In partnership with Jamaica

Lance Neita

Monday, August 26, 2019

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Jamaica's bauxite/alumina industry is once again under pressure with jitters around the status of alumina on the world market and any potential local fallout, and also the vigorous and largely misinformed lobbying that has been targeting bauxite mining said to be taking place in areas where no man has gone before. Various interest groups — most of whom know little about the industry — have taken to social media, orchestrated events, allegations and strategic campaigning to paint a negative picture of bauxite mining designed to scare the living daylights out of any community within or on the periphery of any such venture.

Unfortunately, in the zeal to protect and preserve our heritage and culture the campaign does disservice to an industry that has grown up with Jamaica and that has, in spite of the inevitable environmental effects of the act of mining, paid its dues as a respected and responsible corporate citizen with an unmatched record of economic and social contribution to its host country.

Bauxite and alumina earnings continue to be a mainstay of the economy of this country. Noranda Bauxite, the sole bauxite exporter, through wages, taxes, local purchases, pumps some US$80 million into the economy annually and provides some 400 permanent jobs, another 400 contractor jobs, and thousands of related income-earning opportunities stretching across the island.

Alpart, the alumina company on which the hopes and aspirations of thousands of Jamaican families rely, we used to say, “is too large a company to close”. But, of course, external forces in the form of global prices and international politics are out of our hands, and it will therefore need the Government and all industry hands on deck to ensure that a possible US$3-billion potential investment remains secure for the good of Jamaica. We have been there before as an industry, and we can do it.

Let's face it: The value of bauxite to Jamaica is not to be sneezed at. In the 1940s, as we began to take responsibility for our economic management from colonial rule, the discovery of bauxite was welcomed as a substitute for the oil and precious metals, which we did not possess. In fact, old-timers will recall that at elementary school our teachers referred to the new discovery as 'red gold'.

By the 1970s Jamaica had emerged as a world leader in the export of the mineral. Significantly, the decline in our rating followed the unilateral imposition of the bauxite levy in 1974. But the industry is still the export powerhouse.

Those who are wishing for the demise of the bauxite industry should stop and think. Bauxite/alumina exports contribute 80 per cent of mercantile exports today. If, say, God forbid, Alpart and Noranda were to be shuttered, then think of how the US$1-billion shortfall could be replaced, because if that amount of earnings should fall out of our economy the exchange rate would be under severe pressure, and we would all be singing, “There is a hole in the budget.”

So, as Dr Carlton Davis, the internationally respected former head of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute, once pointed out, “There is no point in creating a resistance to bauxite mining and eventually destroying the industry without examining the long-term consequences.

“It is not enough to just seek to close down the bauxite industry on spurious grounds,” he said, “but you have to do some hard thinking as to how these earnings would be replaced.”

Potshots are being taken by the so-called jet set and others at the economic and social worth of the bauxite industry to Jamaica. It is easy to talk glibly about the industry's community contributions and to dismiss them as obligatory donations towards education, health, agriculture, youth development, and others. But in doing so we overlook some of the behind-the-scenes social responsibility stories that are overshadowed by the more catchy news items on blocked roads and community demonstrations.

The environmental effects of the industry have long been a matter of public attention, as the inevitable incidents of dust escape or other waste management issues, whether in Jamaica or in other countries are tangible and visible and are always matters of mutual concern.

Having been on the front line of environmental differences between bauxite companies and the public, I can speak first hand of the various elements that come into play whenever such incidents take place. For example, not all claims are legitimate and, indeed, some have to do with the pursuit of cash compensation in lieu of other, what is loosely termed, the right to 'dust benefits', such as employment or the provision of public amenities that should correctly be the responsibility of government agencies. Then there is, too, the mistaken perception that companies would rather pay up and avoid embarrassing stories in the media.

What is less known are the efforts and programmes implemented over the years by an industry that has not only spent millions on environmental design and control, but have also successfully integrated environmental codes and behaviours into practices and programmes. Those of us who have been in the trenches know, however, that, despite state-of-the-art environmental controls, it is the face-to-face dialogue with people on the ground, and most of all the empathy and respect displayed when dealing with controversial community issues that make the difference between finding solutions or protracting difficult problems.

