamaica has never properly invested in the communities most affected by the industry, nor is there a sovereign wealth fund that would create social capital and multiply the gains for present and future generations, nor is there an exit plan. Instead we are hell bent on extracting the last ton of bauxite without the slightest notion of “then what?”

Jamaican governments administered by both ­parties are addicted to the macro-­economic optics, revenues, and foreign-­exchange garnered in boom and bust and therefore committed to the industry at ALL costs. These costs include ecocide, ­deforestation, water, air and soil pollution, ill health of residents especially of persons living within a 10-mile radius of extraction and ­processing, the destruction and ­displacement of intact, self-­sufficient rural communities and the loss of local agricultural ­production and the way of life associated with such communities.

Jamaica imports over 80 per cent of its food, and so, ­agriculture ministers implore us to “grow what we eat and eat what we grow,” but you can’t keep destroying fertile land, displacing and impoverishing those who grow the food and expect to have food security.

DEMAND FOR PROTECTION

In Albert Town, surrounded by the immensely productive yam belt, on Monday July 22 there was a ­day-long rally spearheaded by the newly-formed Cockpit Country Warriors in association with South Trelawny Environmental Agency. The rally educated the public about the threats of extraction, called for no bauxite mining, and against Special Mining Lease 173.The Maroons came out in force from across Jamaica, including Maroon leader Gaa’man Gloria Simms, Maroon colonels, leaders, elders, cultural practitioners and community members. The Maroon drumming and singing called the ancestors into the space and made it sacred. Their message was very ­simple: All of the Cockpit Country is Maroon Country and all of Cockpit Country must be ­protected from mining.

This stand against bauxite mining is part of renewed ­activism and community organising in response to the aggressively expanding bauxite mining currently affecting communities in Western St Ann. 2017 Special Mining Lease 172 grants Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partnership (51 per cent owned by the Government of Jamaica) rights to mine westward into Cockpit Country. Communities such as Gibraltar, Madras, and Endeavor, which have for years been trying to stop mining from coming into their communities are now being mined.

Even more alarming is Special Mining Lease 173 which would allow Noranda to mine an even larger portion of Cockpit Country. This lease is currently in the typically bogus Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, whereby mercenary ­scientists declare that the environment was degraded to begin with, that any negative impacts will be easily mitigated, and that mining activities will be an economic bonanza for the communities which are to be mined. The EIA process, however, does require community consultation, so recent ­public meetings about the ­mining plans alerted ­communities to the imminent threat of mining and the need to urgently organise against SML 173. And so, the protests have begun.

In 2007, in response to activism against proposed mining leases in Cockpit Country, the Government announced that there would be no mining there, but that the boundaries of Cockpit Country had to be first defined. What followed over about 10 years was a high stakes political game of studies, public consultations and lots of meetings with technocrats and “stakeholders.”

Eventually on November 21, 2017, Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared in parliament that approximately 74,726 hectares had been demarcated as the Designated Cockpit Country Protected Area. It is important to note that this area is actually not legally protected yet because before it can become law the boundary has to be “ground truthed”, which means walking the boundary and adjusting the ­proposed boundaries based on ­various factors. The CCPA is the smallest of all of the boundaries that were proposed by stake­holders. It protects almost all the mining interests by leaving the areas most wanted by the ­bauxite industry open to mining, while also allowing ­mining right up to the boundary with no buffer protective zone. Many important ecosystems, rivers, watersheds and communities have been left out of the protected area.

On July 23, 2019, Minister Daryl Vaz launched Jamaica’s participation in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a project to protect our forests. Yet this very same government is expanding bauxite mining into Cockpit Country, our most pristine and important original forests that provide clean air, cooling temperatures, attract rainfall, sequester carbon and are home to immense biological diversity.

When I was in Ulster Spring on May 27 for the Noranda EIA public meeting for SML 173, I looked out at the most perfect of Cockpit Country mountains, the unique conical shape completely covered in trees, and when I imagined that mountain butchered by bauxite mining my heart fell into the depths of despair. Strip mining is never good for the environment and it is never sustainable development. In a time of climate crisis with record high temperatures, unpredictable weather with long droughts and catastrophic storms, it is stupidly suicidal to be cutting down our trees and polluting and depleting our soil and water. All of Cockpit Country must be protected not just the Designated Cockpit Country Protected Area. We must not allow Special Mining Lease 173 to be granted.

Esther Figueroa, Ph.D. is an activist independent filmmaker who has been an integral part of the movement to protect Cockpit Country. Her films include Cockpit Country – Voices from Jamaica’s Heart and Cockpit Country Is Our Home. Her most recent feature documentary Fly Me To The Moon (to be released later this year) is about aluminum, modernity, the political economy of our material culture and consumption, and is a call for us to stop destroying the natural world that we all depend upon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mediavagabond@gmail.com