Contentious quest for red gold
St Bess on edge as bauxite company eyes new lands for mining; residents lament broken promises
With memories of unfulfilled commitments by bauxite-alumina firms in search of red gold over the years, residents in proximity to fresh areas being eyed for mining in St Elizabeth are seeking assurances from the operators of the JISCO Alpart plant that all efforts will be made to protect their interest.
The Chinese-owned firm is seeking an environmental permit to mine 700 acres of land in or near 11 communities, including Fellowship, Southampton, Northampton, and Goshen.
Santa Cruz – one of the major towns in the Breadbasket Parish – is also on the radar, with plans to mine lands in the vicinity of the St Elizabeth Technical High School and properties near the town’s health centre.
“Alpart or the Government should not expect this generation to be pushed around ... . The people are concerned because all that is being spoken about is what the Chinese owners want; nothing about the welfare of the Jamaican people,” said Layton Smith, councillor of the Myersville division.
“You cannot just roll in and mine as you would have done in the past without proper dialogue. There must be consultation with the people,” he insisted.
The Sunday Gleaner has learnt that fewer than a dozen residents had turned out for a community consultation meeting on the matter in March.
Smith, who served at the management level at Alpart under a previous operator, says most of the mined-out lands in his division are yet to be reclaimed to the required standard.
“There are unresolved issues from past operations, and I have continued to ask NEPA, ‘Why are we not holding these bauxite companies accountable?’” he said, referring to the National Environment and Planning Agency, the State’s environmental regulator.
RISK OF IMPACT
In its 418-page environment impact assessment (EIA), JISCO said that mined-out pits will be rehabilitated and restored to various end uses such as pasture, housing, agriculture and greenhouses, but the company did not respond to Sunday Gleaner questions, saying that they had to be first discussed with senior management.
The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) is calling for more details on the project before a permit is granted, pointing out that the EIA does not consider factors such as climate change and charging that it underplayed the risk of impact on water quality.
“We know that bauxite mining affects the lives and livelihood of nearby communities through its impact on air quality, water quality, agriculture and the ecology, so following our review of the proposed bauxite mining and quarrying at the ‘Outer Valley’ section of SEPL 541, St Elizabeth, Jamaica, we expressed serious concerns about the adequacy of the EIA in its current state and strongly suggested that it be revised to consider comments submitted prior to NEPA making any decision,” JET CEO Theresa Rodriquez-Moodie told The Sunday Gleaner.
She added that mitigation measures in the EIA were quite general and not specific enough and that the impression was being created that “mining would only be for 10 years when the EIA reported that JISCO needs 25 years of mining for financial viability”.
Up to press time, NEPA did not respond to questions sent by The Sunday Gleaner. Calls to its offices also went unanswered.
Residents living near mud lakes or haul roads have blamed successive governments for failing to establish the necessary regulatory framework to hold mining firms accountable.
They also acknowledge that their protests are usually quietened with cash compensation, social welfare initiatives or scholarship grants from the mining firm.
The Jamaica Bauxite Institute was established in the 1970s to mediate conflicts between companies, workers and communities, but a JET report has noted that while some residents who accepted resettlement welcomed freedom from the dust and noise and the improved homes, oftentimes there was dissatisfaction with soil quality and limited access to basic services.
“I moved my family from Lower Warminster to where I am now more than 30 years ago, but I am still waiting on a title for my place,” a resident in the Myersville Housing Scheme complained. “This situation is stopping those of us who relocated here from doing business because we have no proof of ownership.”
Residents in Goshen, Peru and Northampton are not willing to start over.
“Mi deh yah so fi donkey years, so I won’t allow anyone to disrupt my livelihood with empty promises,” one farmer said. “This has been home. I am going nowhere.”
Former St Elizabeth South Eastern Member of Parliament Len Blake, who chairs the Alpart Community Council that seeks to ensure that communities are benefiting from the refinery’s operation, rejected an invitation to discuss the residents’ concerns, pointing to the EIA instead.
‘RECIPE FOR DISASTER’
St Elizabeth North Western is set to have a high concentration of mining activity, but residents are anxiously waiting on more details, including how the bauxite would be transported to the refinery.
“Our road is already inadequate and to include trucking bauxite from the pit to the plant will be a recipe for disaster,” one businessman argued. “Additionally, some of the areas slated for mining are too close to private homes.”
Donovan Pagon, councillor for the Braes River division, said the residents were right to be anxious.
“I don’t trust these bauxite companies because they make promises to fill the holes after mining, but they don’t do anything. They just leave gaping holes in the area and when they leave it like that, the lands are useless,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
“They have not started mining in my area, but the people are now uncomfortable,” Pagon said. “Some were born there and, in some cases, loved ones are buried on the properties, but they are now faced with uncertainties. They do not deserve this.”
New Building is one of several mined-out communities in St Elizabeth, but while mining activity ceased in the 1970s, nothing has been done to restore the space for alternative use.
Several sinkholes can be seen throughout the once-vibrant farming community, but the failure of the mining companies to reclaim the mined-out pits forced farmers into coal mining, animal rearing and ganja cultivation. It is also seen as the cause for the subsequent rural-to-urban drift.
After the bauxite extraction, the rustic community became a relocation settlement. It is now populated with households relocated from other parts of the parish to facilitate the search for red gold, but the infrastructure is lacking. The roads are in disrepair and the refinery no longer provides potable water to the adjoining community.
“They have never even attempted to refill these sinkholes,” said Linton, who has been living in the community for 21 years. “I have to burn coal to survive because the soil is not healthy for real farming.”
Linton is not anticipating much improvement for his beleaguered community, but said the bauxite company already has infrastructure in place in neighbouring Montpelier for families displaced by the mining activities.
Sixty-one-year-old Doran Griffiths, who has been living in New Building since 1969, recalled his family giving up their home in the community of Punchbowl.
“Punchbowl is near the mud lake, so my family was offered the opportunity to choose our property here,” he said. “I was eight and the last of four children, so for me, it was just being where family is, but it must have been emotional for my parents to leave.
“Kaiser was running things in those days and they offered us the equivalent of our land in Punchbowl and were willing to offer more. They also built back our house, and if you had a water well, you are getting back everything, and yes, your land title.”
Only three houses were in New Building when Griffiths and his family arrived, but it is now home to many others. Properties were also leased for commercial and other private use, while squatting is becoming a growing problem.
Rumours of a resumption of mining have caused a stir after notices to vacate were reportedly served on illegal occupants or those who have breached their lease agreements.
But Griffiths does not believe that the notices being served by the Chinese owners have anything to do with mining.
“There is nothing left to mine on these lands. They took out all the value and left the community in decline,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.
Like other members of the community, Griffiths is hoping that New Building will benefit from any additional infrastructure to be placed in Montpelier, such as water, which residents now have to purchase at high rates after Alpart reportedly reneged on a commitment to supply the community with the commodity several years ago.