Residents of several communities in Jamaica’s north coast parish of St. Ann gathered in Claremont on September 4 to seek information from Miss Lisa Hanna, MP for southeast St. Ann, about plans for bauxite mining in that area and the construction of an alumina plant at Lydford.

Bauxite mine scars
Bauxite mine scars St Ann, Jamaica/NJCA Photo

The citizens recently learned that the government is negotiating a deal with a Chinese-American consortium to mine bauxite within a wide area of southeast St. Ann, stretching from Moneague in the east to Lumsden in the west and including the districts of Lydford, Golden Grove, Claremont, Higgin Town, and Colegate.

According to Miss Hanna, a ‘bankable feasibility study’ is being done for a bauxite mining venture and the construction of a refinery by Mincenco, a holding company comprised of China Minmetals, Century Aluminum (part-owners of St. Ann Bauxite Limited) and the Jamaican government.

The meeting was held at Miss Hanna’s constituency office in Claremont and was well attended by a wide cross-section of stakeholders representing citizens’ groups, businesses and environmental interests. Participants expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of bauxite mining and reports of health impacts on communities adjacent to refineries in St. Elizabeth, Manchester, St. Catherine and Clarendon. Many of the concerned citizens are returned residents who have built or purchased retirement homes in this quiet, rural part of St. Ann.

Some residents complained that negotiations were proceeding without consultation with the people who would be affected by the proposed mining scheme.

Miss Hanna advised the gathering that she had been aware of the negotiations since June last year, and that Mr. Patrick McIntosh, Chairman of Mincenco, had intended to inform the communities once the feasibility study was completed and the company had reached the point where they were deciding whether or not to go forward. She added that the company already appears to be satisfied that adequate amounts of bauxite exist, and is expecting to move into an assessment phase.

The MP explained that so far only a prospecting licence has been granted and work on the project is not likely to start for another two years. Miss Hanna stated that she had been told the scheme would provide 1,000 jobs, but she could not give details of the type of work or qualifications and skills required.

Concerns raised by the residents ranged from possible health and environmental impacts of the refinery, including respiratory illness and impotence, to the loss of farm land and forests and the destruction of the beautiful landscape. Local landowners bemoaned the devaluation of their properties and the loss of major investments in housing development, agriculture, agro-processing and tourism that would result from bauxite mining in the area.

Two landowners complained about being denied the right to develop their own lands: their subdivision applications have been blocked by the Jamaica Bauxite Institute because the land is within or near to a bauxite reserve. Patricia Isaacs-Green, proprietor of Green Produce Farms, said that as a result she is unable to pursue her business plans, which include a tourism project and expansion of her farm and processing capacity, which would have increased her work force from 20 to over 50 employees.

People were also concerned that a major employer such as National Meats, presently sited next to the proposed refinery site, might have to be moved from the area. Operations Manager of National Meats, Donald McDonald, said that its Lydford food processing plant currently employs some 250 workers but was undergoing a billion-dollar expansion that would provide over 500 local jobs and a guaranteed market for local produce, as the company intended to become the ‘one-stop shop’ for the north coast hotels.

Denyse Perkins, representing St. Ann Chamber of Commerce and Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, expressed alarm about the possible contamination of the aquifer that feeds the rivers in the Ocho Rios area, including Dunn’s River. Her concerns were echoed by Michael Drakulich, Managing Director of Mystic Mountain, and Tina Williams, operator of Hooves horse-back riding tours.

A resident of Discovery Bay who described herself as a ‘bauxite victim of 30 years’ lamented the failure of the Jamaican Government to protect citizens from the impacts of the bauxite industry.

In response to queries about toxic waste from the plant, Miss Hanna was unable to tell the stakeholders how or where the red mud laced with caustic soda and other chemicals would be disposed of – “maybe not even in southeast St. Ann,” she said. According to Miss Hanna, advances in processing technology could mean that waste disposal was less of a concern than in the past. However, Mr. Rudolph Jobson, a retired Reynolds employee, confirmed that it takes about four tons of bauxite to produce one ton of alumina, and for each ton of alumina produced, about one ton of red mud waste is generated.

“The disposal of the red mud should have been the first problem to be solved before considering a refinery,” said Wendy Lee, Executive Director of Northern Jamaica Conservation Association, who also expressed deep concern about the environmental impacts of the mining itself and the proposed transportation of the bauxite or alumina to Discovery Bay for shipping.

Miss Lee informed the group that in 1997 NEPA had delegated its responsibility for environmental monitoring of the bauxite industry to the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) – a situation she characterised as a conflict of interest, especially in this case where the JBI is an integral partner in the mining venture.

She said that the citizens of St. Ann were facing a choice between mining and sustainable development: mining might bring short-term economic gain for a few locals, the foreign-owned companies and the Jamaican government, but would devastate the environment and preclude other land use options. In contrast, the existing investments in agriculture, tourism and much-needed housing development would provide long-term, sustainable livelihoods and a good quality of life for people in the area.

Doubts were expressed that 1,000 local jobs would materialise. Residents cited examples of broken promises of local employment by other bauxite companies and by Chinese construction projects in Jamaica. Dr. Leahcim Semaj of The Job Bank said that modern mining and refinery settings require employees with a high degree of literacy and skills.

One community resident pointed out that St. Ann, with the most bauxite mining in Jamaica, is the poorest parish in the island, and the areas affected by mining are the ‘poorest of the poor’.

“After 50 years of bauxite mining, what do we have to show for it?” asked the disgruntled resident.

The meeting concluded with the formation of a steering committee for a citizens’ group to represent the stakeholders. Miss Hanna agreed to help facilitate dialogue between the stakeholder group and other relevant persons such as government representatives and the bauxite interests. The group, dubbed ‘St. Ann Development Watch,’ promised to involve and inform citizens from the affected communities.