Cockpit Country: “We Must Fight For It With Every Breath”


In case you were going to ask, the answer is yes. Cockpit Country is still very much under threat from bauxite mining.

Mike Schwartz campaigns against the "invasion" of Cockpit Country by the bulldozers of Noranda, as a spokesman for the Stakeholders Group. (Photo: Gleaner)
Mike Schwartz campaigns against the “invasion” of Cockpit Country by the bulldozers of Noranda, as a spokesman for the Stakeholders Group. (Photo: Gleaner)

Several weeks ago now, I found myself at a press briefing/meeting that was extraordinary in many ways. A large delegation of some sixty residents of the Cockpit Country had come to the city.  “We knocked on doors today,” said Mike Schwartz, as he welcomed the meeting. Schwartz is a scientist at the Windsor Research Centre and a spokesperson for the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group (CCSG). The group had delivered letters to the relevant Government ministries that day (September 23, 2015); they had a mixed reception. At the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), there was dialogue, it was reported. At the Mines and Geology Division of the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining (MSTEM) they spoke to two people “eventually,” Schwartz observed, but were unable to talk to the Commissioner of Mines and cameras were not allowed. MSTEM’s Principal Director of the Policy, Planning, Development & Evaluation Division Dr. Oral Rainford was present at the briefing, it was noted. Additionally, letters were delivered to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Jamaica Bauxite Institute.

Cockpit Country residents listen intently to the presentations at the press briefing. (My photo)
Cockpit Country residents, from several communities, listen intently to the presentations at the press briefing. (My photo)

The meeting began quite late, because everything had taken much longer than expected. Dragging yourself from one government office to another and waiting in various lobbies and reception areas is indeed exhausting. But the group that assembled at the PCJ Auditorium in Kingston – in the very same building as the Ministry of Mining etc. – still had plenty of energy (as we found out a little later). The delegation was not in the least disheartened. In fact, some of the visitors looked as if they were just getting started. 

A view across Cockpit Country - a huge water resource, rich in biodiversity. (Photo: Labrish Jamaica)
A view across Cockpit Country – a huge water resource, rich in biodiversity. (Photo: Labrish Jamaica)

What do the campaigners want? The basic message remains: Leave the precious resource of Cockpit Country alone. Their specific demand is for the Special Exclusive Prospecting Licence #451 to be rescinded; and for no further expansion of mining in western St. Ann and the Cockpit Country. According to MSTEM’s website, for this (renewable) Licence, “The holder of a Prospecting Right may enter and prospect on any land for any minerals. He does not need to own the land but he must notify the landowner or occupier before entering.” Of course, prospecting is not the same thing as actually mining, but haul roads have already been cut for this purpose.

Environmental journalist Petre Williams-Raynor has written numerous reports on Cockpit Country. She was typing away throughout the meeting. (My photo)
Environmental journalist Petre Williams-Raynor has written numerous reports on Cockpit Country. She was typing away throughout the meeting. (My photo)

This is all happening while the Ministry continues to dither endlessly over the so-called boundaries to Cockpit Country. There are several different versions of the boundaries (six), including one from the CCSG, which outlines the largest area. Ministry of Environment officials have confirmed that, having deliberated, their recommendations were submitted to Cabinet for a final decision in August. Cabinet doesn’t seem in a hurry to address the issue.

At the press briefing, several residents took to the microphone. The tone of their speeches grew more tense as the evening continued. We sat on the edge of our seats.

Linsford Hamilton of Madras, St. Ann: "Money is a catching thing." (My photo)
Linsford Hamilton of Madras, St. Ann: “Money is a catching thing.” (My photo)

Linsford Hamilton from Madras in St. Ann spoke in a ringing voice about destruction. He also said a prayer. “We want [the mining] to stop now!” he cried. “This is land given to us by God. If we destroy creation, we destroy ourselves.” He described the scars bauxite mining has left on the St. Ann landscape: “Pits all around…holes, dust on our homes, water spoiled.” Mr. Hamilton added, “We cannot farm the way we used to. St. Ann is no longer a ‘rich parish.'” A woman in the audience murmured, “Kaiser gone with everything” (Kaiser is a predecessor of the Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partnership, in which the Jamaican Government has a majority share). Mr. Hamilton talked about greed, saying those who sold out their land to the bauxite company did not understand that “money is a catching thing.” 

Clavie Johnson urges vigilance and resilience. (My photo)
Clavie Johnson urges vigilance and resilience. “We owe it to our ancestors,” he declared. (My photo)

Principal of the Elderslie Primary and Junior High School in St. Elizabeth Mr. Clavie Johnson was forthright. He spoke of the “need to be vigilant and ready.” He also described in detail the huge holes that had been dug by mining interests, just a few yards away from people’s homes; an “invasion” as Mike Schwartz has described the mining companies’ activities. I would perhaps call it “depredation,” a nibbling away at communities, upsetting the natural order of things.

