WE are still waiting to hear good news about the bauxite industry. Good news for most Jamaicans means the reopening of the Windalco Kirkvine alumina plant in Manchester and/or the much larger Alpart plant in St Elizabeth.
The employment generated would be in the thousands and, certainly for St Elizabeth, a reawakening of economic activity in the southern part of the parish reaching out from Nain through Junction, Morningside, Precious Plains, Brinkley, Warminster, Prospect, Baalbec, Lititz, Ballards Valley, New Forest, Malvern, Alligator Pond, and other areas.
Loss of jobs, children who have dropped out of school, shops which have closed, manufacturing which has ground to a halt, agricultural marketing failures, electricity bills under threat, medical bills unpaid, these are the gripping and heartbreaking stories that always accompany layoffs or industrial shutdowns.
Life continues in Mandeville as the streets are crowded, schools have recharged their batteries, but there is still a numbness which can be discerned, a business slump observed, and a sense of shock that has not yet settled or disappeared.
And a drive through the Alpart operating area gives an even more hapless picture, as shops have been closed, the weekend sound systems have been stilled, and there is a deserted village syndrome and uneasy quiet around the communities which were once alive when bauxite pay cheques and purchases kept the economy pumping.
We are not hearing much news about reopening these days, although no doubt the government is working quietly and negotiating with the owners to get things up and running.
There is always talk of the high- energy plants and low-cost fuel and the technical aspects and so on, but the root of the matter is simply the cost to keep Jamaican plants in operation. Alumina plants depend on a high component of energy, and we have no natural resources, save our solar possibilities. Therefore, we import not only in quantity, but at high cost, which makes it prohibitive to run a plant that costs more per ton than it is making.
I am no expert, but I am sure that the technocrats have taken a good look at recent reports of successful Orbite technology (out of Orbite Aluminae in Canada) that claims innovative technologies that are setting new standards for alumina production.
According to the reports, Orbite technologies enable the low-cost and environmentally neutral extraction of smelter grade alumina, high-purity alumina and high-value elements, including rare earths and rare metals from a variety of sources such as bauxite and aluminous clay, without producing any wastes such as the red mud and residue generated from the standard Bayer process.
On our side, let's hear what's happening with progress on our own rare earths intervention announced earlier this year in cooperation with Japanese scientists.
Thank God that Jamaicans have inner resources of strength unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The shutters may be down, but the smiles and the hopes and the bravado of the Jamaican psyche is on display in the south and the regions where bauxite once ruled. People have not thrown up their hands, but have accepted the situation as it stands, and are moving on with their lives. The schools are still open. And the 'gardens' are still being worked.
Now every house in south St Elizabeth has a garden, and I don't mean a flower garden, although there is that too. I mean crops, grown on the front lawn, the backyard, and wherever the soil can be tilled. Cassava, onion, scallion, carrots, watermelon, tomatoes, lettuce, cauliflower, pepper, cabbage, still sprout and bear and feed families and send children to school. Farming in south Manchester and south St Elizabeth has always been challenged, but the residents of these areas know how to rise up and grow.
When the bauxite industry first came to the hinterlands in the 1950s it was agriculture vs machinery. The higher wages attracted a workforce drawn from neighbouring sugar estates as well as farmers fresh off the land. But check with Alpart and every mechanic, every labourer, every electrician, every tradesman in the plant had a garden or land or 'grung', where after work or on weekdays the soil was worked and the garden maintained.
It is much more difficult now to survive, as the super income from bauxite is no longer in place, and in many instances the land just barely provides.
But hats off to Alpart itself for keeping one commodity open to the people in these rough times -- water. The company has managed to make its water resources remain available to the public and trucks still haul water, free of charge, at some 300,000 gallons per day.
Alpart, Windalco, Jamalco, and Noranda have continued to supply water to thousands of persons and dozens of institutions, including schools, hospitals, clinics, a point not lost on those farmers who depend solely on Alpart's water in times of drought.
This act should not be taken for granted. This is an outstanding example of corporate responsibility and is the practice at all operating or non-operating bauxite/alumina companies in Jamaica.
Social responsibility has been taken further than the provision of water. In the case of Alpart the company invited community residents, through its Community Council, to take on the massive tasks of descaling, sanitation and landscaping projects necessary to prepare the plant's readiness for any future start-up.
This represents a bold step forward in the history of community relations, and demonstrates trust and confidence between a community and an industry that has often been at odds with each other, but which over time has seen the community take its place as a viable, responsible stakeholder integral to a successful reopening when the right time comes.
And the same industry which provides uninterrupted supplies of water and other social and economic benefits has also taken social responsibility to higher levels than the norm, where sustainability of community-enhancement projects that will improve the quality of life around the plants has become a major objective.
Consider that returns from the Alpart community contracts have not only earned income for hundreds of community workers since shutdown, but has been pumped into community developments around the plant, repairing and renovating schools, police stations, community centres, health centres, and other institutions,
The newest kid on the block, Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partners in St Ann, has engineered a 'greenhouse revolution' for farmers in south-west St Ann, by introducing the technology to farmers on rehabilitated mined out lands.
The company has encouraged and supervised the growth of this technology among farmers and in schools, with greenhouses now flourishing in a cluster of 35 houses at Burnt Ground, and poised to expand to at least three other clusters in communities around Nine Miles, Tobolski and Watt Town in short order. To put things into perspective, that could mean 140 houses or so in the mining area.
Noranda has also introduced a micro-enterprise GetStart programme that has enabled the start-up of 49 small businesses in its operating area since 2012. These include poultry faming, pig rearing, crop farming, woodwork, hairdressing, tiles and block manufacturing, welding, and landscaping.
The truth is that the industry, often pilloried by pot shots taken by self-proclaimed public interest groups with intangible goals, has been an outstanding contributor to Jamaica's economic and social growth and, in areas where it has closed, has been sorely missed.
People are still hoping and praying for a reopening. We are not just sitting down and waiting to exhale.
Lance Neita is a communications and public relations specialist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.