Nine Things To Know About The Aluminum Industry In Jamaica - Jamaicans.com
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Nine Things To Know About The Aluminum Industry In Jamaica

Nine Things To Know About The Aluminum Industry In Jamaica

1. WHAT IS ALUMINIUM/ALUMINUM?

Aluminium/Aluminum, Planet Earth’s most abundant metal, is the world’s most widely used non-ferrous metal. It is lightweight, durable, malleable, non corrosive and chemically reactive. Aluminum is the material that made 20th century modernity possible, and being essential to warfare is considered a strategic metal stockpiled by governments who fear its scarcity. The electricity grid, the urban buildings we live and work in, the satellites and gadgets we use to communicate, the way people and goods move from place to place, the power, speed, mobility and conveniences that we take for granted, from the most common ktichen-ware, soda cans and chewing gum wrappers, to hydro-electric dams, fast food franchises, skyscrapers, automobiles, airplanes, aerospace travel, smart phones and nano technology, are all made possible by aluminum, the material that underpins our material culture and our ideas of what it means to be modern.

In the 19th century, Aluminum was considered a rare precious metal and more expensive than gold. This was because although aluminum is extremely common in the Earth’s crust, it never exists in its metallic form but as a chemical compound combined with other minerals. It wasn’t until 1825, when Danish chemist Hans-Christian Oersted developed a process that was able to isolate a few flakes of the metal that extracting the metal became possible. In 1854, French Chemist Henri Sainte-Claire Deville (who interestingly was born in the Caribbean in what was then the Danish colony of St. Thomas) innovated on Oersted’s technique and was able to produce a few kilograms. Aluminum in the form of broaches and buttons became the fashion rage of the French elite, and Emperor Napoleon III, who saw the lightweight potential of aluminum for warfare, gave Deville an unlimited budget to find ways to produce the metal on a larger scale. Then, in 1886, engineers Paul Lois Toussaint Héroult in France and Charles Martin Hall in the USA independently came up with a method using electrolysis, which extracted aluminum from aluminum oxide (alumina), that large quantiles of the metal could be produced. In 1888, Austrian engineer Karl Josef Bayer developed the chemical process that extracts alumina from bauxite, the aluminum ore that is the main source of aluminum metal, and the price of aluminum dropped by over 80%. Thus began the modern era of aluminum manufacturing.

So how did aluminum go from being a very expensive precious metal to a cheap throwaway metal? Despite the fact that aluminum can always be recycled and remanufactured (thus saving a huge amount of energy and stopping new destructive mining from taking place), billions of tons of the metal are thrown away each year in the form of discarded household and electronic items, construction materials, other consumer products, and even discarded aerospace technology endlessly orbiting the globe. The main reason why aluminum is so “cheap” is that aluminum companies have always paid very little for the raw material, i.e. the ore itself. And here Jamaica enters the story.

2. HOW THE INDUSTRY STARTED IN JAMAICA

Bauxite is named after the French village of Les Baux in Provence, where in 1821 French Geologist Pierre Berthier discovered “bauxite” nearby. Bauxite is a sedimentary rock with a high aluminum content. Aluminum, in its various forms and products, is the final stage in a highly energy intensive, greenhouse gas emitting, environmentally harmful industrial process that begins with the mining of bauxite, the principal ore of aluminum. Trees and plants are killed, and fertile soil removed as bauxite is strip-mined, then processed into aluminum oxide (alumina), which is then smelted into aluminum. Each ton of aluminum requires four tons of bauxite, whereby two tons of bauxite are required for one ton of alumina and two tons of alumina are required for one ton of aluminum. The bauxite has to be first washed, strained, baked, and dried into alumina, creating millions of tons of toxic caustic red mud residue. The alumina is then shipped to be smelted in places with cheap electricity. The aluminum industry is intrinsically global, with bauxite extraction for example, in Australia, Guinea, Brazil, Jamaica, Guyana, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Fiji, and smelting in Canada, Australia, USA, China, Russia, Dubai, India, Iceland, Norway. Bauxite has been shipped out of South America and the Caribbean for over one hundred years, first from British and Dutch Guiana (now Guyana and Suriname) and later Haiti and Jamaica.

During World War II, when all countries involved in war were ramping up their aluminum production needed for everything from planes to bombs, Britain, the colonial masters of Jamaica, researched the availability of bauxite in Jamaica and plans were drawn up to begin extraction. In 1943 Alcan, the Canadian multinational aluminum company, incorporated in Jamaica as Jamaica Bauxite limited and shipped 2,500 tons of ore to the USA to test suitability for Bayer processing. The urgency of the search for bauxite in Jamaica was triggered by German U-boats successfully targeting and sinking the ships carrying bauxite from the Guianas to North America for smelting into aluminum. Jamaica was the attractive alternative to the Guianas by being geographically near to North America, with abundant bauxite close to the surface thus easy to extract, and a British colony considered to have a stable, predictable government. But it was the USA’s Korean War declared in 1950, not World War 11, that made Jamaica central to bauxite production for North America, as again war required aluminum in very large quantities. The large vertically integrated multinational aluminum corporations Alcan, Reynolds, Kaiser, and a few years later Alcoa, all set up operations in Jamaica, with major infrastructure investments in roads, ports, railways, equipment, and processing plants. These corporations controlled about 10% of Jamaica’s land and at the time paid a mere shilling a ton – about 20 cents per ton – for bauxite extraction. In 1952, the first shipment of bauxite was exported from Jamaica, and the first batch of alumina was processed in Jamaica. By the 1960s, Jamaica had become the largest producer of bauxite in the world.

Smelting requires 13,500 kWh of electricity per ton of aluminum, more energy than any other metal. Jamaica has never smelted aluminum because the industry requires cheap electricity (usually hydro electric, coal or more recently liquid gas), and Jamaica has relatively high electricity costs. But Jamaica has for almost 70 years exported bauxite and processed alumina. And new mining leases have been awarded for the next 30 years which would project Jamaica into at least a century of extraction.

