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I was in the soursop tree because I wanted to see close-up, the damage the people said was caused to

their roofs by the toxic and corrosive dust and fumes emanating from the Jamalco alumina refinery.



 Book by John Maxwell

How to Make Our Own News: A Primer for Environmentalist and Journalists

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My Grandfather’s Bones

Environmental Hazards of Bauxite Mining in Jamaica

By John Maxwell


My maternal grandfather's bones lie somewhere underneath the alumina refinery at Nain, safe at least from the caustic soda and soda ash which pollutes the air breathed by his neighbour's descendants, sickens their livestock, and corrodes their aluminum roofs. 

Beginning six decades ago, bauxite mining companies began to buy up huge areas of land in Jamaica, in areas where the earth was red, as red as blood when newly dug. The people from whom they bought the land were happy.

There was no irrigation in St Elizabeth, St Ann and Manchester, and the land they sold was in their opinion, not really good farmland. That was not true, as my friend Rolly Simms and his neighbours proved in Mocho, in Clarendon, where they grew huge crops of vegetables on bauxite land fertilised by chicken, cow and goat manure – as they still do in parts of St Elizabeth.

That was before the bauxite companies came to Mocho in the sixties and their coming was in a way providential for the farmers there: they had been bankrupted by the failure of the Marrakech and Arawak hotels which had bought thousands of pounds of vegetables from them and went bankrupt without paying.

In January 1978, when I was chairman of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority, I dislocated my shoulder and nearly broke my neck falling out of a soursop tree in Hayes Cornpiece, in Clarendon. 

I was in the soursop tree because I wanted to see close-up, the damage the people said was caused to their roofs by the toxic and corrosive dust and fumes emanating from the Jamalco alumina refinery. I went to Hayes at the invitation of Hugh Shearer, MP for the constituency and former Prime Minister, who, in addition to explaining to me the problems of the people, confided to me what he said were the real reasons for the turmoil then rocking the Jamaica Labour Party.

I was joking with Shearer as I climbed the tree, and didn't pay enough attention to the branch my foot rested on, which is why I fell out of the tree.

My shoulder was the least of our worries that day or in the weeks that followed. Nothing that Dudley Thompson, then Minister of Mining, or Shearer or I or could do, could persuade Jamalco to admit that their factory played any part in the misery afflicting the people of Hayes Cornpiece.

"Even before community concerns escalated to public protest, the complaints of illness caught the attention of University of the West Indies medical student Patrece Charles-Freeman. After an exhaustive study of emissions and medical records within a 10-mile radius of the Halse Hall bauxite-alumina operation in neighboring Clarendon parish, Charles-Freeman this month submitted a doctoral thesis documenting dramatically elevated incidence of asthma, sinusitis and allergies among those living close to the mining and refining operations.

“In her study of 2,559 people, Charles-Freeman found that 37% of adults and 21% of children living within six miles of the facility suffered sinusitis. Asthma afflicted 23% of adults and 26% of children. Allergies, likewise, were markedly more prevalent among those who lived closest to the plant than in control groups seven to 10 miles distant” (Carol J Williams–Los Angeles Times, Oct 14, 2004).

The Los Angeles Times story also reports: "One study underway at the International Centre for Environmental and Nuclear Sciences at the University of the West Indies is measuring how deeply bauxite and other heavy metals have penetrated the food chain. The center's director, Gerald Lalor, notes that the soil around Mandeville is also replete with cadmium, mercury, lead, arsenic, uranium and other elements known to pose health risks to humans."

Jamalco denied liability. They have never admitted any environmental damage as far as I can discover. 

They never have and they never will. A  few days ago some of their top executives went to Mocho where the mining manager, Mr Driscoll said inter alia “There are some things that should have been fixed, and I have said it before, a long time ago.  But they haven’t been (done) and we now have to fix it.….  I could sit here and try to apologise.  I don’t think it’s going to serve us any purpose now.”  Amen.

Red Mud, Red Eyes and Red Handed

According to a scientific paper written by the head of Jamaica's water Resources Authority: 

"Jamaica’s bauxite/alumina industry produces a waste product known locally as “red mud”. This waste has been disposed of, for over 30 years since the plants were constructed, in unsealed mined out pits within the karstic limestone. The karstic limestone is the principal aquifer in the island and supplies 80% of the islands water supply.  The waste is more than 85% water, is highly caustic and rapidly infiltrates to the ground water table. Ground water contaminated by red mud shows increased sodium, pH and alkalinity concentrations. Monitoring of ground water around the four (4) processing plants in the island has indicated contamination of water resources.

Approximately 200 million cubic metres (MCM) of groundwater have been contaminated and another 200 MCM is at risk of contamination. The red mud ponds are in the direct path of ground water flow and pose a serious threat to ground water reservoirs and consequently the ground water reserves of the island.(my bold face) Relocation of the ponds would not remove the threat."  (Abstract: "Contamination of water resources by the bauxite alumina operations in Jamaica -Basil Fernandez ).

(For comparison, The Mona Reservoir holds about 800 million gallons of water. 200 million cubic metres are about 40 billion gallons of water—enough to fill 80,000 reservoirs the size of Mona.)

Since they began operations half a century ago the bauxite companies have mined perhaps 5 thousand hectares (12,000) of Jamaican soil under laws which theoretically compelled them to restore the land to its original state after the bauxite was extracted. If you fly over Jamaica tomorrow you will be able to see huge wounds in the flesh of our country, from which bauxite was gouged and the topsoil never replaced.  That land is sterile, and you can make you own estimates of how much production has been lost in the years since the earth was ripped and torn to make frying pans and planes and lots of money, for the financiers who owned the aluminum companies. 

