In Real Life, as in Fiction, Jamaica’s Future Depends on Agriculture, Not Bauxite

In my book, “Hill-an’-Gully Rider,” I have the Prime Minister resisting the efforts of bauxite companies to invade his fictional Caribbean island. Despite the wealthy companies’ efforts – including political machinations and even violence – the Prime Minister succeeds in protecting the island and eventually reaps great rewards through pursuing a policy of environmental preservation and innovation.

My intention was to show how Jamaica might have fared if its leaders had not yielded to the allure of bauxite and sacrificed the island’s natural beauty to the ravages of strip mining. Bauxite brought short-term benefits – desperately needed jobs and government revenue – but at the cost of devastating long-term ecological and economic damage.

To be fair, it is easy to be wise in retrospect. Jamaica’s leaders at the time could not see into the future, and the immediate rewards of bauxite mining were too tempting to resist. But now, two generations later, the island is reaping the bitter fruit of bauxite’s poisonous seeds.

In a recent town hall meeting in Mandeville, Prime Minister Bruce Golding said that the Government would have to reposition ownership of the country’s bauxite/alumina operations, in addition to addressing problems such as energy and technology, before revival of the industry would be possible.

“What is there now does not offer us any assurance and any security for the future,” he said.

I hope the Prime Minister is not considering investment of Jamaica’s scarce resources in an attempt to revive the bauxite industry. There are far better ways to energize the island’s economy.

In “Hill-an’-Gully Rider,” the Prime Minister and his closest advisers are smart enough to realize “bauxite is nothing more than red dirt, and occurs almost everywhere in the tropics.” They knew that the mining companies could always find bauxite elsewhere, and would not hesitate to pull up stakes if the government did not yield to their every demand. They realized also that bauxite is a finite resource, and once it was used up, the island would be left with vast areas ravaged by the strip miners.

They foresaw that bauxite companies would “pollute the coastline with their conveyor belts, storage tanks, freighters and dump trucks.” And they recognized that the island’s beaches “are our biggest asset as far as tourists are concerned.”

In the book, the fictional island’s government turns instead to specialized agriculture and food processing for economic development – with dramatic results. So, I was very gratified to read on the Jamaica Information Service web site that the real-life Minister of Finance and the Public Sector, Audley Shaw, “has proposed food processing as an alternative to the disabled bauxite/alumina industry as a major foreign exchange earner.”

“The implosion we have had with the bauxite industry is a wake up call for all of us,” Mr. Shaw said at the town hall meeting in Mandeville. “Alternative replacement industries must now be found. We will look at, the whole processed foods industry. It is an industry that is just waiting to multiply. It is an industry that has the capacity for growth, that we are not even able to adequately measure.”

Mr. Shaw said that he has been told by people in the industry that, with help with retooling, and assistance for others to come on board, in a few years exports of processed foods could reach, at least, ten times what is now being exported.

“We could start by exporting just four times more, which would move us from US$250 million to US$1 billion per year, because the market is there,” the Minister said. “We have a Jamaican diaspora out there that is hungry for our ethnic food. The diaspora is as big as the population of Jamaica, and we have the wider diaspora of the Caribbean out there. Millions of people, and they can’t get enough of what we are producing.”

According to the JIS news item, the crowd at the town hall meeting applauded enthusiastically. I would like to add my own applause. Well said, Mr. Shaw. The characters in “Hill-an’-Gully Rider” would be proud of you!