The large vertically integrated aluminum multinationals left Jamaica long ago. Their discontent began in the 1970s when the Michael Manley government imposed a bauxite levy and other actions aimed at having greater local control over the industry so as to receive more income for the extraction and processing of our “natural resources.” And anyway, being powerful multinationals with subsidiaries all over the world, they always had other options and planned to use them. In time Alcan and Alcoa, aluminum corporations focused on all aspects of the aluminum business, were replaced by the likes of Marc Rich and Glencore, not aluminum companies but commodity traders and vulture capitalists only interested in maximizing short term profits by narrowly focused cheap production and raiding the corporate assets of others, then by UC Rusal, one of the world’s largest aluminum companies that happens to also be founded and controlled by one of Russia’s most notorious oligarchs, and most recently Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO), a China state-owned industrial company new to the aluminum market.

3. WHY THE GOVERNMENT OF JAMAICA IS ADDICTED TO THE INDUSTRY AT ALL COSTS – THE GOOD OLD DAYS

Imagine if you will, the small island of Jamaica in the 1940’s and 1950’s, with a mainly rural population of a bit over a million, with very little “formal” education, most unable to read and write, some living very self sufficient and integrated lives, but those working for wages did so at rates slightly over that which their enslaved ancestors had received. Imagine a small island owned by Britain, an empire in collapse and confusion, ready to get rid of any economic or political burden abroad. An empire that had never really invested much in that island, but had instead extracted great amounts of wealth leaving most of its people materially poor and mentally colonized. Imagine an island with one of the most unequal social divides in the world, whereby those that created the wealth by their labour got nothing after their enslavement but those who extracted the wealth were further enriched. And on this island a small elite is beginning the journey towards political “independence”. On this island there are only a hand full of locals with degrees in subjects like economics, chemistry, engineering.

Into this island come some of the richest and most powerful corporations in the world, with more money, know how, and political clout than the government, the political elite, and the entire population. And these companies in just a few years spend many millions of dollars building roads, ports, railways, processing plants, housing for their staff. And though they don’t pay Jamaicans the same wages as they pay workers back home, still their wages are astronomically higher than the existing wages in sugar, bananas and tourism. And though given the segregation of race and gender, almost no women are hired, and if you are a black Jamaican, for more or less the first two decades, managerial and technical jobs are not open to you, yet being a truck driver, or mechanic or machine operator, or working construction, or loading the ship will pay you enough that if you save your money and invest it well your children will become solidly middle class. And brown and white professional Jamaicans get jobs as scientists, surveyors, managers. lawyers, doctors, public relations, office administrators and live in very nice company homes. And the dream of patriarchal respectability is possible – Daddy goes out to work and provides for his family, while Mommy stays at home and tends to his needs, the house and the children. The 1950’s writ large.

These are vertically integrated multinationals who think long term, they are not here today gone tomorrow, and they, therefore, build institutions like schools for their employees (think Belair in Mandeville) and create new economic opportunities such as huge cattle and dairy farms, and build new communities such as booming Mandeville and Browns Town, at the very same time that they are destroying existing social relationships and long-standing communities. Just like the metal they produce, they represent the glossy glow of modernity – the industrial revolution has come to Jamaica and it is Red Gold Time!

The impact on the Jamaican economy was immense. And though these multinationals were paying very little for extracting bauxite, were exempted from certain import duties and had complex accounting that meant they paid little to no income taxes, going from almost nothing to something meant boom time for the Jamaican economy. In addition, there was very needed foreign exchange coming into the government’s anemic coffers. And so the government immediately started to quickly expand in size, as did political patronage, and not too long after began the steady accumulation of governmental debt. But surely one can forgive anyone who thought this would last forever, and one can understand why each subsequent administration, irrespective of party affiliation, keeps looking to the aluminum industry for that boost that will finally bring us into that shining promise of modernity – first-world status or at least first-world standard of living. The industry hired a lot of people back in its heyday when everything was being constructed and there were various linkages with the local economy. Once up and running, of course, the industry hired fewer people, but at better wages, than the general economy provided, and so the unions that represented those workers jealously guarded their elite worker status and did not see that all workers in Jamaica also benefit from similarly higher wages. But like all commodity-based markets, the aluminum industry is a volatile industry and there is a boom and there is bust. As the industry shrunk and became focused on short term gain rather than long term investment, it hired fewer and fewer people, and mostly as subcontractors who have no guarantees of work and no benefits beyond their temporary salaries.

The government of Jamaica remains addicted to the aluminum industry even though the good old days are long gone. The public relations specialists and apologists for the industry like to talk about all the industry has done for Jamaica, they talk about schools, and roads, and investments, and great rehabilitation of mined out lands and corporate responsibility. But mostly they are talking about the past, and since no one now is getting their land bought and then resettled with a nice little concrete house like back in the 50’s and 60’s, and since very few people anymore feel the benefits of the industry, while many more feel its pain: poor health, displacement, loss of heritage, disenfranchisement, empoverishment, ruined landscapes, polluted air, soil and water – talking about the good old days no longer works with most Jamaicans. But this talk still works with the governments of Jamaica because shouldn’t they be providing roads, and water, and education for their population and not the aluminum industry? Every back-to-school time of year, there are multiple happy happy joy joy pieces in the media about aluminum companies in Jamaica holding back-to-school events, giving out books, uniforms, pens, pencils, but really is it the role of the industry to see that Jamaica’s children can go to school and be educated? When Michael Manley introduced the bauxite Levy in 1973, that money went to providing Jamaicans with a free public education, for many they were the first in their family with the opportunity to graduate from high school or university. But the market conditions were not always favorable, the amount of money received from the industry would always vary wildly and be unpredictable, the bauxite levy money was not properly invested, could too easily be diverted into the government’s general fund, and eventually the levy was adjusted down or waived by all subsequent governments. Manley in defending the levy made the point that the money gained was way more than the total of all foreign aid received over the previous decades. The larger point he was making was that if we had properly managed our resources and gotten the proper price for their extraction we would not need aid, we would be truly economically independent. But this has never been the case. In many communities, water is provided by the aluminum companies from their wells, as are other basic necessities, and the “likkle dust money” members of the empoverished communities get, translates into a high level of dependency and control, because people are afraid to be denied these necessities if they complain, act out, or don’t adhere to the company line of how the industry is good for the communities it is mining and not dangerous to those who live close to the toxic mud lakes and pollution spewing alumina refineries.

