Tue | May 24, 2022

Diana McCaulay | On choosing not to know: The bauxite-alumina industry in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | March 13, 2022 | 12:06 AM

Farmers in Berry Hill, Manchester plant potatoes on reclaimed land.
Farmers in Berry Hill, Manchester plant potatoes on reclaimed land.
Diana McCaulay
Diana McCaulay
Wensett Brown, otherwise called ‘King’, a 50-year-old farmer from Comfort Hall, located in the Cockpit Country, Trelawny. He and other yam farmers are concerned about the potential danger of bauxite mining to the Cockpit Country.
Wensett Brown, otherwise called ‘King’, a 50-year-old farmer from Comfort Hall, located in the Cockpit Country, Trelawny. He and other yam farmers are concerned about the potential danger of bauxite mining to the Cockpit Country.
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For more than a decade during my time at Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), we received complaints from Jamaicans who lived in the proximity of the bauxite industry, either mining or processing facilities, regarding adverse impacts on their health and livelihoods. They described the loss of community connections due to displacement; unfulfilled promises of reclamation of mined-out pits and provision of titles; harm to their quality of life and health from noise, dust, bad smells and emissions; damage to roofs and catchments for domestic water supplies; and inadequate and arbitrary compensation from the bauxite companies.

Overwhelmingly, they believed that although there were benefits generated by the industry, these were not shared fairly with the affected communities. Many who spoke to JET benefited from bauxite mining through direct or indirect employment. 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.

JET also observed resistance from the Government of Jamaica and the companies themselves to these complaints. Dust was said to come from many sources. Those seeking compensation were described as ‘living too far away’ to be affected, or their allegations of sickness were deemed untrue and framed as efforts to secure funds. Reclamation of mined-out areas was described as over 80 per cent completed. And the effects of dust or noise were either denied outright or said to be occasional and most worryingly, within air-quality standards.

JET tried to discover whether the GOJ had ever done a health-impact study on those who live close to the bauxite industry. They learned that a single study was done in 2008 in relation to the expansion of the JAMALCO plant in Clarendon, but no state agency contacted was able to locate a copy.

This dearth of information led JET to commission a multidisciplinary review of the bauxite-alumina industry in Jamaica titled RED DIRT, which was released in December 2020. Given the varied impacts of the industry, JET contracted seven authors, all experts in their field, to describe and interrogate bauxite’s history, regulatory framework, impacts on public health, society and ecological heritage, and social costs imposed by the industry on Jamaicans.

RELIED HEAVILY ON ATI ACT

JET was guided by the authors on the data they needed and relied heavily on the Access to Information (ATI) Act. During the research period in 2020, JET made 27 requests to five government agencies – the National Environment and Planning Agency, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute, the Mines and Geology Division, the Ministry of Transport and Mining, and the Ministry of Health and Wellness. Only four of those requests were fulfilled in the 30-day period prescribed by the Act. Fifteen were eventually complied with. At RED DIRT’s publication deadline, 12 requests remained outstanding and seven requests for internal review were never responded to. Strong resistance came from the JBI, including threats of legal action, which was not overcome by letters to the prime minister or the Ministry of Transport and Mining. The minister of health and wellness had to intervene to get JET access to the health study, which was eventually received without the appendices. Some ATI responses were incomplete or raised further questions. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in other obstacles as person-to-person meetings were restricted.

Many public documents, such as permits, licences, and memoranda of understanding, which could and should have been proactively disclosed on websites, had to be the subject of ATI requests.

In short, JET learned that there are formidable obstacles put in the way of any member of the public getting information, and the RED DIRT study concluded that there was a considerable lack of transparency regarding the bauxite-alumina industry.

DATA GAPS

Each chapter of RED DIRT described a range of data gaps. For example, data were not found on the numbers of people displaced or relocated or the extent of population decline in rural areas as a direct result of bauxite mining. JET was not provided with boundary data for ore bodies, so it was difficult to verify industry claims about the extent of rehabilitation of mined-out pits. The data were particularly deficient with regard to impacts on rural communities whose inhabitants were adamant that the industry has inflicted long-lasting damage on small farmers, their culture, their livelihoods, and their wish for self-reliance. Moreover, some online data sets, for example, on water quality, were 20 years out of date. RED DIRT was unable to state whether the data did not exist or simply were not provided, and given the absence of important information, the study was not able to assess the full impact of the industry.

Efforts to assess management and mitigation measures showed other failings. For example, a so-called National Restoration Committee was not established until 2009, fifty-seven years after the industry began. Although it was understood that the requirements for rehabilitation of mined-out pits were in urgent need of improvement, at the time of RED DIRT’s publication, this committee had not met since 2016. The regulatory and legal framework for the industry was not fully in place until 2015.

Communities did express gratitude for the benefits provided by the bauxite companies – particularly in education, support for certain small businesses, playing fields, and greenhouses in some areas - but JET found that no serious effort had been made to compare what had been gained to that which was lost.

Over the almost 70 years of its operation, JET could not find any rigorous attempt to quantify or compare the benefits and costs of the bauxite industry in Jamaica. 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.

- Diana McCaulay is an environmental activist, founder, and former CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET). This is the first in a series of articles by the authors of RED DIRT, a review of the bauxite-alumina industry, which was commissioned by the JET. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com