Recently, I found myself on the top of a hill in South St. Elizabeth. This part of the parish has a special aura. It is warm as toast, dry as bone – and yet, fruitful. It has been called the “bread basket” of Jamaica. St. Elizabeth people are soft-spoken.
St. Elizabeth farmers are known for their industry and resourcefulness. They are used to droughts (which are now deepening, with climate change). They handwater crops, are extremely careful to harvest water, mulch their crops with guinea grass and in some areas use drip irrigation, which works very well.
That day, a group of us sheltered from the scorching sun under a naseberry tree. We later moved to a June Plum tree. Yes, it was hot.
From the hilltop, we looked down on a wide, deep valley. Right across the other side, almost floating in the hot sun, were the stately turbines of the Wigton Windfarm. Down in the valley (what a contrast) were the smoking chimneys and red mud lake of the JISCO Alpart Jamaica bauxite plant, now the largest in Jamaica and set to expand further.
There are (or were) plans to transition the power source – currently filthy diesel oil – to Liquid Natural Gas (LNG), which is more environmentally friendly. However, even LNG is a “transitional” fuel to renewables. It’s still a fossil fuel. Thankfully, we were spared a coal fired plant, which had been a major concern for a while after it was announced in Parliament.
The Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO) acquired the plant in Nain in 2017 from the Russian company UC Rusal. It had been closed for close to nine years. Last year, the company sent 52 Jamaicans to China for advanced engineering training, so that Chinese workers would not take all the well-paid jobs. It has done some community outreach (back to school events, scholarships and the like) and has just partnered with HEART Trust/NTA for further training for local workers. No complaints on that front.
Back to our hilltop. According to one resident, “All you can see is smoke at certain times of the day. Pouring out. And this is every day.”
However, as the Jamaica Environment Trust’s CEO Suzanne Stanley pointed out in a television interview just this evening, it is not just what you see. Particulate matter, tiny and invisible; and in varying amounts, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and carbon monoxide, according to the Jamaica Bauxite Institute.
The farmers have many other concerns. Firstly, there is the loss of crops due to a disease, which they believe is caused by the bauxite plant. “You can see it on the plants,” they say. It is a kind of fungus. The plant withers and dies. In this area, many farmers grow tomatoes, peppers, and various fruits. Those crops that they can salvage, I heard, go to the markets. But what condition are they in? What kind of pollution would they have absorbed? Certainly, no one checks the condition or quality of those crops that do go to the market. Moreover, I hear that the soil is unusable. A papaya farmer says this has all happened “since Alpart started operating.”
Then there are the health issues. Has the death rate gone up? So says someone who works in a local funeral parlor. From their late forties, it is claimed, local residents are dying, mainly from cancer. Bauxite companies assert that bauxite/alumina dust is not associated with cancer. There has been an increased incidence of asthma and respiratory diseases, say residents, especially when it is particularly hot and dry. Is the “dust nuisance” deadly? Has anyone researched these health issues? How far does the dust blow, on a windy day?
Has anyone tested the air quality recently?
Everything revolves around water. One resident says: “Farmers start off at a loss. They have to purchase water and seeds to get started.” Farmers insist that when rain falls, it is tainted: “It’s a different color.” The area has no piped water into homes; residents rely on catchment (rainwater harvesting) and larger government tanks for domestic use. Has anyone tested the water?
So, should those living near the plant move further away? I understand that the plant owners would offer residents a piece of land further away (with the title) if they moved, in exchange for the land the plant wanted. If they did not move, they would at least get the title to their land. I am not sure how much this has happened, in reality, over the years.
One farmer said that he thinks there should be a five-mile radius around the plant. Even on the hill above it, though, this quiet community is only three miles away. Too close.
So what do the residents and farmers want? Instead of giving out prizes for sportsmanship and good exam grades, they would like the company to sit down with them and listen to their concerns. “We don’t want the company to close down; we want to see what we can do to work together,” they say.
However, they say that the company does not want to listen. It doesn’t see itself as liable or responsible for the farmers’ woes. (On the contrary, residents should be happy and grateful for the jobs?) If the community association calls the company, “they don’t return calls.” The security guards will not let them in the gate.
But, “the farmers want compensation for their loss of crops. They also want recognition that there is, in fact, a problem.”
FOOTNOTE: There was a glitch in production late last year, and concerns remained among the workers (400? 700? How many are employed?) that they were not represented by any trade union (Chinese companies are generally not keen on such labor rights). After threats of a strike, in February the company finally agreed to grant bargaining rights, to be shared between three trade unions. There’s a catch, though – there will be a two-year wage freeze. Minister Without Portfolio in the Office of the Prime Minister (and former Minister of Transport and Mining) Mike Henry apparently remains gung-ho about the future of the JISCO plant. An expansion into the Jamaica-Gansu Industrial Park and Special Economic Zone is reportedly a US$6 billion investment, expected to produce 30,000 jobs (or is it 60,000?) according to the politicians and JISCO Public Relations people. I am not sure when this will start; a ground-breaking scheduled for December did not take place.
What will all of these big plans mean for the farmers and residents of south St. Elizabeth? Only time will tell.
We trudge thoughtfully back down the hill, across the red dirt and stones. The sun shines hotter than ever.