The government of Jamaica is addicted to the aluminum industry even though the good old days are long gone, because they are deeply entangled with the industry through debt, co-ownership, partnerships and lease agreements, where they hold the blade rather than the handle. As citizens, residents and diaspora we have no idea what all these agreements are in actuality, what promises and guarantees have been made, what penalties will accrue. What we do know is that each government has subsidized the industry, and as Jamaica’s global role becomes less and less important, the government of Jamaica makes worse and more desperate arrangements, and this is especially the case with companies who are protected under bankruptcy restructuring and/or are threatening to shut down operations or leave.

Though tourism employs many more Jamaicans (about one in ten), is responsible for over 50% of foreign exchange input, and has a larger share of GDP, much of the money in large-scale tourism does not enter or leaks from the economy. In addition, the tourism sector is primarily private sector owned, while the local aluminum industry is partially owned or controlled by the Government of Jamaica, and ultimately it is the Government of Jamaica that fully owns the mineral wealth of the country and companies only lease access to extract it. Therefore, though other sectors of the economy such as tourism, agriculture and most importantly the service sector circulate more widely into the micro economy, it is only the aluminum industry that can provide the government with the sort of economic jolt that can move macro economics from bad to not as bad. This is clearly demonstrated in the Statistical Institute of Jamaica’s 4th Quarter GDP figures for 2018, where the economy supposedly grew by 2%. This growth can be correlated with JISCO bringing Alpart alumina refinery online and the consequent over 25% growth in the mining industry (more below.) And thus hope burns eternal that one day the industry will move macro economics from bad to good. But despite this ability to have a large effect on macro economic statistics, as well as provide needed foreign exchange to the government of Jamaica, the aluminum industry in Jamaica has never properly invested in the communities most affected by the industry, nor do we have a sovereign wealth fund that would have created decades of social capital and multiplied the gains for present and future generations, and there is no exit plan. Instead the government is hell bent on extracting the last ton of bauxite without the slightest consideration of “then what?”

Nine Things To Know About The Aluminum Industry In Jamaica - cockpit-country-jamaica-3

4. FROM BOOM TO BUST IN A NANOSECOND – THE IMPENDING RECESSION & THE CLOSURE OF ALPART

Here we go again! According to TVJ News, on Friday 3 August, over 400 workers showed up at Alpart gates and were told to return home because they no longer had jobs. These Alpart workers, like the vast majority in the industry in Jamaica, are subcontractees with no job security and therefore have no protections against the volatile aluminum industry that goes from boom to bust in a nanosecond. Yet it is jobs and the workers that are always cited by trade unions, pro-industry pundits and the PNP and JLP whether in administration or opposition as to why we must keep the aluminum industry in Jamaica at all costs. Global alumina and aluminum prices are falling, so at the same time as the job layoffs, the government of Jamaica was in secret “delicate” discussions with the aluminum companies about the future of the industry, and we the people of Jamaica were begged our understanding and to not ask pesky questions or make demands. Now we are told that JISCO will be closing the Alpart alumina refinery for an indefinite amount of time causing layoffs for most of the workers. The refinery which has always been energy inefficient is supposedly to be updated and work to upgrade the plant is to start soon.

Jamaica is dependent on the government of China and China state entities such as China Harbour Engineering Company and JISCO, but the economy of China currently embroiled in US President Trump induced trade wars continues to contract and a world recession is being predicted for as early as 2020. Though in the past we have assured ourselves that Jamaica is immune from such realities as economic recessions (some even claimed that the 2008 global economic melt down would benefit us), and currently Government of Jamaica, Bank of Jamaica. IMF officials and think-tankers are assuring us that we are economically “robust” and “resilient,” easily able to withstand a world-wide recession, anyone with any common sense knows otherwise.

One reason why our so-called economic recovery is not as robust as we are boasting is that apart from Jamaica being a country where wealth is not fairly distributed, with stagnant low wages and rising poverty, the current improved GDP and macro economic well being that is Exhibit A of Jamaica’s rise out of the ashes is based on high alumina prices, and Alpart alumina refinery in Nain, St. Elizabeth coming back online late in 2017, with the first cargo of alumina shipped out on December 29, 2017. As mentioned earlier, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica’s Growth Quarterly Gross Domestic Product 4th Quarter 2018, a 2% growth in GDP was achieved in tandem with an increase of 25% in Mining and Quarrying, and increased production of alumina which grew by 12.7%. These figures represent the highest growth rate by far of any sector and correlate with the reopening of Alpart refinery. Nonetheless, again we are assured that the closing of Alpart will not have a detrimental affect on the country’s macro economic well being, but how can that be when you look at the growth chart and see the spike in 2018 that mysteriously coincides with alumina exports from Alpart?

