Mon | Sep 26, 2022

Alfred Dawes | The Rio Cobre fish kill

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2022 | 12:06 AM

If the speed at which the news of the Rio Cobre fish kill faded from the news cycle is a measure of how serious we are about the environment, our children are in trouble. The land in which we live was not bequeathed to us by our parents but lent to...

If the speed at which the news of the Rio Cobre fish kill faded from the news cycle is a measure of how serious we are about the environment, our children are in trouble. The land in which we live was not bequeathed to us by our parents but lent to us by our children. It is our duty to ensure that we preserve the natural resources and beauty of what was once considered by many as the fairest isle in the Indies. As a reward for his ‘discovery’ of the New World, Christopher Columbus chose no other land in the entire Spanish Empire to be his own personal property, but Jamaica. Yet here we are raping the island of its beauty, for the enrichment of foreign conglomerates and their local, officially- and under-the-table-bought mercenaries.

WINDALCO has denied that they are responsible for the chemical spill that killed hundreds of fish and affected hundreds of fishermen, farmers and households that depend on the Rio Cobre river. The National Water Commission had to shut off its inflows, as the major source of water for five hundred thousand people in St Catherine and St Andrew could have been contaminated. The fish kill is the fifth such incident in five years. We can now add Fish Kill Outrage to our calendar of events. We will not though, because it is poor country people who are being affected.

NOXIOUS FUMES

The residents of Kent Village have suffered not just from the caustic soda in the river, but choke on the noxious fumes that accompany every spill. Before the caustic soda-laden water changes colour and the fish start floating, some are caught by the fishermen and the water is used in households. The residents are only aware that they are in danger when the obvious signs appear; after they have already been exposed. Also worrisome is anecdotal evidence of a higher-than-expected rate of cancer in the village. No studies have been done to verify this claim. Then again, no studies have been done on the water quality on a regular basis or why the fish kills are occurring more frequently. Residents are simply left to collect a paltry sum in payouts, seemingly like a windfall to their poverty-stricken selves, while they continue to be slowly poisoned.

That the local bauxite industry and mining in general are poorly regulated and lack proper oversight is plain for all to see. The repeated discharge of untreated waste into our rivers from unknown sources, leading to recurrent environmental disasters is an inevitability of the status quo. Despite the relentless lobbying of environmental groups, no concrete plans have been put in place to ensure that the disasters seen in mining areas are averted. Instead, the contribution of mining to the GDP has been touted whenever legitimate concerns are raised, as if it is either or. The dust pollution faced by those living close to mining operations and the health issues from which they suffer are dismissed as inconclusive. There is no surveillance of reclamation exercises or any study done to assess the costs of mining in environmental damage and human suffering. Remember the talking points, lads: distract them with the jobs and foreign exchange that mining brings and obfuscate, obfuscate, obfuscate.

Despite proclamations to the contrary at the podium, the mantra of the current administration seems to echo that of the oil industry supporters’ “drill, baby, drill!”. The Dry Harbour Mountains, an ecologically sensitive area, is destined to be mined. The $600 million project has been steeped in controversy since the prime minister overturned the NRCA’s decision to refuse a permit because of the potentially devastating environmental effects. Although he gave assurances that if the conditions of the permit were breached, he would be the first to shut it down, the first breach has been coddled with an extension of the deadline to pay the performance bond. The matter has now been taken to the courts by residents of Discovery Bay who are convinced that the Government is acting in breach of their constitutional rights. Oh, by the way, this company in which we have entrusted one of our most ecologically sensitive areas to run a multimillion US dollar project has registered offices at a shipping company in a Pompano Beach strip mall. The address is shared by several other companies, including one that sells cosmetic lasers.

BAUXITE MINING

The hot topic of bauxite mining in the Cockpit Country was never addressed with mechanisms to strengthen the oversight of the mining industry. Instead, we were gaslighted into believing the matter is merely a debate over the boundaries of the Cockpit Country. It is not! Jamaica has constantly been pillaged by multinational corporations with little regard for the welfare of the people, whether it is by denying us access to our own beaches, to even fresh air. Not every affected community has the financial resources to take the Government to court to force them to protect our rights to a safe environment. We need the Government to do what it was elected to do, serve our interests no matter what our address or title.

Reform of the relevant laws is needed. The glaring conflict of interest that sees the NRCA being housed in a hostile Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation must be remedied with true independence for the environmental oversight body. An independent body must investigate the recurrent fish kills and not members of the establishment who are beholden to the mercenaries. It was external pressure that forced us into fiscal responsibility why our economy is in a better position today. For the sake of our children, I hope external forces order us to protect the environment, because the sons and daughters of the freedom fighters of old honour their memories only in holidays and not in spirit.

Dr Alfred Dawes is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and CEO of Windsor Wellness Centre. Follow him on Twitter @dr_aldawes. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.