Jamaica’s Rio Cobre continues to suffer, and so do those depending on it

The saga of the Rio Cobre, one of our island’s major rivers, is a long and sad one. Neither this beautiful river, nor those who depend on it for their food, their livelihoods and their families, deserve the poor treatment they have received over the years.

The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) and other groups have once again raised their voices at the most recent abusive incident. It is like a woman who cannot break free from a vicious cycle of domestic abuse. The attacks keeps coming back. In the case of our lovely river, the West Indies Alumina Company (Windalco), owned by the Russian company UC Rusal Jamaica, is the abuser. The pollution from the company’s effluent holding pond impacts fishers, nearby residents, farmers, and everyone who depends on its waters in some way or other. Water supplies to some areas surrounding Spanish Town were cut off altogether. Farmers lost crops as a result of the abrupt disconnection of their irrigation water.

On a side note, one wonders also how this repeated pollution has affected the ecology – the plants and wildlife that used to thrive along the riverbanks, and the tiny organisms that live in rivers. Not to mention the lifestyle of people living nearby: the local boys going for a swim at their favourite spot when they had time off school, or the older citizens enjoying a quiet fishing session on a Sunday afternoon.

The Rio Cobre contaminated by effluent in August, 2022. (Photo: NEPA)

The harm done to the biodiversity of the area, as well as the leisure opportunities it once offered, is incalculable.

I hope you remember the pollution incident which occurred over the Emancipation Day holiday in 2021. At the time, JET pointed out that this was one of a series, over decades. Now, almost exactly a year after that incident, the river was once again polluted. Sometimes, one wonders if we value our rivers.

It was “déjà vu all over again.” This time, the quantities of dead fish were so shocking, the stench so overwhelming, and the ensuing protests by residents were so passionate that the Prime Minister himself saw it fit to issue a statement. The issue of the environmental performance bond came into the discussion. The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) produced a report and issued a statement on August 5, 2022, outlining their intended actions. These included serving Windalco a Notice of Intention (NOI) to suspend the environmental permit and environmental licence as provided for under section 11 of the NRCA Act; drawing down on the full amount of the Environmental Performance Bond (EPB), valued at US$771,558.69; and pursuing prosecution against the Company for the pollution incident and its breach of the Wild Life Protection (WLP) and the NRCA Acts.

The public was told that a meeting was to be held with the Company on August 8, 2022, and UC Rusal had the right to appeal NEPA’s decision. After the initial to-do in the media and much hand-wringing, things went a little quiet. I guess people went on holiday.

So, what about the issue of compensation? The Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation issued a statement on its plan of action on the Rio Cobre on November 9, 2022. Incidentally, the Ministry’s website appears to have been hacked, and its Facebook page has not been updated since 2018, so I cannot share the link to the statement; however, you may find it on JET’s Facebook page.

According to JET and several other civil society groups, the Ministry’s response is inadequate and several questions remain hanging in the air. A little more clarity would be nice!

Not good enough, say Civil Society Groups on Government response to  Rio Cobre pollution

We, the undersigned, welcome the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation’s statement issued on November 9, 2022 outlining the Government of Jamaica’s (GOJ) response to the most recent Rio Cobre pollution event (July 26-Aug 4). Having conducted an initial review, we recognize the significance of the actions outlined, but we state our concerns below:

·         The Rio Cobre has been degraded by toxic discharges from Windalco’s Effluent Holding Pond for several decades and there has been no effective sanction or deterrence until now. The proposed compensation package of J$115,733,803.13 gives clear priority to three state agencies – the National Water Commission (NWC), the National Irrigation Commission (NIC) and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).  

·         Just under J$40 million has been allocated to the NEPA to carry out (a) an ecological assessment of the Rio Cobre; (b) A natural resources valuation of the river; and (c) oversight of Windalco’s remediation programme. These activities are part of NEPA’s regular mandate and the two studies should have been done long ago. In effect, NEPA is being compensated for its failure to do its job.   

·         The proposed compensation of J$16 million to fishers in the first instance is inadequate, arbitrary, unfair and cannot be accepted. Fishers have been affected far beyond the ten days used to calculate the payments. They have not yet regained their livelihoods more than three months after the massive fish kill. Lack of registration as fishers cannot be used as a means to exclude any of them from compensation, as there was no previous requirement for registration. Despite the long standing nature of the problem there has been no meaningful effort by state agencies to establish a registration scheme for the fishers of the Rio Cobre.

·         The environmental performance bond was grossly deficient with regard to amount, scope and compensation mechanisms, and there has also been a disgraceful lack of transparency as to its terms and conditions. 

·         According to the GOJ’s statement, the  shortfall of J$107 million is to be “addressed through legal channels to hold WINDALCO accountable, and with upcoming budgetary allocations”. This is vague and needs further clarity.  

We call for the compensation package to be urgently revised to give top priority to compensation for the affected fishers. We insist there should be much greater transparency regarding how such compensation is calculated, the terms and conditions of the performance bond and the legal channels to be used to hold WINDALCO accountable. Our review continues.

Contact:

Freedom Imaginaries (FI)

Malene Allyene

e|info@freedomimaginaries.org

Friends of Rio Cobre

Kestonard Gordon

t|876-534-7655

Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) 

Mickel Jackson

t| (876) 875-0787/876-755-4524

e|mjackson@jamaicansforjustice.org

JET Founder

Diana McCaulay

t| 1 (876) 469-1315

The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET)

Dr. Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie

t| +1876 960 3693/ c| 876 852 8714e| trmoodie.jet@gmail.com/ jamaicaenvironmenttrust@gmail.com 

The contaminated Rio Cobre in August, 2022.

6 thoughts on “Jamaica’s Rio Cobre continues to suffer, and so do those depending on it

  1. Tell me something! It wouldn’t be more profitable all around if the Bauxite company shut down altogether and the river’s own resources developed to support the surrounding areas and provide us with well needed water in other areas of the island from this abundant source. The fish could be developed into a real resource that we can use fresh or preserved. The sport of fishing and the swimming and all the things we do with the river when healthy couldn’t be developed into another economic unit for the nation to earn and provide employment for the people around. What do we have in our hands with this rich resource? Let’s do it!

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