Editorial | Mr Green’s job in mining
Floyd Green is hitting the right notes at the start of his ministerial oversight to the mining sector.
He has promised to engage the industry’s “stakeholders”, including environmental campaigners who are concerned about the effects of mining, to determine how the industry might be strengthened. Regulatory agencies, of course, will be part of this conversation.
What these discussions must not become are public-relations exercises aimed at burnishing Mr Green’s image for inclusiveness, without dealing with the many real concerns about mining, especially of bauxite, and its refining to alumina. If indeed Mr Green is genuine about seeking a national partnership, and, ultimately, a reset of the mining sector, he has to be prepared for frank discussions, which might be difficult.
Several minerals are mined in Jamaica, including limestone – of which there are large deposits – and sand aggregates for the construction industry. There is also some granite, the export of which, like limestone, the Government hopes to expand.
However, despite declining reserves and the suspension of operations by some producers, bauxite, and its mining into alumina, are at the heart of Jamaica’s mining industry. Depending on whose estimates are used, there are enough bauxite reserves in the island to keep the industry going for another three decades, or up to 100 years.
Increasingly, though, there are complaints about the impact of bauxite mining on communities, and the behaviour of the companies who mine the mineral and run the alumina refineries. Some campaigners call for the industry to be shut down.
An example of these tensions are two cases currently in Jamaica’s courts seeking to have the Government withdraw recent bauxite mining licences. In one matter ,the complaint by some members of one community is of long-standing impairment of their health from mining. In another, the argument turns, in part, on concerns that mining will take place too close to the ecological sensitive Cockpit Country, a mountainous karstic region in the island’s north.
Additionally, communities have blamed a series of fish kills in the Rio Cobre, a north-south flowing river in the island’s south central region, on the discharge of effluent of other chemicals from a nearby alumina refinery.
These tensions are exacerbated by Jamaica’s relatively small size and the fact that open-cast mining often takes place near communities, which often requires the relocation of residents and the disruption of their farms. Not infrequently, companies are accused of failing to return mined-out lands to their original condition, as they are obligated to do.
While the industry provides relatively high-paying jobs and towns around bauxite/alumina facilities tend to thrive, communities tend to feel that they get too little from a resource that is in their backyards, especially for the price they pay for its extraction.
This newspaper, like Mr Green, doesn’t support the calls for the closure of the industry. Even with the dip in earnings in recent years, as plants have been mothballed or temporarily closed for economic and technical reasons, the proponents of an end to bauxite mining have offered no credible alternatives for the estimated US$500 million in gross earnings from the sector.
OPEN GENUINE DIALOGUE
Which, in part, is why we urged Mr Green’s predecessor, Audley Shaw, to open genuine dialogue with stakeholders to thrash out the issues, leading to a reset of the industry. And it is the backdrop against which we welcome Mr Green’s promise to engage stakeholders, including “environmentalists to see what the challenges are and how we can craft a mining sector that continues to bring in significant resources, but in a way that is not to the detriment of our communities”.
Mr Green starts with a significant advantage. While people in the communities where the industry operates are often disenchanted with behaviour of the companies, they don’t necessarily want, as the Jamaica Environment Trust, a leading campaigner against the industry conceded, to see the back of bauxite and alumina.
Mr Green’s major challenge, therefore, is to rebuild trust, and ensure a regulatory regime that, insofar as possible, limits the effects of mining, bauxite or otherwise, on communities.
That requires more than “speak[ing] to our internal agencies who act as regulators”, which Mr Green promises to do. These agencies must be accountable and their activities must be transparent. Theirs mustn’t be crony relationships with the industries they regulate.
With their refreshed mandate, Mr Green might consider new oversight mechanisms for the regulators, including adding non-executive/independent members, with specialist skills, to certain of their oversight committees. They should also be required to periodically publicly report on their regulatory activities.
Additionally, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute must be rescued and relaunched as a transparent policy/research agency, to which the public can look for data and analysis about the economics and other trends in the industry – domestic and international.