On the Rio Cobre, Cockpit Country, and their Jamaican people

As the year draws to a close, there are more issues hanging in the balance. I sometimes feel the future of the Planet, including our small, sometimes green, rocky island, is in the balance, too. As the delegates to COP15 – the critical UN conference on biodiversity – pack up their laptops, check out of their hotels, and print off their boarding cards for the plane ride home, I am not sure what will have been achieved. They reached the finish line with a flourish, clapped themselves, and declared the meeting, which ended yesterday in Montréal, Canada, a success. I am going to read more of the detail, and share my thoughts.

I am not sure why I have an initial lingering anxiety, however. I hope every country keeps its promise to reverse the terrible loss of Nature via the Kunming-Montréal Agreement (China was co-chair of the meeting). Money was (of course) a sticking point. I was saddened to read an article about a last-ditch plea for more funds from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which was dismissed by China on a technicality. The DRC reportedly did not sign the agreement. In fact, there are several aspects of the story that worried me: the DRC is a treasure, full of natural riches – water, rainforests, and the famous gorillas of Virunga (I hope you have watched the stunning documentary of the same name, but I am not sure it’s on Netflix any more). And, it must be said, the DRC’s government has been pursuing oil and gas exploration in those very same forests, putting them on the auction block.

Protecting Nature isn’t as simple as that. All we can do, I suppose, is play our part in wherever our small corner of Planet Earth happens to be – and to raise our voices, more loudly than ever, in defence of Nature. And keep fingers crossed.

Returning to our island, we have our own ongoing, endless concerns, and these have to be pursued to the bitter end. At this point, I am not sure how bitter the end will be. Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) recently picked up the thread of two issues that I have written about on this blog over the past several years. My anxiety persists. After “baby steps” forward are taken, one is so often thrown on to the back foot again. There are always obstacles on the path.

Communities affected by bauxite mining have been complaining over the conditions they endure for many years. This is a 2011 photograph of residents of Stepney, St. Ann, protesting damage to their farmlands and health conditions. (Photo: Alesia Edwards/Jamaica Observer)

Firstly, on November 24 this year, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that the Jamaican Government must respond, within twenty days, to their requirement to adopt “precautionary measures” (in other words, to take steps to protect the health, safety and security of citizens in several communities in the parish of St. Ann affected by bauxite mining). JET explains further:

Resolution 65/2022 states that the IACHR has granted precautionary measures in favour of individualized Afro-descendant persons from peasant communities of St. Ann, after considering that they are in a serious and urgent situation due to the activities of bauxite mining taking place nearby which poses a risk of irreparable harm to their rights in Jamaica. The mining activities in these communities are being carried out by “Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partners II and/or Noranda Jamaica Bauxite Partners (Noranda),” of which the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) is a majority owner. Some of the affected communities are Barnstaple, Bryan Castle/Mountain, Caledonia, Endeavour, Gibraltar,  Madras,  and Somerton.

JET’s CEO, Dr Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie said: “There are only three other occasions (one in 2013 in relation to girls deprived of liberty and two in 2011 in relation to LGBTI persons) that precautionary measures have been granted for Jamaica. It is ground-breaking for the IAHCR to grant measures like this in the context of environmental matters and specifically with respect to the bauxite alumina industry.”

The request for precautionary measures was filed by Freedom Imaginaries, a human rights non-profit organization, and claims the following: 

·         The exposure to bauxite dust has caused serious and negative impacts to the overall health, reported medical conditions and illnesses of the proposed beneficiaries. This has been supported by a doctor who has treated several persons from the community and it is also supported by the findings of JET’s RED DIRT study done in 2020. 

·         The health of the proposed beneficiaries will continue to deteriorate without intervention and some illnesses will likely go untreated due to the lack of adequate and timely medical attention as well as specialized medical diagnoses.

·         Since mining operations occur near or within the proposed beneficiaries’ communities, there is a constant production of bauxite dust that contaminates rainwater catchments which are  the main source of drinking water due to the lack of piped water in the communities. 

·         Due to their activism and supposed ‘anti-mining’ stance, there have been reported acts of violence such as harassment and physical aggression being carried out against the proposed beneficiaries by police authorities. 

·         The State has failed to adopt protective measures to safeguard the rights of the proposed beneficiaries.

“It is unconscionable that the government has put the economics of the country over the health and welfare of its citizens,” said JET’s CEO, Dr Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie. “This has been a long standing problem and it is unfortunate that an international organization has had to request the Government of Jamaica to respect rights granted under its own Constitution.”

