The vexed issue of mined-out bauxite lands and their negative impact on the environment again took centre stage as Opposition Senator Peter Bunting called for the gradual phasing out of the industry to minimise the environmental plight caused by the bauxite/alumina industry.
Making his contribution to the State of the Nation Debate in the Senate on Thursday, Bunting argued that the environmental and economic costs outweigh the benefits of the industry.
“It’s time to face the economic reality that the bauxite/alumina industry in Jamaica is in terminal decline. And while I’m not advocating that we jump up and shut it down tomorrow morning, we must make a deliberate plan to phase it out and minimise the damage to our environment.
“Sustainable practices, strict regulations and eco-friendly technologies are crucial for mitigating the environmental impact and securing a sustainable future for Jamaica,” he said.
Bunting said that despite the Planning Institute of Jamaica’s (PIOJ’s) economic review for the January to September 2023 period showing that mining and quarrying was the star performer which grew by 123 per cent, “we are sacrificing the natural environment for a tiny fraction of the value it holds for future generations”.
Bunting pointed out that bauxite mining in Jamaica has led to deforestation, soil erosion, habitat destruction disrupting biodiversity. He noted as well that the operations generate dust and noise, harming air quality, agriculture and wildlife.
Likewise, he said alumina processing contributes to climate change through energy intensive processes, emitting greenhouse gases. Further, toxic by-products like red mud threaten water sources, aquatic life, and community health.
The Opposition senator further argued that the taxes and levies to Government from the industry have been reduced to a trickle, relative to prior periods, adding that the obligations to reclaim and restore the mined out pits within a defined period are most often not being observed by the operators.
Under the terms of the agreement the Government has with bauxite companies, mined-out lands are supposed to be restored by replacing the top soil — which is usually removed and set aside before mining begins — and regrassing for animal grazing or agricultural pursuits after extraction.
However, Bunting, who is a former People’s National Party (PNP) Member of Parliament for Manchester Central until he lost the seat to the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) Rhoda Crawford, claims that there are pits in Manchester Central and South that have been 95 per cent mined for over a decade “and I am absolutely sure there’s no intention of these companies to ever do the reclamation in those pits”.
Further highlighting the extent of the destruction of forests and farmlands caused by mining, Bunting showed fellow senators slides of Manchester South and Central in 1984 which were well-forested as opposed to 2021, “where there is hardly any forest; it’s just scrub”.
“Scrub is when they do the so-called reclamation. Even with the six inches of topsoil, which is all that is required, the first heavy rain comes, washes off that six inches of top soil and the scrub that’s left cannot grow crops, cannot even grow grass properly. So you really have a permanent deforestation of the areas,” he said.
He noted that the same also pertains in some areas of St Ann and Clarendon where mining is carried out.
At the same time, the Government, through Agriculture, Fisheries and Mining State Minister Franklin Witter has acknowledged the impact of mined-out lands.
Addressing a meeting of the bauxite subcommittee of the Manchester Parish Development Committee (MPDC) in October this year, the state minister said that the matter of reclamation of mined-out lands has been a sore point over the years and “we have to ensure that we look at the rules, regulations and conditions, so that companies abide by them, and how these lands can aid in agriculture”.
He said that there is opportunity to leverage the link between farming and mining to address some of the challenges affecting the agriculture sector, including access to land and water.
He noted, for example, that stakeholders can work together to provide mined-out spaces for water harvesting to support agriculture.