Jamaica: Corporate Exploitation by the Bauxite Ore Industry

Employees working on the dome of Jamaica Bauxite Partners plant at Port Rhodes in St. Ann, Jamaica. The Caribbean island is the third largest producer of bauxite ore in the world, after Australia and Guinea. (Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP-Getty Images)

Should you wish to evaluate the management ethic and the rarefied aesthetic values of those who manage the Jamaican bauxite industry you need go no further than Roxburgh, a spot quite near the geographic center of the country and which happens to be an important place in Jamaican history.

Roxburgh, which used to be a place of tranquility and peace, of big old guangos and expansive views in all directions of the rolling green hills of Manchester, is now fatally composed of bauxite. On Melrose Hill, before the turn off to Roxburgh to the south there once was a ravine cut through meters of solid bauxite, dark red, like living flesh, frozen.

At Roxburgh, off the beaten track like most other bauxitic obscenities, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (J.B.I.), the Commissioner Of Mines and Geology (C.M.G.), the mining companies and the Jamaican bauxite workers have combined to create a shambles out of what is supposed to be a national monument. A shambles, in the old meaning of the word, is a slaughterhouse, a vision of bloody confusion, an end to order and civilization.

So it is at Roxburgh, the birthplace of Norman Manley, the man most of us revere as the Father of the Nation. But there must be others who don't share that respect and reverence and their appetites have been unleashed at Roxburgh, where green tranquility has been butchered and gouged by men seeking to despoil this shrine. There's no accounting for tastes, nor for power.

I don't know who ordered this disaster, who approved it, or who drove the bulldozers. I don't want to know. What I want to know is, who will protect the public interest?

Half a century ago some of us were fighting trade union battles not won even now. The head of the Chamber of Commerce, Richard Youngman, the head of the Industrial Development Corporation, Robert Lightbourne and Jamaica's leading capitalist, N.N. "Dickie" Ashenheim were all busy trying to convince Jamaicans that bauxite workers' pay should be in line with the average pittance paid in sugar and other so called industries.

People like me campaigned for the union line that bauxite workers pay should reflect the companies' ability to pay. We won, and hoped the higher wages would trickle down and produce a benign multiplier effect. The reality was different. As Michael Kaufman wrote (in "Jamaica Under Manley") bauxite created a "high-income ghetto within an underdeveloped economy, representing a point of disequilibrium within the economy. … This is but one contradiction between national capitalist development and the expansion of multinational capital."

There were other malignant effects. Bauxite owned 19 percent (one in every five acres) of Jamaica's farmland — some of the best — removing them from economic production and driving the communities that lived on the land into exile into the ghettoes of Kingston, Brixton and Brooklyn.

Although the 1974 Manley initiative restored Jamaican ownership of the land previously owned by the companies, the more recent policies of the Jamaican bauxite managers have restored the status quo ante — where, legally or illegally, the J.B.I. and the C.M.G. have again sterilized Jamaican farmland and destroyed our capacity to feed ourselves.

Meanwhile, bauxite is the only remaining source of revenue for the trade unions and this makes the unions absolutely dependent on the companies for survival. To say, as I do, that bauxite is a "Bad Thing" is to court virulent hostility.

What the unions do not realize is that there are alternatives to bauxite mining that are at least as lucrative to their members and would in fact contribute to real human and economic development. The union leaders have not thought about "Life after bauxite," preferring to think of Jamaica as a gigantic quarry which, in the fullness of time, will be reduced to a limestone bas relief submerged twice a day by the Caribbean Sea. Then the whole island will be a beach.

The bauxite companies have the responsibility to clean up the mess they left behind at their red mud lakes, at least two of which — Kirkvine and Mount Rosser — pose catastrophic and immediate threats to the lives and property of tens of thousands of people in the neighboring downstream towns, villages, farms factories and highways.

Jamaica is one of the most seismically active areas in the world and we have experienced two of the most disastrous earthquakes in this hemisphere within the last three centuries. In their red mud ponds and in other depositories the bauxite managers have stored 63,000,000,000 gallons of red mud and other toxic waste. This waste is equivalent to 70,000 times the capacity of Jamaica's largest fresh water store, Mona Reservoir.

If Mona or Hermitage were to rupture, thousands of people would die from impact injuries and drowning. If the red mud lake at mount Rosser should decide to take a stroll down the mountain we would lose the refinery itself, Ewarton and Linstead, everything in the Rio Cobre gorge and the Bog Walk area, in addition to thousands of acres of citrus and other farmland, thousands of human lives and hundreds of thousands of livestock. Possibly large parts of Spanish Town and Portmore would become uninhabitable. The Kirkvine disaster would be at least as dreadful.

Since it is clear, as the United States Corps of Engineers said four years ago, that Jamaica cannot absorb any more red mud, we need to find better ways of dealing with these problems.

With the billions owed by the mining companies we could finance some intelligent, appropriate sustainable development. We could start by removing and stabilizing the red mud. The flatter, desert areas left behind by mining could be used as sites for solar power plants, since they get between 11 and 13 hours of sunshine a day. The mined-out pits should be waterproofed by leaving a patina of bauxite supplemented by rammed earth. And since the C.M.G. may not be aware that he is entitled to give directions to mining companies as to exactly how much they may mine and even the profiles of their digs — someone should tell him. Perhaps a writ of mandamus might accelerate his willingness to recover damages from the mining companies for all that they have neglected to do.

Meanwhile in the rehabilitated pits we could establish public fishponds in which people would pay per pound for the fish they caught. The pond waters could be used for irrigation and for neighborhood tourism, boating and bird watching.

The Public Defender should attempt to enforce specific performance of dishonored contracts between the companies and poor communities such as in Aboukir, Sawyers, Mocho and dozens of others who were cheated out of their livelihoods and conned into relocating to various 'no mans lands.'

Building their houses, building facilities to manufacture wind turbines and photovoioltaic cells would generate income to pay for decent new housing and to invest in cooperative family farms out of the old sugar estates.

The ordinary Jamaican knows we can do all these things and more. It is only the politicians, the bureaucrats and the merchants who believe we are helpless.

John Maxwell a veteran Jamaican journalist. He has covered Caribbean affairs for more than 40 years and is currently a columnist for The Jamaica Observer. This article was published in the Black Agenda Report, www.blackagendareport.com.