Editorial

Jamaica must get its due from bauxite mining

Friday, June 02, 2017

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With news last week that the Alpart alumina plant is due to resume refining operations on June 20, locals are expecting a big hike in employment numbers and increased economic activity.In fact, over recent months, employment has steadily picked up at Alpart as Chinese metals giant Jiquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO), which bought Alpart from Russian company UC Rusal last year, moves to restore the 49-year-old plant. Readers will recall that Alpart was shut down in 2009 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Visiting Opposition People's National Party (PNP) officials learnt last week that since last year, hundreds have been employed. We are told that there are now more than 1,000 people currently working at Alpart, including more than 700 Jamaicans; 263 are Chinese.

It's expected that as the reopened plant progresses towards full capacity of 1.65 million tones of alumina, employment will increase.

To support alumina refining, mining will resume on the already heavily mined-out Manchester Plateau of central and southern Manchester as well as the Essex Valley region of St Elizabeth — including the pristine Malvern area of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

We are told that if sufficient bauxite reserves can be found outside of the Manchester Plateau and Essex Valley, JISCO will build a second refinery beside the existing plant with a capacity of two million tonnes of alumina annually.

Further, JISCO is planning an industrial zone in the Nain area for “light and heavy” manufacturing and even the eventual smelting of aluminium.

Those plans would involve investments worth billions of US dollars. Even if much of it proves to be 'hot air', it's obvious that there will be considerable employment and economic spin-offs.

All that said, it's important to remember that bauxite reserves are not forever. Industry sources say that within 30 years all the mineable bauxite on the Manchester Plateau and in the Essex Valley will be gone. Reserves elsewhere will also be gone in about that time.

Furthermore, even when great care is taken to reclaim mined lands and protect against air and other pollution, bauxite mining and alumina refining have serious and lasting detrimental environmental consequences. They also cause extensive physical dislocation, since in some cases whole communities must be relocated.

Sadly, the Capital Development Fund — which was set up in the 1970s to ensure that the country and in particular those communities most affected by mining and alumina refining got lasting benefits from bauxite earnings — has been largely used for other purposes.

It's a scandal that nearly half-a-century since Alpart was first established in 1968 most people in south Manchester and south-east St Elizabeth remain without running water from the National Water Commission. Word is that the Essex Valley Water Scheme, meant to supply piped drinking water to some — not all — people of south-east St Elizabeth will be completed this year. That's 16 years after the project was first launched with much fanfare. We expect that in the new dispensation, with or without bauxite levies, the Government will ensure that those most affected by bauxite mining receive their due.

We also expect that political leadership, community groups, environmental lobby groups, et al will be like hawks in making sure that at the end of this latest phase of the bauxite/alumina industry, Jamaica and in particular the people most affected by bauxite mining and alumina processing are far better off than they were before.

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