Sophia Frazer-Binns | Stronger environmental action needed
The residents on the banks of the Rio Cobre have once again become the latest victims of the country’s bauxite operations.
The recent incident in which effluence was discharged from Windalco into the Rio Cobre causing a large fish kill must wake all of us up.
While the image of hundreds and hundreds of dead fish was disturbing, less obvious is the harm being done to our local biodiversity, and the livelihoods of residents of Kent Village and surrounding communities who rely on the river for subsistence. This latest environmental disaster joins countless other long-standing issues caused by bauxite mining, such as air pollution, deforestation and land degradation.
Jamaica is long overdue for a stronger environmental policies and laws. It is for this reason that last year, I moved a motion in the Senate asking for a joint select committee to review the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) Act. While there have been some discussions, to date the motion has not been debated.
With another environmental disaster, we must act now and demand better laws and frameworks to protect our land, our people and our future.
The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) is the Government’s chief agency charged with enforcing environmental management and conservation.
It was established to provide technical and administrative functions under “the Natural Resources & Conservation Authority (NRCA), the Town & Country Planning Authority (TCPA), and the Land Development & Utilisation Commission (LDUC)”.
NEPA grants environmental permits for the use of our natural resources as well as general overseeing of other activities involving our natural resources. The NRCA, through NEPA, has a duty to keep extraction activities in check. However, with negligible fines, outdated legislation and weak enforcement, the NRCA has not been able to police extraction activities in a satisfactory way.
The motion I tabled last year proposed a review of the act, strengthening the authority of NRCA/NEPA and broadening its enforcement powers.
The amendments would seek to inter alia:
• Mandate an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) from every company/entity seeking to use our natural resources;
• Mandate ongoing environmental monitoring, evaluation, and reporting as part of their operations;
• Strengthen and legislate regulations providing guidelines on how the EIAs are to be undertaken;
• Increase fines for operations that breach the laws and regulations.
An effective NRCA/NEPA would prevent the disasters that threaten the Rio Cobre among other natural resources and the livelihood of so many.
Jamaica is at risk of becoming a case study for the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, where the harvesting of natural resources with little to no oversight results in large-scale environmental problems.
Popular case studies of the tragedy include the 1992 collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod fishery, the continued deforestation of the Amazon, the 2010 drying up of the Aral Sea as a result of irrigation measures, and of course climate change caused by the continued emission of greenhouse gases. Each case has had far-reaching negative impacts on the socio-economic fabric of the communities affected.
These major disasters were primarily caused by insufficient action from the Government to support sustainability of extraction processes through strong governance, enforcement and monitoring. Too many communities, nations, and regions have seen their version of the Tragedy of the Commons.
We must strive to ensure that Jamaica does not become a Caribbean example.
For too long we have received assurances that resource extraction operations would benefit our communities, and while we can look at economic performance, we have consistently failed to truly assess the environmental impact.
STRONG POLICIES FOR STRONG ACTION
The fish kill in Rio Cobre should signal a shift in how we interact with our natural resources and the economy. While the bauxite industry continues to be a main plank of the Jamaican economy, there is no reason why it should not have to adhere to much stronger environmental, social and governance (ESG) measures.
The economy should benefit the people, not compromise them.
As such, stronger policies must be enacted to ensure that adverse environmental occurrences from bauxite mining or any exploitation of our natural resources in sensitive areas such as the Rio Cobre, Cockpit Country, do not continue.
A stronger NRCA would be more effective at protecting our water, air, land, and our rights.
While we wait for stronger and more modern legislation, the NEPA must utilise existing laws to reinforce its responsibility to the protection of the environment.
Minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Matthew Samuda, during a visit to the Rio Cobre, echoed the call for stronger environmental protection. The time has come to follow through.
However, in the quest to amend the NRCA Act, the Government should be cautioned about confining the discussions on the amendments within the halls of Jamaica House or Dominica Drive. Such a critical piece of legislation must at a minimum have the input of stakeholders and a full examination by a joint select committee of Parliament.
Minister Samuda wrote an op ed earlier this year which called for cross-Caribbean collaboration on biodiversity protection: “Our Caribbean nations are only as strong as the environment they rely on.”
The call to action is clear!
We must urgently amend and unify our many pieces of environmental legislation. Presently, environmental protection spans several different government ministries, departments and agencies, each administering different pieces of legislation, for example: Mining and Quarrying is done under the Mining Act of 1947 and the Quarries Control Act of 1984, these are regulated by the Mines and Geology Division, which falls under the Ministry of Transport and Mining. Environmental standards should be increased and uncompromising. Strong actions need to be taken now to ensure our communities, present and future, remain strong. More protection, stricter monitoring, higher fines must be the future of all environmental policies and laws.
Let this incident at Rio Cobre be the last of its kind.
“Our communities are only as strong as the environment they rely on.” Let us ensure that we do everything in our power to promote a healthy, productive environment on land and at sea.
Sophia Frazer-Binns is a senator, an attorney-at law and the opposition spokesperson on land, environment and climate change. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.