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Costing the bauxite benefit


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My introduction to bauxite was, I suspect, more interesting than most other people. It started before my eyes had reached my knees one afternoon when a truck, loaded with cows, stalled at the 'keep left' in the middle of Brown's Town. The driver wanted to find my father's office to find out where to deliver the cows he had purchased from his boss at Lydford Estate. The animals were so skeletal, so emaciated, that — behind his back — my father became the butt of several off-colour jokes for some time. The cows were added to his herd on a part of Huntley Estate across the road from Minard Estate and, surprisingly, they thrived.

Lydford property was on everybody's lips for another reason as well. The word on the street was that the owner “dig up some dirt on the property and sen it weh. Dem tes' it an sen back fi seh di lan nuh good”.

My mother, a teacher whose Bible was the newspapers, sat me down one evening after hearing the helper give me her version of the story to “make sense of all this nonsense”. The correct name of the man in question was Sir Alfred DaCosta. He was the man in that immaculately starched and ironed white suit who turned up late for the memorial service for King George VI some weeks earlier. Sir Alfred was a very wealthy man who owned a lot of land and cows, but grass would not grow on the land. Soil tests showed that the soil was not suitable for grass, but it had other uses. That soil was first discovered in a place called Les Baux in France. That's why it was called bauxite, and not “backside” as most of the townsfolk were calling it.

The words “backside”, “bauxite”, “Reynolds”, and “Kaiser” — the mining companies — punctuated almost every discussion for as long as I could remember.

The first shipment left from Ocho Rios. Things moved swiftly. Within five years Jamaica had become the leading producer of bauxite in the world.

In 1959, Alcan had built a second refinery at Ewarton, St Catherine. By 1961, a fourth company, ALCOA, had begun operating in Jamaica. By 1968, Alcan had brought the capacity of its two refineries to more than one million tons per year. In 1969 a new plant was commissioned by ALPART at Nain, St Elizabeth. In 1971, Revere Copper and Brass opened the island's fourth alumina plant at Maggotty. Two years later, ALCOA built the country's fifth refinery at Halse Hall, Clarendon. Chinese mining giant Jisco recently purchased a plant and has sent signals that it wants to expand.

The bauxite industry is second only to the tourism sector in contribution of foreign exchange. A Fitch Ratings Inc assessment reported that mining was responsible for “one percentage point of Jamaica's growth of 1.8 per cent in the third quarter of 2018”. Of primary concern for government officials is the fact that whenever the global economy sneezes, the industry catches a very bad cold.

But there seems to be another side to this financial blessing. Bauxite is the most abundant neurotoxic metal on Earth. The mining-related environmental issues include air, water, and soil pollution due to bauxite dust. Its leaching into water sources reduces soil fertility, affects agricultural food production, and aquatic life. Workers and neighbouring communities suffer respiratory symptoms, noise-induced hearing loss and mental stress. Residents complain of dust nuisance which causes, among other things, severe coughing. This is when the larger dust particles enter their system. The smaller dust particles, however, reach the alveoli, which is the end point of the respiratory system. This can cause emphysema, pneumonia, tuberculosis, cancer, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), respiratory distress syndrome, pulmonary oedema, and asthma. Diseases which affect the alveoli can result in reduced oxygen being delivered to the tissues of our body and, consequently, may result in damage to every major organ.

Bauxite mining can contaminate water sources, especially drinking water, which become harmful due to the presence of heavy metals which are not degradable. They get deposited in river sediments and are, finally, consumed by plants and animals.

Researchers from Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at The University of the West Indies, in 1987, reported, in part, “...The landscape has been damaged, valuable agricultural soils have been replaced by badly eroded skeletal soils capable of sustaining only grass production...successful agriculture on these reclaimed lands precludes their return to traditional small farming systems.”

Recently, there was a claim that it was the bauxite companies that do air quality tests and send these to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). Could this really be true? If so, can we trust anything we hear from NEPA in future?

One reason for my concern stems from the fact that China is now a player in this industry, with plans to expand its Jamaican holdings. According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial pollution has made cancer China's leading cause of death. Every year ambient air pollution alone kills hundreds of thousands of citizens. Some 500 million Chinese are without safe and clean drinking water. Is it sane or practical to depend on the Chinese to be more concerned about pollution in our country?

I have observed that most investigations into the negative aspects of bauxite mining is of poor quality, sometimes ending with “more research needs to be done”. Could the fact that most bauxite mining activities take place in Third World countries or countries in which free speech is not encouraged explain this? For example, I have my suspicions about aluminium and Alzheimer's. The studies from the bauxite community worldwide are of poor quality and inconclusive. So I go to the PAQUID study conducted in France, which I believe to be the best quality study ever done on the subject. It found that drinking water in excess of 0.1 mg/day was associated with a doubling of dementia risk and a threefold increase in Alzheimer's risk.

Of note, the PAQUID cohort is a group of 3,777 individuals aged 65 years or older who were studied from 1988 until 2004. Researchers chose the group from at least 91 different areas of south-western France to study the effects of different environmental, behavioural, and social vectors of age-related medical conditions and diseases. One of the major research goals was to determine some of the causes of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, such as the correlation between the levels of aluminum in drinking water and the occurrence of dementia.

Mining is such an ugly, unfriendly process. It kills flora and fauna, and us eventually. Why are we going that route when we have alternatives? There are 185 medicinal plants recognised internationally. Some 86 of these are found in Jamaica. Jamaica's biological biodiversity makes it the fifth in the world in terms of endemism. NEPA claims 923 of the known plants are found only in Jamaica. Of the 3,300 species of flowers here, only 200 are catalogued. Plants do not hurt but enhance the environment. The financial potential dwarfs anything bauxite can provide. Ramgoat roses alone could.

But that's not all we were bestowed. There is a town in England called Bath. It is so called because of the mineral springs in the area. A number of industries have sprung up because of the activities generated by the springs. I will confine myself to one — tourism. Because of the marketing of the springs, there are now 80 hotels (including two five-star ones) and 126 bed and breakfasts in the area. The waters of our Milk River is rated the best in the world. It has nine times the radioactivity of Bath, England. Here is how Wikipedia describes the facilities at Milk River: “The six public baths are located in small private rooms off a seating area. Each can hold several people, but the area for changing is really only suitable for one person at a time.”

Bauxite will be gone in 30 or 40 years. I suspect it will take most of our God-given treasures with it. If we do not do a serious reassessment of our priorities, I fear our country and its people will eventually look like those cows my father purchased from the father of this industry.


Glenn Tucker, MBA, is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Observer or