Alumina Partners of Jamaica (Alpart) established in 1969, has an outdated and energy inefficient alumina processing plant that was shut down by UC Rusal in 2009 in response to the 2008 world-wide recession. US Rusal then sold Alpart in 2016 to JISCO a China state-owned Iron and Steel company new to the aluminum industry. At the time of the sale, then Minister of Transport and Mining Mike Henry enthusiastically projected annual alumina exports from Alpart at about $500 million USD. By December of 2018, just a year after the first alumina shipment, the refinery already in trouble having suffered numerous technical problems and industrial actions taken by discontented workers, was again temporarily shut down costing millions in lost exports. At that time, Henry nevertheless continued to tout the promise of “overall investment of US$6 billion to the Jamaican economy, generating approximately 60,000 jobs, and including the creation of a US$3-billion Gansu Industrial Park and Special Economic Zone in Nain, which is to be spearheaded by the Jamaica Special Economic Zone Authority (JSEZA).” [Jamaica Observer, December 20, 2018] Our politicians are given to absurd hyperbole. Will the Gansu Industrial Park and Special Economic Zone in Nain of all places, a tiny ramshackle neglected rural hamlet that has suffered boom, bust and pollution for decades and never experienced any planned or sustained development, be another anansy story told to the people of Jamaica to distract us from all the bad decisions being made in our name to which we are not privy? Or will it be industrial development in Jamaica on a scale never before seen? Either way, Nain is an unlikely place for such mammoth transformation!

Alpart is not the only vulnerable part of the aluminum sector in Jamaica. Jamalco, which also produces alumina is 55 percent owned by Noble Group Ltd. and 45% owned by the Government of Jamaica. Noble, once Asia’s largest commodity traders, crashed and burned in 2018 losing billions of dollars and is under restructuring as the company filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2018. The alumina plant is one of their most important assets and could be sold. UC Rusal owner of West Indies Alumina Company (Windalco), which closed Alpart in 2009 then sold it to JISCO in 2016, also closed Kirkvine and Ewarton alumina refineries in 2009. Kirkvine, the oldest and smallest of refineries in Jamaica, has never been reopened and Ewarton was brought back on line in 2010 with reduced production. If prices continue to fall and the predicted global recession becomes reality, will UC Rusal slow down or stop production as they have done in the past? Given UC Rusal’s willingness in times of low prices and economic recessions to close and sell their assets (UC Rusal is the second largest primary production aluminum company in the world and therefore has many options globally), and Jamalco aluminum refinery being a key asset belonging to a company in bankruptcy restructuring, the current state of the aluminum industry in Jamaica is both unstable and riddled with problems. In addition, the government of Jamaica has already maid concessions to Noranda Bauxite, which declared bankruptcy in 2016 and won among other things a “profit sharing” deal with the government which is 51% owner of Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partnership. One wonders, given already waiving the bauxite levy for all aluminum companies currently doing business in Jamaica, granting tax and duty exemptions and other give-aways, supply guarantees, co-ownership partnerships where Jamaica assumes the debt and the risk, and long-term leases for mining bauxite, what concessions are left that the government could possibly make?

Aluminum prices rise and fall, often based on monopolies and market manipulation. Certain entities have been hoarding warehouses full of manufactured aluminum to keep the commodity

scarce and the price high. There is currently a revived legal case being heard in the US Federal Court of Appeals brought by aluminum purchasers accusing Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Glencore and other companies of conspiracy to hoard aluminum inventory after the 2008 global recession which caused prices to decline due to lesser demand. It is argued that keeping the aluminum away from purchasers inflated the prices of finished products, everything from furniture, to flash lights, to beverage cans. If the past is any prediction, with low aluminum prices and a global recession, commodity traders and aluminum companies will reduce production, close refineries and smelters, and stockpile the metal, waiting for bust to turn back to boom. Jamaica has absolutely no control over these movements in the market, and needs to stop relying on unrealistic trajectories of positive finances for budgetary purposes or growth projections, because it only leads to panic and negotiating from weakness when that projected income does not materialize as the market tumbles.

5. THE SOCIAL IMPACTS OF THE INDUSTRY

Promoters of the aluminum industry in Jamaica passionately defend its viability and deny that it has negative environmental and social impacts. They will tell you about how the land is carefully rehabilitated and can again be used for farming. They will tell you about the economic benefits of mining to the communities being mined. But ask these apologists where they live, and I can assure you they live in Kingston/St. Andrew or somewhere not being mined, and ask them if they have visited a place like Gibraltar in St. Ann which is now for the first time suffering from bauxite mining and the answer will be, “no haven’t been there.” So there is a huge disconnect between those who make the policies and who advocate for the industry and the hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans who over the decades have been sacrificed for the industry.

Bauxite is found in at least 25% of Jamaica, and has been extracted in the parishes of St. Catherine, St. Elizabeth, St. Ann, Manchester, Clarendon and soon Trelawny. Alumina processing currently takes place in Clarendon, St. Elizabeth and St. Catherine. The bauxite industry is the primary cause of the haphazard urbanization of Jamaica and the collapse of rural communities and their way of life. When the multinationals came to Jamaica in the 1950’s and acquired huge tracks of land, many rural Jamaicans sold their land and migrated to the United Kingdom and North America. Yes the famous Windrush Generation also has its antecedents in bauxite mining. Others moved to cities like Kingston (think of the swelling slums of Kingston in the late fifties and sixties) or small towns suddenly made large like Browns Town. Others were relocated sometimes to a different parish. For example, the Bolt family (yes the same family with famous Usain) were relocated by Kaiser Bauxite Ltd. from Lime Tree Garden in St. Ann where Kaiser was mining (and where Noranda now mines) to Windsor in Trelawny in Cockpit Country where Kaiser owned thousands of acres of land. From Windsor the Bolt family eventually moved to Sherwood Content. The company had promised those relocated from St. Ann a church, school, and market, but those promises were never kept and the quality of life for those who had gone from the very different climates and landscapes of the Dry Harbour Mountains in St. Ann to the dense rainy forests of Cockpit Country plummeted.

