Mon | Sep 26, 2022

Editorial | The great bauxite reset

Published:Thursday | August 11, 2022 | 12:09 AM

Having offered the appropriate words, it is now for Audley Shaw, the mining minister, to take the practical steps for a reset of the bauxite/alumina industry, with less hostility, if not full embrace, from environmentalists. Mr Shaw’s next move must be an all-parties dialogue.

Bauxite has been mined in Jamaica for 70 years, and alumina refined for over half a century. Depending on whose figures you use, and the analytical method employed, there is enough good grade for the industry to last another 30 years. Or perhaps 50. Or even 100.

Some environmentalists, though, would be happy to see the industry’s back today. That is not necessarily the position of host communities. They want the industry to behave more responsibly and for their regions to receive more, and more direct benefits from the bauxite mined in the communities. This newspaper, broadly, is in the latter camp.

However, incidents like last week’s fish kill in the Rio Cobre, blamed on an alleged discharge of effluent into the river by UC Rusal’s WINDALCO alumina refinery, lend to negative perceptions of the industry and give succour to its critics, which include the independent Jamaica Environment Trust (JET).

Earlier this year, JET published a compendium of analyses of the sector. Its overarching conclusion was that the industry is poorly regulated and unaccountable, with insufficient data being publicly available to assess the real value of bauxite’s contribution to the national economy and communities, relative to the social, health and other damage it has caused.

“It is difficult not to conclude that the value of the industry to our economy has become merely an article of faith, rather than a position informed by recent data or objective analysis,” JET’s chairman, Diana McCaulay, said in an article in this newspaper.

Yet, Ms McCaulay conceded that despite their complaints about health, the failure of companies, contrary to their obligations, to properly reclaim mined-out lands and a general arrogance by the companies in their dealings with communities, people who live close to bauxite mines and refineries largely welcomed their existence. “They did not want the industry to close down, but they wanted their rural livelihoods to continue and not have their health or the health of their children compromised,” said Ms McCaulay.

The bottom line is that even now, with one alumina refinery out of production because of fire damage and another in long-term mothball, the people who work in the industry have good-paying jobs, and communities where the facilities are generally thrive. Additionally, even in recent years when the Government earned little from the bauxite production levy – an above-the-line tax charged on the industry – bauxite contributed significantly to Jamaica’s foreign exchange earnings by way of the monies remitted by the firms to meet domestic expenses. Rising demand and prices for alumina and aluminium will enhance those inflows, as well as earnings from the levy.

The issue for Mr Shaw now is how to ensure an economically viable and environmentally responsible industry when diminishing bauxite reserves will push mining closer to population centres, or to the periphery of ecologically sensitive regions such as the Cockpit Country, portions of which – environmentalists say not enough – are protected.

Last week, Mr Shaw made an important first step to resolving these questions with a pledge of policy responsibility.

“I want to assure the country,” the minister said, “that even as we continue to mine for bauxite, we will pay even more attention to environmental issues. We will make sure that we do what we have to do to protect the environment, and that we have proper land reclamation, so that our farmers will still be able to use our land, and so on.”

Added the minister: “We can work together. I say to the environmentalists, let’s not be enemies, because there are things that we can do to improve how we mine and how we restore our land.”

In government, though, declarations are often conflated with actually doing things. Mr Shaw must not make that mistake. He must strive hard for genuine dialogue between himself and his technocrats, the firms that mine bauxite and refine alumina, community representatives, and the people who are concerned about the effect of the industry’s activities on the environment.

This will not be easy; so if Minister Shaw were serious in his statement, he must be prepared for tough sessions and transparent engagement. The Government must be ready to explain and compromise. The minister can build confidence by filling the data gaps – if the information is available – highlighted by the JET study. If they are not, Mr Shaw must be honest about it and say how he will fix the problem. He must also accelerate plans for a new agency to provide robust oversight of the mining industry. He must also demand transparency from the finance ministry about projected future earnings from the sector, and of how that cash is to be spent.