If in all those years the bauxite companies have made any unsolicited contribution to the welfare of this country or its people, I would like to know. There have been public relations gestures, such as the establishment of a chair in the Environment at UWI.

The Widow’s Mite

The displacement of people from bauxite land disturbed not only the bones of our forefathers but also disrupted the cultures of our people. Many flooded into Kingston, to create huge and murderous slums. Some went abroad, taking their energy and skills with them. These days, their widow's mites, repatriated from the United States and Britain, contribute more to our national income than does the bauxite which chased them away. And most of the bauxite contribution is only notional anyway. What actually remains in Jamaica is picayune. More especially since a few years ago a leading light in the trade union movement called for Alcoa to be given a 'bly' by the people of Jamaica. They were paying too much tax!!!

 Mr Patterson agreed.

The CEO of ALCOA, the world's largest aluminum producer last year received remuneration of US$4.4 million (J$290 million) a base salary of US$1.3 million, plus a $1.6 million cash bonus, along with $1.5 million in restricted stock. Alcoa's shareholders spent another $200,000 paying for, among other items, some of his taxes and club dues. The company's revenues for 2005 exceeded US$26 Billion. It was to  this CEO and this company that Jamaica made its essential contribution—the Widow's Mite indeed to support a man who gets one million Jamaican dollars for every day he works.

To the Uttermost Farthing . . .

The mining company  does not only destroy the land from which it extracts its wealth. The roads it carves into the mining areas open up the forests to loggers and  woodcutters—firestick harvesters and charcoal burners. The collateral damage is several times the damage done directly by the mining companies. 

In the seventies when I saw from the air some of the craters created by bauxite mining, I asked Dudley Thompson whether we could not seal the bottoms of some of these excavations so that they could retain water for farmers and function also as public fish farms. When he asked the Jamaica Bauxite Institute he was told that the mining  companies were entitled to all the bauxite in every deposit and that they were determined to extract every last ounce. This meant that no clay would be left to seal the holes and most of the water they caught would simply be lost.

So we lose production and we lose water. But there is more, much more. According to ALCOA’s Annual report, plans are in place to double production at Jamalco to at least 2.8 million tons per year of alumina, “making it among the world's lowest cost refineries". That's why they needed an ease, a bly, the widow's mite. Without that, they probably couldn't afford it.

What the Annual report does not say is that between the Jamaica Bauxite Institute and ALCOA, there has been a plan kept secret for 13 years, to build a million ton a year alumina refinery in the middle of Jamaica's most ecologically and environmentally valuable real estate.

This kind of threat is not peculiar to us. In Australia, ALCOA is busy destroying the Jarrah forests in Western Australia. In Iceland they are wrecking priceless glaciers, canyons and lakes and blighting the country’s unique landscape to build a hydropower plant and aluminum smelter. In Trinidad they want to build power stations and smelters against the will and wishes of the people.

And the company’s biggest refinery—in Rockfield, Texas—is the worst polluter in Texas and is abstracting the common water supply for sale to townships of its choice. The secret behind ALCOA’s dirty air: the Rockfield refinery is located on a huge seam of soft brown coal—lignite. And burning lignite is like burning dirt. 

Unfortunately for us, and probably unknown to the Government, there is a huge deposit of lignite in the Cockpit Country. 

Insulting Charles Darwin 

As I pointed out in an earlier column (“Land of Look Behind” – October 1) the Cockpit Country is a riot of biodiversity and one of the most precious places on the planet because of this. It is a living laboratory for the study of evolution and, unlike the Galapagos Islands, it is relatively easily accessible to scholars and students and eventually, to people who simply want to enjoy the wilderness.

Of course, when we protect the Cockpit Country, we need to protect its integrity, limiting access to some parts to scientists and qualified researchers. There is enough of this treasure to go round for millennia—but not for bauxite. 

What is planned—whatever the developers say—is nothing less than the total destruction of a priceless resource in exchange  for a polluting alumina refinery, the destruction of Rio Bueno harbour and the world famous coral cliffs above and below the waterline there.  Below the waterline are corals and an unimaginable wonderland of aquatic life, already threatened by climate change/global warming, and about to be sentenced to death by Alcoa and the JBI.

Some people just do not understand that some of us are unwilling to swap our culture and scientific treasures for just a few million more frying pans or a few thousand more Boeing 747s.

Unfortunately, what is being planned for the Cockpit Country is part of a massive degradation of the parish of Trelawny in the name of development. The developers seem to be hoping to compromise the Prime Minister by involving her in such pagan rites as the groundbreaking for the latest Spanish disaster-by-the-sea.

Mrs Simpson Miller needs to advise herself urgently. She needs to round up all  the developers and force them to disgorge their plans and feasibility studies, and to seek advice as well from  scientists from Caribbean universities and farther afield.  What is at stake is much more important than we know.

We risk making world-class buffoons of ourselves if we continue on this totally anti-environmental, anti-ecological, anti-civilisation course.

The Prime Minister needs to know that 13 years after we signed it, the SPAW protocol, which forbids such obscenities, is still not ratified by Jamaica – alone – of all the significant countries of the wider Caribbean. Yet, ironically, the Protocol is officially housed at the Seabed Headquarters at the bottom of Duke Street almost within sight of  Gordon House.

There is an island (when last I heard) called Nauru, in the South Pacific. Like Jamaica, Nauru was composed almost entirely of a valuable mineral. In the case of Nauru the resource was phosphate, the fossilised excrement of seabirds. The Island was ravaged for its guano; its people had no say in what happened. Now, they are looking for a roost somewhere. The mining has reduced Nauru to its bare bones, and global warming and sea level rise will soon conceal the crime. 

We have nowhere else to go.

Copyright© 2006 John Maxwell

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I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

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Ancient African Nations

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