Sun | Dec 4, 2022

Lance Neita | Bauxite industry’s resilience important to Jamaica’s post-COVID-19 recovery

Published:Sunday | September 25, 2022 | 12:10 AM
Noranda Jamaica Bauxite, Discovery Bay, St Ann.
Noranda Jamaica Bauxite, Discovery Bay, St Ann.
Lance Neita
Lance Neita
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I was privileged to be a part of a Labour Day project that planted a remarkable 15,100 trees on May 23 in the heart of Discovery Bauxite’s mining area in the hills of St Ann.

Discovery Bauxite will now be the new name of the bauxite company located in St Ann and formerly known as Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partners 11.

With its recent acquisition by Mark Hansen’s Concord Resources on July 14, 2021, the company undertook to make the name change both as “a tribute to our home in Discovery Bay, Jamaica, as well as the bauxite roots that are fundamental to alumina and aluminium”.

The company’s Vice President & Country Manager, Westmoreland-born Delroy Dell, who led the tree-planting teams, said the project was selected in support of the prime minister’s National Tree Planting Programme.

This was certainly one of the largest Labour Day activities to take place in Jamaica over many years, and for those like myself who can remember the first ‘put work into Labour Day of 1972’, there was nothing missing in the hard work and purposeful experience enjoyed on May 23 this year.

FAR REMOVED

The picture being painted today of bauxite community relationships gone sour as portrayed by the very active anti-mining lobby seemed far removed from the camaraderie and teamwork between company employees and community that fanned out over the St Ann countryside.

The perpetrators of the anti-mining campaign are unaware that despite the current offensive against the industry there is a strong bond between bauxite employees and their neighbouring communities.

Let’s face it, the industry has grown up with almost three generations of Jamaicans, and there are strong ties, cultural and historical, that have bonded the company with their host communities.

Those thousands of Jamaicans who have worked in the industry and contributed much to Jamaica’s social and economic development over 70 years can speak to the close relationships developed that opened the door to opportunities for collaborative programmes in education, agriculture, health, community development, and mutual respect.

The drawback to this, of course, is the industry’s proximity to populated areas which creates occasional conflicts arising from perceived environmental effects. Allegations also constantly surface that the companies do not place enough attention to nor credence on community complaints.

Over the years the industry and the Jamaica Bauxite Institute have tried to settle and seek solutions to these and other grievances primarily through regular meetings of joint company/community councils established in the 1980s.

What is less known, but should be made known, are the elaborate steps and considerable expense taken, including modern control technology to drive environment protection. These include dust suppression, ambient air monitoring, wetting of haul roads, land reclamation, specific plant protection, protection of forest reserves and heritage sites, free water distribution in communities and to public institutions, as well as the noted economic and social partnerships and investments in community development.

BENEFITS WELL CHRONICLED

The benefits of income and employment generation offered by the industry are also well chronicled.

It is not too surprising, therefore, that according to a recent Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) publication labelled Red Dirt (should have been Red Gold), people did not want the industry to close down, but would want their livelihoods to continue without the health of their children compromised.

It is to the industry’s credit that communities so diverse and independent and short of obligatory government resources maintain a critical but supportive attitude that recognises the importance of bauxite to the country.

I make the point as the bauxite industry and the Government are obviously not unmindful of the concerns over mining in and around the Cockpit Country, which is where the argument inevitably starts.

Unfortunately and irrationally, based on some of the strident arguments led by the lobbyists, conclusions are already being drawn that the bauxite industry is dying.

I am reminded of this constantly when I see published predictions of its imminent demise. But hold the plans for the wake. The industry, admittedly facing challenging circumstances both here and abroad, has weathered the cyclical nature of its markets and other external forces often enough to remain one of our major foreign exchange earners.

The late industry veteran B.J. Foster who spent 51 years at the top of the industry as facilities design, production and maintenance expert and who was pivotal to the operations of Kaiser, Alpart and the St Ann operations in Jamaica, in an interview with The Gleaner published in July last year, said he did not subscribe to the view that the local industry is on the decline.

“Available bauxite deposits run in several million tonnes, enough to last well into the future,” he told Medley, “so long as it is mined in an environmental manner.”

Foster, who died on July 4 this year, was one of those practitioners who always urged an even-handed view to mining when a country’s economic future is in the balance, and constantly reminded that mining activity is not a standalone, as in Jamaica in particular, the mining exercise includes the restoration of land to productive uses after mining, as well as taking into consideration all environmental conditions and possible effects while in the pre-planning stage.

Mark you, the great recession of 2008-09 was a caustic blow for the industry. When Windalco and Alpart closed in 2009, thousands across that region were left hurt by the loss of jobs, social services, spin-off industries, and nowhere to go.

Recessions have taken their toll on the industry. Recessions led to the closure and departure of Reynolds on February 28, 1984, and the departure of Alcoa February 6, 1985 (it returned in 1988). Revere had long before closed its shutters on August 19, 1975. Alpart also closed its doors in 1985, but reopened in 1989, and again closed in 2009.

St Ann, too, had its fair share of concern in 2016 as the fate of its bauxite company hung in the balance and the parish geared itself to face life without bauxite.

PREMIER REVENUE EARNER

For many years, bauxite had held sway as the premier revenue earner, not only for the country, but for the local communities and the parishes that hosted the companies. But with the plant closures came loss of jobs, children dropping out of school, manufacturing grinding to a halt, utility bills under threat, medical bills to pay, surges in crime, and the other painful circumstances created by major industrial or commercial decline.

So who wants out?

The industry’s future has been called into question in the past but it has always proven to be ‘a hard man fi ded’.

For sure it has been a bit of a wild ride. Jamaica was the world’s foremost bauxite producer from 1957 to 1971. That position, of course, slipped badly as we fell down the global index. A vibrant industry firing on all cylinders today would be pumping millions more into the economy.

But hopes are pinned on the reopening of the Jamalco plant perhaps by November this year, and the reopening of Alpart, date of which remains under a cloud.

It is notable that in this year’s Budget, without calculating levy earnings, without any certainty of a full Jamalco resumption, and without any certainty of posting of an Alpart resumption, the Government expects to pull in just under $1 billion from the industry.

The fact remains that employment and income rest heavily on the shoulders of an industry that easily outdistances other proposed mega projects in terms of stability and track record. Consider that the logistics hub has been floating around for years without getting off the ground, while the much-heralded ganja industry still remains firmly planted in the ground.

Yet the industry soldiers on. Jamaica’s bauxite and alumina industry continues to play an important role in the country’s economic and social development and is one of the few industries that remained up and running during the full-blown COVID-19 pandemic.

As Prince Buster sang in 1966, “Dem seh, the cat’s got nine life, But this man has got ninety-nine life, Cause dem pick him up, yu lick him down, him bounce right back, what a hard man fe ded.”

Lance Neita is a freelance writer and author of the book In Partnership With Jamaica - the story of KAISER Aluminum’s 50-year Partnership with Jamaica. Send feedback to lanceneita@hotmail.com