Bauxite mining displaces rural Jamaicans, tears apart families and communities and leads to rural poverty because it destroys the very land that the people need to farm. Once that farm land

is gone it cannot be replaced, so as bauxite mining expands the food security of Jamaica is further threatened. Jamaica imports over 80% of its food, and so agricultural ministers periodically implore us to “Grow what we eat and eat what we grow,” but you can’t keep destroying fertile land, displacing and impoverishing those who grow the food and expect to have food security. It also impoverishes rural communities as once an area is slated for mining it is condemned to poverty, because no one will invest in that area knowing that it will be mined. If you drive through parts of Manchester, St. Elizabeth, St. Ann, Clarendon, St. Catherine you will see what were productive agricultural lands that have been replaced by gouges, pits, scarred landscapes, sink holes, vast chasms, and wastelands with a thin veneer of top soil and scrappy weeds with grass growing and a few skinny cows. Mining does not take place in one area and all at the same time, but happens all over the place and over many years, so that you have pits dotted throughout a community, some pits left open after decades because there technically is still bauxite in them that can be extracted. You will see houses teetering on the sides of deep pits. You will see abandoned houses and abandoned graves and abandoned churches all falling into ruin. You will not see the homes, and graves and churches that were destroyed because they are buried under the rubble. One of the worst things I have ever seen was a large slab of concrete surrounded by scrub on the side of a large mined out pit in Caledonia, St. Ann. This was a mass grave for people whose graves were in the way of mining. Who knows who is buried in that concrete slab. This desecration has been going on for almost 70 years.

The Dry Harbour Mountains in St. Ann with such vivid names: Lime Tree Garden, Tobolski, Alexandria, Caledonia, Summer Hill has been one of the parts of Jamaica most devastated by bauxite mining. Having witnessed the destruction to the lands of their neighbours in places like Caledonia, the people of Gibraltar, Madras and Endeavor dreaded the thought of mining moving into their communities, and when Noranda in 2015 illegally crossed beyond their mining lease (SML 165) those communities began to organize to protect all that they cherish from being mined. In 2017, Mines and Geology Division granted Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partnership SML 172 which allows Noranda to mine in these vary same communities. And so we are able to now watch in horrific real time the demise of yet more productive, self sufficient, intact, proud, culturally significant rural Jamaican communities.

Consider Gibraltar, St. Ann with St, Paul’s Baptist church established in 1873, an all-age school that had lovingly been invested in, farmers and land that feeds Jamaica, a community that has clearly stated they don’t want to be mined. But guess what? They have no choice in the matter. The Government of Jamaica holds ownership rights to all minerals, therefore Jamaican property owners do not own what is in the soil on their property. Once a mining lease has been granted and a company wants to mine bauxite, they simply need to give the owner two weeks’ notice and they can come onto the property and mine. They don’t need to buy your land, they don’t need to relocate you, they don’t need to compensate you for future losses based on the devaluation of your land, they simply compensate you for things like how many pumpkins you were growing that are no more. Your property is now virtually worthless, so sorry but that is just your bad luck, your sacrifice is required for the benefit of the Nation. Mining in Gibraltar has been taking place very near to the all-age school. The dust from the trucks and the noise and the pollution has disrupted the education of these young people who our politicians like to sentimentally remind us are the future of Jamaica. With illnesses caused by the mining and the dangers of large trucks barreling down roads that little children have to walk on, the school is in great distress. Children and teachers have been missing classes and several teachers have resigned. And this is how it starts. Things fall apart. People are bewildered and demoralized and those who can will move out of the area as mining increases, and those who are left behind will be traumatized. This is the painful stark reality that improved GDP cannot even begin to redress.

And this is bauxite mining, what of Alumina processing? Turning bauxite into aluminum oxide is an energy intensive, loud, dirty and toxic process which leaves millions of tons of highly alkaline residue known as red mud into which nothing can grow. These “mud lakes” take up large amounts of land and as they dry out particles blow in the wind damaging everything they come into contact with including crops and people’s zinc roofs. In these times of drought and water scarcity these “lakes” are watered to keep the dust down, wasting water that is desperately needed to irrigate crops. In the early days before there were “mud lakes” the residue was simply pumped into cavities in the ground, and yes got into aquifers and streams. There were plans to have the residue piped directly into the sea, but though that happened in other parts of the world luckily it didn’t in Jamaica. These sludge “lakes” and holding “ponds” in Jamaica are situated beside where people live, and when still in liquid form can leak out or overflow. There have been catastrophic examples elsewhere in the world, particularly recent cases in Hungary and Brazil where the dyke walls broke, and towns and waterways were flooded causing deaths, injuries and environmental disasters. Given Jamaica’s history of powerful earth quakes, and climate change causing stronger storms and extreme rain events that create flooding, it is not outlandish to be concerned for the safety of communities who live beside these alumina sludge dumps.

The refineries spew particulate matter containing silica, iron, nitrate oxide, carbon dioxide and other toxins into the air, and the trains and trucks that transport the bauxite and alumina also add to the pollution. People who live within a ten mile radius of the factories (with of course those closest to the plants the worst affected) show increased health problems, in particular respiratory problems such as asthma, sinus infections and allergies. There are also eye and skin problems, and autoimmune illnesses. The factories are very noisy and also emit a stench that can be smelled for long distances. The Government has never tracked or kept records of the public health effects of the industry, and the common practice for community members who complain of illnesses is to be sent to company doctors. The impacts on workers exposed over long periods of time is probably even worse than community members, and there are anecdotal stories of early deaths to cancer. An epidemiological study by demography would need to be done to truly ascertain the full health impacts of the alumina industry.

6. THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF THE INDUSTRY

The Mining Act which was enacted in 1947 is an extremely powerful law that gives the Government of Jamaica (in the form of “the Crown”) sole ownership of Jamaica’s minerals including bauxite, thereby disenfranchising property owners as they cannot stop mining from taking place on their land. The act places immense power to the Commissioner of Mines (an unelected civil servant) and whichever Minister oversees mining. There are no political checks and balances, and mining interests are paramount. In 1991, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority Act was enacted, to “a. take such steps as are necessary for the effective management of the physical environment of Jamaica so as to ensure the conservation, protection and proper use of its natural resources; b. to promote public awareness of the ecological systems of Jamaica and their importance to the social and economic life of the Island; c. to manage such national parks, marine parks, protected areas and public recreational facilities as may be prescribed; d. to advise the Minister on matters of general policy relating to the management, development, conservation and care of the environment; and e. to perform such other functions pertaining to the natural resources of Jamaica as may be assigned to it by the Minister or by or under this Act or any other enactment.” Before 1991, though there were individual regulations pertaining to how mining was to proceed, there was no national environmental body that had authority over the mining industry. Since the NRCA Act, mining activities have to get an environmental permit. This causes the great incongruity of standing before some great offense to the natural environment such as a “mud lake” or bauxite mining pit, and seeing a big sign from the NRCA permitting the wanton destruction of mother nature.

After the initial historical cutting down of forests for large-scale agriculture and timber, then centuries later mass tourism infrastructure (in this case especially mangrove forest removal), bauxite mining has been the main cause of deforestation in Jamaica. Huge haul roads are built removing not just vegetation, but entire hill sides and anything in the way, completely changing the landscape, climate, flora and fauna, hydrology, and soil composition, and then large areas are stripped of all vegetation and the soil dug out, these days to great depths. Forests are extremely important, they create and attract rain, they provide cooling temperatures, sequester carbon, provide habitat, and many other natural services. Trees and forests are essential in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The Government of Jamaica is supposedly committed to “sustainable development” and likes to position itself as a leader in the realm of climate change knowledge and action. But extraction can never be sustainable because that which is destroyed cannot regenerate and replace itself. Soil provides minerals and water to plants; absorbs rainwater and releases it later, thus preventing floods and drought. Soil cleans water as it percolates through it. Soil is the habitat for many organisms: the major part of known and unknown biodiversity is in the soil. Geological processes are slow, it takes between about 100 and 500 years to produce a centimeter of soil, and about 3,000 years to make that soil fertile. Try and do the math – multiply how many tons of soil have been removed by bauxite mining by how many years it would take the earth to make new soil even under the best of conditions… and … well it’s just too difficult and large a number, so actually just better to preserve and nurture the soil we have left. We think of soil as dirt, cheap and dispensable, but soil is actually essential and we have been digging it up and shipping it off for almost 70 years.

I have already mentioned the alumina industry and the ways it pollutes the environment. But the actual smelting of aluminum takes the cake. In addition to producing large amounts of toxic waste, aluminum smelting requires energy 24-7 to produce extremely high temperatures, and there must be constant electricity so that the smelter pots do not freeze up, therefore one smelter will use more energy in a year than entire countries consume. It is said that the global aluminum industry uses more electricity than the entire continent of Africa. Given that energy is the highest cost of aluminum production, the aluminum industry from its earliest days has looked for the cheapest energy possible, and in partnerships with governments who have been subsidizing the industry since its inception, is the reason why many of the hydroelectric dams in the world were built. In almost every case these dams have forced countless numbers of people to abandon their homelands, in particular displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous and tribal people from their lands and waters, and created massive environmental damage. Because of the high energy usage (the cheapest being coal burning smelters), the huge amounts of greenhouse gasses released, and the types of products it produces, the aluminum industry is a significant contributor to the global climate crisis, to which Jamaica as a small tropical island is highly vulnerable.

7. THE MOVEMENT TO SAVE COCKPIT COUNTRY & THE BOUNDARY

Bauxite, the world’s main source of aluminum, has been mined in five parishes in Jamaica for almost 70 years. Mining is an extractive practice, once the ore is removed it no longer exists and cannot replace itself, and so decade after decade the land is strip mined, ruined, discarded, and then bauxite has to be found somewhere else. Enter center-stage Cockpit Country, a substantial region across six parishes in the West-central interior, that contains the last extensive reserves of high-grade bauxite in Jamaica. Cockpit Country is also a world renowned environmental Hot Spot, with abundant biological diversity including rare and endangered species. Ecologically connected to over half of Jamaica, Cockpit Country is home to Jamaica’s largest remaining intact original forests. With an extremely humid climate, the forests attract/create high levels of rainfall that slowly percolates through layers of complex soil and limestone into large underground reservoirs that are the source of six of Jamaica’s major rivers and provide 40% of Jamaica’s water. The forests provide cooling temperatures, sequester carbon and are essential to Jamaica surviving global warming and the climate crisis. Cockpit Country, the home of the Western Maroons, is of resonating historical and cultural significance to Jamaicans and a symbol of resistance as the Maroons fought the English for many years and gained their own governance in 1738, long before Jamaica received political independence from Britain in 1962. Cockpit Country is also home to small-scale farming communities that feed Jamaica with local-grown produce and are central to Jamaica’s food security. The passionate impulse to protect Cockpit Country is deeply imbedded in most Jamaicans and people who love Jamaica, and so efforts at protecting Cockpit Country have been going on for decades.

The most recent efforts began in 2006, when Cockpit Country communities and Jamaican environmental organizations became aware of the granting of two bauxite prospecting licenses that covered large areas of Cockpit Country, raising the fear that bauxite mining was imminent. A coalition of over thirty organizations and over 100 individuals calling themselves the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group (CCSG), was formed to stop any mining in Cockpit Country.

Starting in 2007, every Jamaican government has agreed that there will be no mining in Cockpit Country, but how to define Cockpit Country remained contested. There were at least six proposed boundaries of which the CCSG boundary was the largest, taking into consideration not just karst morphology, hydrology and biodiversity, but the historical and cultural aspects of Cockpit Country. The fear was that the government would define Cockpit Country in the smallest way possible, leaving large parts open to mining while declaring an environmental victory. Saving Cockpit Country strategies therefore focused on influencing the government to declare the largest boundary possible.