The Jamaican Giant Swallowtail is the largest swallowtail in the western hemisphere. (Photo: swallowtails.net)
The Jamaican Giant Swallowtail is the largest swallowtail in the western hemisphere. (Photo: swallowtails.net)

John Gordon, from Cambridge, St. James, told us about the incredible biodiversity of the Cockpit Country. It is all around you, he said, in the eight or nine communities surrounding Catadupa, a once flourishing small town (and a stop on the old railway line). For example, Cockpit Country is home to a very small population of the Jamaican Giant Swallowtail (Pterourus homerus, formerly called Papilio homerus), an endangered species, which can also be found in some parts of the Blue and John Crow Mountains. This magnificent butterfly, the largest swallowtail in the Americas, is threatened with extinction. There are dozens of plant species that are found only in Cockpit Country and nowhere else in the world: 6 species of Lepanthes orchids; 4 species of bromeliads, 2 species of wild yam, 12 herbs, 4 herbaceous vines, 2 sub-woody vine, 4 woody scramblers, 39 shrubs, 15 shrubs or small trees and 15 tree species. It has an incredible range of reptiles and amphibians, including some fascinating (often tiny) frogs, lizards and so on. And the birds… Well, don’t get me started. All of Jamaica’s endemic species except one can be found there.

Mr. Gordon: Bauxite mining will destroy biodiversity, remove precious topsoil for farming and damage precious water resources in Cockpit Country. (My photo)
Mr. Gordon: Bauxite mining will destroy biodiversity, remove precious topsoil for farming and deplete precious water resources in Cockpit Country. (My photo)

Mr. Gordon asked some challenging questions: “Where has the money gone?” The Jamaican government’s bauxite levy is supposed to go into the Capital Development Fund. Whom has the bauxite money benefited? “Where are we going to live – in holes?” Gordon asked. “What can we do without any soil? We cannot plant yam on a rock!” Bauxite mining removes 8 – 10 inches of topsoil. “Where will the water go?” During the recent droughts, there have been discussions about taking water from western Jamaica, where it is plentiful, to the city of Kingston, where it is not. “What will happen to tourism, then? Will the famous Dunn’s River falls run dry?” asked Gordon.

A young Accompong Maroon, Tyshan Wright, made perhaps the most passionate and evocative speech of all. “It is sad that we have to struggle for the same land that our ancestors fought for,” Wright said. “The blood of our ancestors still wets the earth. We can still smell it in the trees…” The land breathes the past.

My photographs of the Maroon drummers and dancers cannot really convey the intensity of the moment. (My photo)
My photographs of the Maroon drummers and dancers cannot really convey the intensity of the moment. Tyshan Wright is on the right. (My photo)

The press briefing ended. And then, we city-dwellers, with our cell phones and laptops, were stunned in our seats (I was not the only one who felt this way). The Maroons drummed and danced; first Tyshan sprinkled white rum on the stage, invoking the spirits of their ancestors. I cannot describe the drumming. It was piercing, insistent. It had a hard and ringing quality that was very different from the softer drumming of Rastafarians. As we left the auditorium, the sounds echoed in my head and the scent of the rum lingered in my nostrils. The Cockpit Country had come to town, and it had left its mark.

Issues such as this (and the proposed Chinese-built transshipment port at Goat Islands) are way below the radar, as Election Day approaches. Such controversial matters are best put on the back burner, during the campaign; they are potential hot potatoes.

And this is exactly why I am writing this post now. Lest we forget Cockpit Country, all the animals and birds and plants and trees that live there – and those human beings who live there too, and depend on its rich bounty.

“We must fight for it, fight for it with every breath,” in the words of Tyshan Wright. For his ancestors, and for the future.

P.S. I wrote in some detail about the value of Cockpit Country in my blog for the Jamaica Gleaner, last November. If you would like to read it, the link is here: http://gleanerblogs.com/socialimpact/?p=2310 You can also visit the wonderfully informative website maintained by the Windsor Research Centre here: http://www.cockpitcountry.com/index.html

The fierce drumming stunned us city dwellers. The spirit of the Cockpit Country came to town. (My photo)
The fierce drumming stunned us city dwellers. The spirit of the Cockpit Country came to town. (My photo)

5 thoughts on “Cockpit Country: “We Must Fight For It With Every Breath”

  1. Wonderful post Emma, impressive participation and so great to read the comments from community members. Thank you for helping to keep this important issue alive. Cockpit Country is a treasure that belongs to the people – destructive mining for short-term gains has no place here.

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    1. Thank you so much, Lisa. I could not agree with you more! I don’t want people to forget this, so thought it would be a good time. Yes, the comments from stakeholders were amazing and so powerfully delivered!

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