A different kind of bauxite experience

Lance Neita

Monday, June 17, 2019

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An agriculture/education expo coming out of the bauxite industry last month was considered by some to be unique, unusual, and to others, unreal. This is because the mental image of bauxite mining conjures up pictures of holes in the ground and shipments of precious landfill being shipped overseas to foreign investors.

Noranda Bauxite in St Ann took a bold step forward to try to change that perception when it embraced the theme 'agriculture meets mining' for a first-ever comprehensive presentation of the many different facets of the bauxite industry which are still unfamiliar to some Jamaicans.

The expo was staged on the grounds of the Port Rhoades Sports Club in Discovery Bay, and the theme obviously piqued the interest of the public as hundreds turned up to view the exhibits. It was a new experience for many as the abundance of agricultural foodstuff that lined the runway and the enthusiasm of the scores of small farmers exhibiting their greenhouse products were as unexpected as they were overwhelming. The farmers took time out to explain how greenhouse technology, introduced by the bauxite company in mining areas, are transforming agricultural practices on mined-out lands, and how the perennial problems of extensive drought periods are being surmounted by the construction of large water reservoirs built at the four greenhouse clusters at Nine Miles, Tobolski, Watt Town, and Burnt Ground in the Dry Harbour Mountains.

On the educational side, some 20 schools, encouraged by a Noranda School garden competition, exhibited products from their recently renovated school gardens. High schools have also been reaping from the technology introduced by Noranda as the company has donated greenhouses to Brown's Town, York Castle, Aboukir, St. Hilda's, and Aabuthnott Gallimore high schools, as well as St Christopher's School for the Deaf.

Students also participated in an essay writing and poster competition focusing on the expo's theme 'Agriculture meets mining'.

The significance of the expo was not lost on Minister of Transport and Mining Robert Montague, who opened the exhibition, nor on J C Hutchinson, minister without portfolio in the industry, commerce, agriculture and fisheries ministry. Both ministers said they were impressed. Montague congratulated Noranda on its initiative to transform agriculture on mined-out lands and on the growth of greenhouse farming, which has moved up from three houses in 2009 to 125 in 2019. Minister Hutchinson said he was delighted to witness the relationship enjoyed between Noranda and the local communities and agencies who made up the 45 stalls and exhibits.

It was left up to Noranda General Manager Delroy Dell to put the rationale for the show into perspective: “Contrary to any impression conveyed that our business is confined to mining and shipping 'red dirt', the expo today displays how the bauxite landscape is dotted with schools, community centres, skills training centres, small and large businesses, sports teams, youth clubs, and community self-start development projects all bearing the stamp of the industry.”

If the attendance and approval of the ministers, the large turnout of visitors, the presence of exhibitors from private and government sectors, and the hundreds of students who participated in the show are anything to go by, then the expo would have met its main objective, which was to highlight the importance of the bauxite industry to Jamaica.

Land reclamation, greenhouse technology, farming on reclaimed lands, wellness projects, environment and safety enablers, education and community outreach projects, a pushcart derby display for which Discovery Bay is famous, and the new and yet to be announced experimental aqua culture and hydroponics farming systems for mined-out lands, in simple language, wowed the crowd.

To many, the expo would have presented a new side to bauxite mining. The organisers, and no doubt the minister, would have considered this important, as Jamaica still has trouble with accepting the industry as a responsible corporate citizen that contributes beyond royalties, taxes, employment, and income-generation. Let's face it, there is another side to the industry that calls into question the balance between the economic and social contributions of the industry vs the negative effects of alleged environmental effects from the process.

In fact, even while the expo was going on in Discovery Bay there were stories circulating in the media and elsewhere alleging mining ongoing in the Cockpit Country. The prime minister himself was to later announce that following his request, the heads of relevant government agencies have advised Cabinet that no bauxite mining is taking place in the designated Cockpit Country Protected Area.

The balance factor was mentioned, however, as the prime minister went on to say that he still “has to look at all factors, to look at the big picture, to take into consideration all the elements of the problem and its complexities, and to come up with a solution that is sustainable”.

The problem and the solution must take into account the future of the industry, its importance to the economy, appreciation of its value and contribution to growth and development, and the great care that must be taken to ensure that mining companies and communities can work hand in hand for the benefit of Jamaica.

A balance has to be sought, indeed, and the expo's many sides underlined the industry's value to Jamaica, as well as demonstrating its role as a good corporate citizen.

Many may have been surprised and delighted to note that the company is staffed 99.9 per cent by Jamaicans, as there is a feeling that foreign investors tend to favour expatriate management for local companies. In his speech, the mining minister pointed out that Noranda is owned 51 per cent by the Government and people of Jamaica, plays a leading role in economic and social development, and employs 400 Jamaicans, while the industry itself employs some 4,000. The industry workforce is thoroughly Jamaicanised and shares the same respect for our Jamaican heritage and culture as does the Government and others who are committed to preserving our natural heritage sites.

In fact, the history of the industry in Jamaica provides a remarkable case study of a company/country relationship that has never been insular and went far beyond the boundaries of corporate social responsibility. For example, the pioneer days of Reynolds, Alcan and Kaiser, when those companies distinguished themselves as important contributors to agriculture with large cattle farms earning champion livestock exhibitor ratings each year at the Denbigh show. Another example would be what came out of a conversation that the exceptional Minister of Trade and Industry Robert Lightbourne had with a Kaiser executive Jake Lindemuth.

“I think it was towards the latter part of the 60s,” recalled Lindemuth who had overall responsibility for Kaiser's Jamaica operations at that time, “when Bob Lightbourne took me aside one day and said, 'Jake, I wish Kaiser would try to develop some kind of an industry in Jamaica separate from aluminium. See whether you can't get some kind of economic activity going outside of core business.'”

Kaiser took up the challenge and formed the Kaiser Development Corporation, which encouraged the start-up of several different businesses but eventually settled on JAFLEX (Jamaica Floral Exports Ltd) as the flagship of the corporation. The JAFLEX horticultural farm in St Mary successfully exported anthuriums to all parts of the world and was eventually sold to a group of Jamaican businessmen, and is still going.

“It was particularly good for Jamaica on three points,” reflected Lindemuth. “It was labour-intensive, it earned foreign exchange, it was native to Jamaica — it was all Jamaican.”

On that note we can go back to the expo. Following his tour of the exhibition stalls the mining minister hailed the company for its excellent corporate citizenship expressed by how well Noranda has integrated with the community.

He urged the general manager to make it an annual event for exposure to an even larger audience “because we intend to return next year”.

Lance Neita is a historian and author of the book In Partnership With Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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