In 2009, the government commissioned the University of the West Indies (UWI) to study the various boundaries proposed for Cockpit Country, and in 2013 commissioned a UWI-headed team to travel across Jamaica to have public consultations about Cockpit Country, mining, the boundary issue and what should be Cockpit Country’s fate. Their published report concluded that most residents of Cockpit Country vehemently opposed mining and quarrying within Cockpit Country, and among their recommendations were:

The Government of Jamaica should not authorise any form of mining and quarrying activity within the Cockpit Country as the level of emotion is too high and (because of) the level of opposition and resistance by community members and leaders, community-based organisations;

The Cockpit Country deserves some form of legal protection. The declaration of a protected area and national park is the first step toward the ultimate goal, which is the nomination of the Cockpit Country as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

The official boundary for the Cockpit Country should be comprised of a Core, a Transition Zone and an Outer Boundary (Webber & Noel 2013).

On the afternoon of 21 November 2017, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced in Parliament the areas to be designated as the boundary of the Cockpit Country and of the Cockpit Country Protected Area. The administration chose the boundary proposed by the Jamaica Bauxite Institute, it is the smallest boundary comprising what is called the ‘core’ of Cockpit Country, then expanded it to include forested areas in the Litchfield-Mateson’s Run in St. Ann, defining an area of about 74,726 hectares that would constitute the Cockpit Country Protected Area (CCPA). To great applause the Prime Minister declared that no mining will be permitted in the Cockpit Country Protected Area.

Though most of the existing forest reserves and the ‘core’ of Cockpit Country are designated to be protected, the designated Cockpit Country Protected Area constitutes only about sixty-seven percent of the preferred Cockpit Country Stake Holder’s boundary. The Cockpit Country Protected Area does not prohibit mining from the areas most desired by the industry, thus for example leaving western St. Ann, northern St. Elizabeth and northern Manchester open for mining. Recently Cockpit Country residents became aware that in 2018, the Mines and Geology Division had granted Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partners Special Mining Lease 173 which would allow Noranda to mine in the eastern part of Cockpit Country, moving westward from St. Ann into Trewlawny. They became aware of this lease primarily through public meetings held by Noranda as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment that was being conducted after the lease had already been granted.

The reaction to the fact that Cockpit Country is still under threat from bauxite mining has been horror and outrage, and once again efforts to stop mining are in full swing. There have been new groups formed, existing groups reenergized, protests, weekly media reports, lively social media debates and much more. In response to this outpouring, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has again voiced his commitment to protecting Cockpit Country, and he and those of his administration have maintained that there is no mining taking place in the designated Cockpit Country Protected Area, nor will there be any mining allowed there in the future. This is good news, but the problem is that Cockpit Country and the designated Protected Area are not one and the same. Cockpit Country is larger than the designated Protected Area (not yet legally protected as there is a lengthy process before it will become law and a management plan is in place).

This map from Windsor Research Centre shows the difference between the Designated Cockpit

Country Protected Area (in blue) and what is actually Cockpit Country (in red):

8. SPECIAL MINING LEASE 172 AND 173

In 2015, Noranda illegally went beyond the boundaries of SML 165, mining pits as well as beginning construction on a large haul road at the Caledonia-Gibraltar crossroads. The adjourning communities of Gibraltar and Madras alarmed that mining would soon start in their backyards quickly organized themselves, and at the same said crossroads on July 21 held a large, joyous protest rally against Noranda expanding mining. The rally was attended by people from across Cockpit Country and across Jamaica. On September 23, 2015, as follow up to the St. Ann protests, a delegation of over sixty community members came together from across Cockpit Country under the banner Cockpit Communities for Conservation. They traveled to Kingston with copies of a letter demanding that Special Exclusive Prospecting License 145 be rescinded and no further expansion of mining in western St. Ann and Cockpit Country be allowed. The letters were to be delivered to all the governmental agencies with purview over mining and environmental protection. The first stop was the National Environment Planning Agency (NEPA) where the group met with Peter Knight the CEO, who assured the group that there would soon be resolution to the Cockpit Country boundary issues.

Noranda having been stymied from mining beyond SML 165, in 2017 was granted SML 172, a stop gap 5-year mining lease that allows them to mine exactly in the areas they had previously been stopped from mining, including Gibraltar and Madras. They were granted the environmental permit to mine SML 172 without any environmental impact assessment (EIA). In September of 2018, Mines and Geology granted Noranda SML 173, a 30 year lease for a large area in St. Ann and Trelawny. Included in SML 173 are Stewart Town, Sawyers, Alps, the Ulster Spring area, and parts of the rich yam growing belt. This time an EIA was required, and as already mentioned, it was through the EIA public meetings that communities were alerted to the impending mining, and community mobilization against mining began in earnest. The reaction against mining has been so organized, constant and loud, that soon after the Prime Minister assured the public that there was no need for concern and that the SML 173 EIA was ready for public consultation, NEPA released a statement saying the EIA had not met all of the terms of reference, thus had been sent back for more work to be done and would not be ready for public response until December 2019. Why the EIA release has been delayed is open to speculation. Does it give Noranda more time to wage a public relations campaign to counter objections to the lease and mining? Was the EIA so weak that it would easily have been ripped to shreds by those waiting to do so? Is this a delaying tactic to come up with the right strategies to defuse or stop attempts at blocking SML 173?

Whatever the reasons are for the delay in the EIA process and the permitting of SML 173, the heat is on, and Noranda is in full public relations mode to counter those calling for NEPA to not grant the environmental permit. In addition to full page ads touting their magnanimous corporate culture and the benefits of mining to the community that they mine, there are now frequent pieces in the media saying that Noranda is not mining in the (designated) Cockpit Country Protected Area, is only going to mine a small portion (15%) of SML 173 and won’t really impact on much of the land or people, is dedicated to protecting Cockpit Country, is willing to dialogue with the people. And most recently they have played the economic card: “The resulting economic impact, which will be felt in the relatively near future, will jeopardise Noranda’s ability to sustain the more than 800 direct and 4,000 indirect jobs, and the millions of US dollars in export earnings, taxes and other outgoings, that the company contributes to the Jamaican economy.” (Jamaica Observer, 11 September, 2019) Is this a not so veiled threat?

