Trelawny farmers tense about mining in the Cockpit Country

Trelawny farmers tense about mining in the Cockpit Country

Staff reporter

Sunday, September 15, 2019

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Mining on the border of the Cockpit Country remains a worrying prospect for residents of Albert Town, Ulster Spring, Alps, Linton Park, Soyers, and Freeman's Hall in Trelawny, where sections of their communities, which fall under special mining lease (SML) area 173, are now facing the imminent threat of bauxite mining.

Farmers in the area, who spoke with the Jamaica Observer during a visit last Thursday, shared that farming was the only livelihood they had, passed down for generations. But with miners now pushing west from St Ann in communities like Madras and Gibraltar, they, just two miles away, are concerned that mining will pose an existential threat to that legacy.

To quell such concerns, Noranda's Public Relations officer Lance Neita, in an article published in the Observer on Monday, September 11, assured the citizenry that: “…landowners under the present system remain as owners of the land during mining, are compensated for disturbance of surface rights, crops, yield, livestock, trees and buildings, and have their lands returned to them as rehabilitated and renewed for farming or occupational use.”

But compensation packages aside, the farmers insisted that mining will irreversibly damage the fertile lands on which they are currently producing the best yams in Jamaica, and arguably, the world.

“Wi plant the best yam right here inna the Cockpit. Wi get water and everything else that wi need right here. When them come and mine out the land, wi nah guh can plant this kind a quality yam again,” said Maxwell Smith, a yam farmer from Alps.

“Wi don't want them money. Wi satisfied if everyday wi can sell at least a pound a yam. Wi satisfied wid that,” added Smith. His compatriots chimed in: “Wi nuh want no mining here. No mining in the Cockpit.”

The group of men were selling yams on the main road that runs on the eastern boundary of the designated Cockpit Country Protected Area (CCPA) when the Sunday Observer passed by. Further along the roadway, in Linton Park, residents voiced similar concerns.

It was also their opinion that the approximately 20 feet of roadway that meandered through their community did not change the fact that the land on the opposite side of the road was also a part of the Cockpit Country.

“The whole area is the Cockpit Country,” said one elderly man pointing towards the conical hills across the road on his neighbour's property. “Over deh so and over here so. All of it is the Cockpit,” said the man.

An elderly woman, who gave her name as Gretchen Linton, said that children growing up in the area might not get to see the unspoiled hillsides that she grew up seeing — a sad prospect which she voiced glumly.

“The pickney them weh a come up nah guh get fi see the Cockpit Country as we know it. If them come and mine it, the younger ones coming up nah guh know this land,” said the elderly woman.

Another farmer standing nearby added: “Tell Andrew Holness, no mining in the Cockpit.”

Leonard Wright's main concern was the possibility of having to relocate his yam hill.

“When them come and mine, weh dem a guh put wi?” he opined. “We cyan plant pon rock stone,” Wright said in reference to the limestone base typically left after bauxite is completely mined out.

But while the rehabilitation of mined lands is a key part of Noranda's post-mining activities, as Neita reiterated in his piece, executive director of the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency Hugh Dixon, in an interview with the Sunday Observer, said that the topsoil that is put back is but a fraction of what is needed for plants to survive, what with soil erosion and heavy rains washing away the loose dirt. However, Neita, again in his article on Monday, advised that topsoil that is removed is stored for later use.

He said: “The topsoil, which is removed before mining, is carefully stored and returned after mining to recover the mined area. It is then grassed, in some case fertilised, and certified by the commissioner of lands before it is returned to farming. It must be pointed out that not all bauxite-bearing lands are productive, and in many instances the areas under consideration are good only for grazing, housing.”

Even so, the farmers maintained that the soil of the Cockpit is rich, requiring no fertiliser, and which they said is a key factor in the quality of their yams.

In that regard, Dixon explained that “the Cockpit Country is formed on white limestone. The soil that comes from that is alluvial and it is known for its richness. It has a soft tilth, which when the rain catches it, it clusters together so there isn't much erosion. The colour of it is classic bauxitic soil, filled with minerals and it crumbles, so it creates good root movement through it.

“When they scrape off what is about three feet of this topsoil, and remove what is left, they then dig about 200 feet of the ore before they get to the limestone base. When they get there that means they have mined out everything. They then come back and spread that same three feet of topsoil after they have already dug 200 feet into the ground. This is what they call rehabilitation,” Dixon chided.

He explained further that, on the other hand, the local farmers manage to use the land without damaging the soil by employing crop rotation.

“The farmers here have learned to live and survive without destroying the landscape. The planting material going into this land can survive and produce without farmers having to buy any fertiliser, so you get organic production out of here. The flavour is good, and the soil is rich,” said Dixon.

Given Jamaica's history of bauxite mining since 1951, with reserves of the precious mineral all mined out in St Catherine and Clarendon, and little left in St Elizabeth and St Ann, Dixon argued that the long-term loss of livelihood for farmers, far outweighs the short term, elusive gains of Jamaica's macroeconomy.

“The economic argument about bauxite mining makes no sense. In Jamaica, there is about 15 to 20 years of bauxite mining left before the ore is finished. Noranda is going to be allowed to break into this boundary area of the Cockpit Country and destroy farmers' lands and cause them to relocate and become dependent on the State.”

Juxtaposed with the approximately 800 locals employed to Noranda, Dixon stated that “there are roughly 20 to 30 thousand people living along the outskirts of this roadway, going all the way back in Madras, who survive off the land sustainably over time, and whose livelihoods will be disrupted.”

Such were the pressing concerns of Walsh Gordon, a farmer from Ulster Spring who was just returning from farm lands inside the CCPA with a donkey-load of yellow yam.

“Right now mi nuh have no other source. Mi nuh have nowhere else fi guh. Farming in here so is the key fi wi and if them relocate wi to a town area, wi nah guh have no weh fi raise wi animal and wi nuh want no other work,” said the father of three children, hurrying to offload the yams as rain clouds formed over that section of the Cockpit Country.

“Market mi a carry this guh now,” he indicated. “To tell yuh the truth, if dem mine in here we cyan stay because the dust a guh mek wi sick, di blasting a guh affect the young baby them and the older people. Wi cyan guh tek it. And If them come and gi wi money, dat nah guh work,” said Gordon.

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