A Town Hall Meeting on Mining in the Cockpit Country: Let’s Have a Real Discussion Because It’s Not Over

The long-awaited public consultations on the Special Mining Lease 173 in Cockpit Country, held virtually on December 8, have been called many things over the past couple of weeks: Jamaica Environment Trust described the proceedings as a “sham.” I would say it made a mockery of what should have been a proper airing of the issues. It sold us all short.

It was a box that was checked, after just one and a half hours of mostly PR for Noranda Bauxite, dispensed by the consultant. Many questions and concerns were ignored, especially on Zoom; only questions on WhatsApp were entertained; comments and requests for clarification were not responded to. It started off, puzzlingly, with a ten-minute public relations video extolling the virtues of the mining company. Well, it could only get better after that, I thought. It didn’t. I got side-tracked for ten minutes or so (as one does sometimes with these online events) and when I returned – lo and behold! It was just ending. That was that.

Dornoch Head, Trelawny in the Cockpit Country – which is a critical source of water for most of the western side of the island. (Photo: Jamaica Environment Trust)

In a press release on December 9, JET called on the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) “to reject the proceedings…due to the blatant pro-mining bias displayed by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) consultants, Conrad Douglas and Associates.” JET pointed out that there were company representatives on the panel, who used every opportunity to shed a positive light on Noranda, while the environmental impacts – and the experiences of community members who tried to talk were virtually ignored. As JET Founder and Chairperson Diana McCaulay noted, “there was scant attention paid to the costs” (some of these are outlined below by Professor Thomas-Hope).

Diana McCaulay continued: “The decision to mine in the area designated as Special Mining Lease 173 – and other areas in Jamaica – is a decision fraught with consequences that will be with us for 25 – 30 years and an unknown time thereafter. We are proposing to lock ourselves into a form of development that is unsustainable – which the EIA itself concedes. The public process needs firm regulatory guidance to ensure it is fair, rigorous, free of bias and the public is given the time and room to make their contributions…This did not happen last evening.”

In an attempt to have a thorough discussion in which questions are actually answered and not brushed off, RJR/Gleaner has set up a Town Hall Meeting that will take place tomorrow evening, Monday December 21, at 9:00 p.m. on TVJ, Radio Jamaica, and YouTube. Do tune in and hear the arguments, ask questions and participate.

How to participate? Before the meeting Send your comments or questions via WhatsApp to 876-381-0072. You can also send a very short video. State your name at the beginning and hold your phone horizontally. During the meeting, send your questions via WhatsApp to 876-381-0072 or to the TVJ Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/televisionjamaica).Use these hashtags for all social media posts: #SaveCockpitCountry #CockpitControversy #TVJTownHall #BauxiteMining

To me, the threats to Cockpit Country are more than a “controversy” (but of course, the media loves a controversy!) This place goes to the very heart of what Jamaicans want for their country and for their fellow citizens – Vision 2030? Cockpit Country is a treasure – of natural riches (recorded, studied, and probably many as yet to be discovered); a land that holds the mysteries, knowledge, memories, and struggles of the Maroon peoples at its heart, round every corner, embedded in the rocks, talking in the trees; a place where generations of Jamaicans have lived and worked; so much unexplored and perhaps never to be explored (it does not have to be). Things and creatures exist there that are to be found nowhere else. Yes, there’s that, too.

So perhaps the “controversy” is – do we want any of this or all of this, to hold it close and protected for future generations? Or do we want to throw it away, careless of others’ lives, their hard work and sacrifice, their families, their closeness to the land – to be choked in toxic dust, and to dig huge pits in people’s backyards (yes, it’s an environmental justice issue). Careless of the value of a hundred year-old tree, or a tiny land crab that lives its whole life and nurtures its young in the watery cocoon of a bromeliad, or the “Wild Pine Sergeant” the Jamaican Blackbird, which feeds on insects in the bromeliads and is already listed as Endangered; Jamaica is its only home. Dismissive of the importance of the waters of Cockpit Country, bringing life to the land and to we humans. What could be more precious than these waters? Don’t we understand it’s all connected? If we destroy Cockpit Country, our vaunted claims on the global stage of “sustainability” and “climate change action” will crumble into bauxite dust. Ultimately, we will destroy ourselves. The Anthropocene is here.

I mentioned environmental justice. There has been a lot of discussion on the Escazú Agreement recently: that is, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. I wrote about this in this blog a few times, while negotiations were still taking place (Jamaica’s Danielle Andrade-Goffe is the Elected People’s Representative). Saint Lucia ratified the Agreement at the Second Meeting of Signatories which took place virtually on December 9 and 10. Jamaica has signed, but not ratified the Agreement (you can refresh your memory here).

And on the topic of environmental justice, we can also refer to these words from Professor Elizabeth Thomas-Hope, D. Phil (Oxon), FRGS, CD, Professor Emerita, Environmental Management at the University of the West Indies (UWI).

 A Call for Justice: The Crisis of Proposed Bauxite Mining in the Cockpit Country (SML 173) 

The issue of justice is not solely one of distributing environmental benefits and risks in the present, but doing justice to nature to allow the sustainability of natural capital and the protection of irreplaceable resources. The knowledge that the Earth is finite, and comprised of interconnected systems with thresholds of degradation beyond which restoration is irreversible, is now widely accepted. The central message is that nature has an intrinsic or inherent value and that humans are part of nature, not separate from it, so that justice for the one is also justice for the other. 

Based on previous experience, the benefits of bauxite mining in the area of the Cockpit Country in question (SML173) would undoubtedly bring some financial gain to the Government of Jamaica for 25 years. But the “cost” would include: deforestation, loss of biological diversity in the direct line of mining, and the irreversible disturbance of flora and fauna in the world-renowned caves and other physical features in the vicinity of mining; air pollution with the risk of ill health of residents in nearby villages from dust; the disturbance of intact, viable rural communities and the loss of local agricultural production and way of life associated with such communities. Mining that occurred in the past was conditioned by the environmental ethic of the past. We must now be driven by the present environmental awareness and ethic, based on ecological justice, in responding to mining proposals of the present. A compromise was struck and the Cockpit Country Protected Area was designated (2017). We must now put our actions where our mouths are and protect ecosystems, rivers, watersheds and settlements in the now disputed part of the ecosystem as well. 

The proposal to mine does not constitute sustainable development. It will further marginalize the marginalized in the area concerned. The pressing implications for ecological justice are long term, and must not be missed.

Alternative options – building on some of those mentioned by the community stakeholders who spoke at the meeting on 8th December 2020, should be pursued – combining agricultural production, ecotourism and preserving natural heritage nationally and internationally recognized for its awesome features.

The bottom line is that NONE of the individuals representing the stakeholders – not Noranda Bauxite Company, Government of Jamaica or local communities would want this devastation in THEIR backyard or front yard. If individually we would not tolerate this intrusion, then as a Jamaican community we certainly must not.

Whatever the financial gains to the GOJ that are promised over the next 25 years, this amazing environment and its communities will be destroyed for all time, and history will not judge this generation of decision-makers well. In all conscience, we the scientists and policy makers know that this is the case. Alternatives that are JUST and SUSTAINABLE must be developed. PLEASE, we must nurture our communities of ecosystems and people in sustainable ways, and no longer trade our land, the bedrock of our heritage, to any outside bidders, however powerful or persuasive. From experience we know they cannot be relied upon to operate in the long term interests of Jamaica. 

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