Not sure how Noranda comes up with 800 direct jobs since previous job numbers were closer to 200, and most jobs are sub-contracted and part-time or temporary, does the 800 include the flag wavers? Who are the 4,000 indirect jobs? Given that all human beings need to eat to stay alive, one could posit a much larger total of indirect jobs for the agricultural sector that continues to be lost to mining. Noranda has stated that they need this lease to have bauxite reserves for their long-term sustainability. A very reasonable position for a corporation to take, except are we really to believe that they, who recently declared bankruptcy and under restructuring belong to Dada Holding company with this subsidiary owned by New Day, will still be in Jamaica in ten, twenty, thirty years? This when their stated goals are to produce aluminum at the cheapest rate and sell at the highest? That would mean always finding the cheapest means of production including paying the least amount for bauxite. When Noranda was going through Chapter 11 restructuring and there were rumors that their alumina plant in Gramercy Louisiana would be shut down in March of 2016, the company blamed an “ongoing tax dispute” with the government of Jamaica for the possible closure (the bauxite for the Gramercy alumina refinery comes from Jamaica). They didn’t want to pay the bauxite levy. This is the company that is claiming loyal and undying commitment to Jamaica? The pattern in the aluminum industry in Jamaica is very clear, declare bankruptcy then the company that buys you out inherits your leases and your assets and gets to make new deals with the government of Jamaica. Which now brings us to the longevity and “sustainability” of the aluminum industry in Jamaica.

9. TIME FOR AN EXIT PLAN

I very much understand and am sympathetic towards the economic bind that the Government of Jamaica faces when it comes to the aluminum industry. The government is under extreme financial stresses with high debt and a large wage bill and where would it get the money to replace the industry? This is especially the case given the tiny percentage of companies and individuals who pay corporate and income taxes. Instead we have high consumer taxes and a labyrinth of duties, tariffs and permits which only add to a large informal sector, corruption, inefficiency, loss of productivity and the stalling of important sectors like renewable energy, while tax breaks, subsidies and policies lead to easy access by other sectors – witness the recent flood of autos into Jamaica and vast investment into auto-centric infrastructure.

I understand why no administration in Jamaica would want to even consider an exit plan for the aluminum industry, but it is time to begin one. In the past we clung way too long to mono-crop agriculture, getting further and further into debt and losing productivity and competitiveness with each passing year. When the UK was going to join the European Union, business and academic experts warned Caricom leaders that preferences for bananas and other crops would no longer be granted and that it was time to plan for this inevitability, to find other markets and/or phase out this economic dependency. Some of the leaders scoffed at the idea saying our Mother Country would never do that to us! We clung to sugar as an export crop long after it was cost effective and it is now time time to do a serious cost-benefit of the aluminum industry in Jamaica.

Included in such an analysis should be: The cost of lost natural services, such as deforestation, removal of billions of tons of fertile top soil and loss of water resources whether to pollution and/or impacts on hydrology; the cost of the loss of agricultural lands, the related costs of food imports and loss of food security; the cost of public health impacts; the cost of rural poverty, social dislocation and fragmentation; the cost of unplanned urbanization; the cost of Jamaica’s debt through subsidizing and ownership of money bleeding companies and institutions related to the industry; the loss of heritage. I think one will start to see that we are in the loss column. However, that still does not answer the question, what will replace the revenues from the industry, because though there are many ways to diversify the economy that will bring benefits to people living in rural and urban areas, improve the standard of living, make people happier, more fulfilled, whether these are new tech industries, new service industries, manufacturing, hemp/ganja farming, organic and diversified agriculture, community tourism, the creative industries, the wealth from private sector industries does not accrue to the government, but to those that own those industries. Therefore what is good for the people of Jamaica and for the economy is not necessarily good for the Government of Jamaica, and the reverse is true, we know from our experience of the aluminum industry in Jamaica that what is good for the Government of Jamaica is often not good for the people or the island of Jamaica. So we need our smartest, most innovative and creative economic minds to get us out of this quandary and let us find alternative economic flows for the Government of Jamaica that can replace the industry.

In the meantime, let us stop expanding the industry and begin plans to phase it out. Have proper oversight and control over the industry and enforcement of the environmental permits that are granted so there is the least disruption of people’s lives. No night mining with lights blaring into people’s homes. No mining or alumina plants close to where people live, work and go to school. Make the process as logical and careful as possible. No toxic emissions from alumina plants. No more mud lakes. Find ways to rehabilitate the existing mud lakes. Take the money gained and reinvest in the communities sacrificed for mining. Compensate people for their losses and give reparations for communities that have suffered from bauxite mining and alumina processing. Create a trust fund for communities that companies have to pay into, so that when they get up and leave without fulfilling any obligations regarding land rehabilitation there will be money left to do so. Set up a sovereign investment fund.

You are bent over laughing right? Unfortunately it is too late in the history of the industry to enact many of these necessary measures, and given the incentive to produce at the cheapest possible cost, there is no money to perform what in many cases are quite simple actions. Instead we will have back-to-school give-aways and Christmas parties and sponsored football teams and dust “nuisance” money and corporate green-washing. But at the very least, we must hold to account the government entities that have oversight and grant permits to the industry, and the government and aluminum companies it partners with to extract, process and export bauxite and alumina. And at the most, we must defend the communities we live in and the island we love.

In this time of climate crisis, we cannot think short term about the annual budget and political needs of any administrations, it is time for completely different ways of thinking and being in the world, time for the brave and the bold. And it’s time for Jamaica to wean itself off of toxic red mud and stop pretending it is red gold.

About the author

Esther Figueroa, Ph.D.