Meeting with people is an everyday experience as the nature of the bauxite-mining exercise has brought the companies into intimate contact with and opened the door to close relationships during the process of extensive surveying, land purchasing, surveying, mining, and land rehabilitation. A little known story is that it was out of this intense community contact and experience that Dr Jim Lee, member of the early survey crew for Kaiser Bauxite in the 1950s, and father of my very good friend, Wendy Lee, was able to present The University of the West Indies with one of the world's largest and detailed collection of pre-Columbian Taino artifacts comprising pottery, stone implements, and skeletal remains collected through his 50 years of survey and field research around the bauxite landscape. The stunning collection of over 37,000 artifacts has been catalogued and meticulously coded and was financed by a $5-million grant from Kaiser and Alpart to the university.

There are, of course, other close ties cultivated between the university families and the industry. A lesser-known story is that, in the early days of the University College of the West Indies, Kaiser Bauxite was one of the first companies to respond to an appeal for funding led by Her Royal Highness the Princess Alice, who was the aunt of Queen Elizabeth II, and who was the first chancellor of the university. In 1955 Kaiser made a grant of 15,000 directed to the “setting up of facilities for courses leading to an engineering degree”. Large educational grants also led to the establishment of St Elizabeth Technical High School, and I think the Kingston Technical High School, while the engineering library at the College of Arts, Science and Technology (now the University of Technology, Jamaica) benefited from a substantial contribution and is still known as “the Kaiser Library”. The Brown's Town Community College's Discovery Bay Campus is housed in the former Kaiser administrative building, which itself was the former Columbus Inn Hotel. The building was granted to the community college in 1999, and expanded with an Industrial Skills Training Centre built by Noranda Bauxite in 2014.

The industry's close ties with higher education encouraged Alcan and Alpart to establish two chairs at The UWI in 1999 — a chair of professorship in hydrogeology and a chair for water management. A chair for the West Indies Centre for Environment and Development was sponsored by Alcan in 1992. And, in 1968, Princess Alice herself graced Kaiser's doors in Discovery Bay when she visited the company and was formerly presented with the title to the lands for the building of the well-known The University of the West Indies Marine Laboratory on the western side of the harbour.

The connection between mining and agriculture is noteworthy. As far back as the 1950s the industry's land policies assumed special importance as the companies sought to add to the agricultural output of their mining areas. The programmes were so effective that, by 1957, Norman Manley, then chief minister, was prompted to say, “All will agree that the companies have done an impressive job in the agricultural field. It is clear that the policy in regard to tenants has been an enlightened one, and that the resettlement programmes have been well conceived.”

The companies went on to develop, in partnership with the Jamaica Bauxite Institute, Rural Agricultural Development Authority, and other related agencies, viable and lasting agricultural projects, including the present greenhouse technology expansion, several livestock upgrade projects, large and small dairy and beef industry farms, the Lime Tree Gardens Peanut Processing Factory in St Ann, thousands of small farmer cultivation projects partnerships, and the Noranda Community Council's business start-up programmes, to name a few. These have also provided a wide network of responsible land management development and practices that has kept the industry fully committed towards agricultural improvement.

This review covers only a small portion of the major social programmes undertaken by the industry. For example, the industry's support of sports is legendary. Jamaica has benefited from the sports training and promotion offered by the companies at their sports centres. The companies all invested heavily in developing state-of-the-art facilities that replaced the sugar industry clubs as venues for national and international football, cricket, athletics, tennis, netball, and badminton.

I close by returning to the controversial arguments that always arise when a discussion on bauxite takes place: “Every country faces the problem of balancing some amount of discomfort with an activity like mining and the economic good which comes from it,” said Dr Carlton Davis in a paper published in 2007.

Yes, it is all a matter of balance. Poverty can have a much greater adverse impact on the environment than economic activities like mining and tourism. A country has to think about how to balance the situation in which you can get economic development and put yourself into a better position to preserve your environment.

Davis also pointed out in his 2007 statement that an interesting point often overlooked by those who maintain that the industry does all this damage is that of the just over one million hectares of land area in Jamaica, since 1952 only about 7,400 hectares, or less than 0.75 per cent, has been disturbed for bauxite mining.

The Cockpit Country Protected Area, all 74,726 hectares of it, is absolutely closed to mining. It has already been established that Noranda Bauxite is not mining nor has any plans for mining in that area. So I will take my own potshot. I have become convinced that the only people mining there are the concerned environmentalists. In their genuine desire to preserve the Cockpit Country, they are mining everybody's business but their own.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultants with Noranda Bauxite Company Limited and author of the book on Kaiser Bauxite's history in Jamaica, In Partnership With Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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