As per Article 25(5) of its Rules of Procedure, the IACHR requested information from the Jamaican Government on July 14, 2022 and reiterated the request for information on September 26, 2022. To date, the GOJ has not submitted its observations.

The Resolution outlines several decisions, namely it requests Jamaica to:

·         take the necessary measures to protect the rights to life, personal integrity, and health of the Afrodescendant persons identified as beneficiaries in the St. Ann region, with a cultural, gender-based, and age-appropriate perspective, including the following: i. carry out the necessary medical diagnoses to define the corresponding medical care; ii. guarantee adequate, timely, and specialized medical care, according to the medical conditions; and iii. guarantee access to contaminant-free water;

·         b) adopt the necessary measures to prevent threats, harassment, and other acts of violence against the beneficiaries; 

·         c) consult and agree upon the measures to be adopted with the beneficiaries and their representatives; and 

·         d) report on the actions taken to investigate the events that led to the adoption of this precautionary measure, so as to prevent such events from reoccurring.

The GOJ has 20 days, from November 24, 2022, to inform the Commission on the adoption of the precautionary measures that have been determined and to periodically update such information.

Jamaica Environment Trust press release dated December 12, 2022.
An open bauxite pit in Madras, St. Ann, estimated to be approximately 100 feet across and 70 feet deep. Photo taken in June, 2018. (Jamaica Environment Trust)

So, the Jamaican Government has had three weeks from November 24, to respond to the Commission. This would take it up to December 14, which is already past. If those twenty days are working days, then this would mean they would have to respond by December 22 – two days from today. Hmm. I should add that the Jamaican Government doesn’t seem to be very good at responding to the IACHR. In an article I wrote a few days ago regarding LGBTQ+ rights in the Caribbean, I noted that Jamaica has not yet responded to a 2020 report by the Commission calling for the repeal of the Offences Against the Persons Act. So, we don’t hold our breath on such matters.

Meanwhile, an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by Freedom Imaginaries, Esther Figueroa/Vagabond Media, Hugh Dixon/Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency, Theresa Rodriguez-Moodie/CEO, JET, Diana McCaulay/Founder, JET, Ken Gordon/Friends of Rio Cobre and Mickel Jackson/Executive Director, Jamaicans for Justice, notes that:

“The IACHR requested information on July 14, 2022, and reiterated the request on September 26, but Jamaica has not submitted its observations. We also note that the government has not consulted with the beneficiaries.”

The Government is clearly moving with alacrity (sorry, yes – that was sarcasm). Human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, do not seem to be a priority at the moment. Perhaps at a later date.

The recent pollution of the Rio Cobre by a bauxite company. Not much life left there – the people at COP15 on biodiversity would not approve. Will residents get justice? And when will Mother Nature get justice?

And so to the Rio Cobre – that abused river that has more than a passing connection with Jamaica’s bauxite industry. The Friends of the Rio Cobre, representing those people who live near and depend on this once bountiful river, are concerned. Once again, a lack of communication seems to be the issue. Here is their press release regarding the toxic incident five months ago. They are confused.

The Friends of Rio Cobre have learnt that approximately 100 fishers are to be compensated this week following the toxic discharge from Windalco’s effluent holding pond in the Rio Cobre in July 2022. The discharge resulted in a major fish kill, disrupting water supply of thousands of residents and the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers and fishers. Our investigations showed that over 120 fishers were affected and have been unable to earn from their main source of income. 

In a statement issued on November 9, 2022, Senator the Hon. Minister Matthew Samuda, Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation (MEGJC) stated that J$16 million would be paid as compensation to approximately 70 fishers for a period of ten days. Mr. Kestonard Gordon of Friends of Rio Cobre said: “We are not sure how this list has been compiled, as far as we know community leadership or the legal representatives of fisherfolks have not been contacted. Furthermore, what happens to the other fishers who were affected, but not compensated? We are concerned about those that have been excluded and that it is going to create contention in the community.”

The Friends of Rio Cobre are urgently requesting the government to reconcile the list and meet with them and their legal representatives so that they can understand what is proposed. 

Is dialogue too much to ask for, on environmental matters? Is the only recourse to issue press releases seeking clarification – or, taking things a step further, appealing to regional courts and commissions? Most Jamaicans cannot afford law suits. And so the Jamaican people of Cockpit County and Rio Cobre continue to fight for justice… or at least for a little consideration, a glance in their direction.

Many rivers have their sources in Cockpit Country. This is the Martha Brae River in Trelawny, after heavy rain. (My photo)

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