The failings of bauxite/alumina provide harsh lessons
Jamaica has reaped huge benefits from the bauxite industry, now 70 years old, but which has long outdone its predecessor industrial counterparts in agriculture and manufacturing as a most significant contributor to the economy.

It’s not accidental that many Jamaicans are ambivalent, at best, towards the now-ssputtering bauxite/alumina industry despite a reputation during its heyday, years ago, for high employment and earnings.

The cold, hard fact is that people whose quality of life has declined due to pollution; and their livelihoods and physical surroundings ravaged by bauxite mining and alumina refining do not have nearly enough to show for their sacrifice.

Currently, production levels are significantly down compared to times past, partly because of the novel coronavirus pandemic’s consequences but more so plant closures.

The Kirkvine alumina refinery owned by Russian aluminium giant UC Rusal has been closed since 2009, following the global financial clash of that time.

In Nain, St Elizabeth, the JISCO/Alpart alumina refinery has remained closed since 2019 awaiting modernisation.

In Clarendon, production at the Jamalco alumina plant — halted last August by a major fire — won’t resume until a new power house is completed.

Beyond all that, experts have said for many years that the industry is approaching its end because of disappearing bauxite reserves.

Hence, not for the first time, community leaders such as those in Manchester are exploring options for the local economy after bauxite/alumina dies; and also, how to maximise benefits for the remaining life of the industry.

In central Jamaica, a decade and more ago, the growth of the business process outsourcing sector, prospects for agro-processing, community tourism, and commercial enterprises provided hope for life after bauxite. Large numbers of educated young people leaving Northern Caribbean University, other tertiary institutions and high schools boosted such growth.

It’s instructive that despite COVID-19 and the bauxite/alumina industry downturn, Mandeville, the leading town in central Jamaica, continues to grow.

Proposals at a conference last week in Mandeville hosted by the Tony Freckleton-led Manchester Parish Development Committee are not new.

Mr Freckleton wants a “cap” on money transferred from the Capital Development Fund to the Consolidated Fund so that development resources can be allocated to bauxite mining areas.

Similarly, Mr Mario Mitchell of the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), councillor for the Bellefield Division, wants more money to go “specifically” to such areas.

He wants water from wells controlled by Kirkvine to benefit residents of Manchester, most of whom have no reliable water supply. He is also calling for appropriate maintenance and upgrade of neglected infrastructure in communities developed for people displaced by bauxite mining.

Yet, back in the mid-1970s, the need for appropriate servicing of such communities was among the primary reasons for establishment of the Capital Development Fund into which money flowed from the bauxite levy imposed by the Michael Manley-led PNP Government of that time.

It’s a disgrace that in ensuing decades, that fund was largely drained by successive governments of both political parties to meet the demands of the national budget, with little thought for people in bauxite mining and alumina producing areas.

Jamaicans should recognise that failings associated with bauxite/alumina have not occurred only because of exploitive, foreign multi-national operators seeking their pound of flesh. Even more so, perhaps, it’s the result of poor, non-visionary, negligent political leadership.

Jamaicans should hold their leaders to account and to a much higher standard than is currently the case.

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