Is this justice for the citizens of Rio Cobre?

There is something called “environmental justice.” It’s not just another clever catch phrase. It is a real, and growing concern.

When this release from Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) landed in my inbox recently, I saw this as a classic example of the struggle that citizens worldwide are engaged in for their environmental rights. And a struggle it is, sometimes lasting for years – as in the case of the bauxite company WINDALCO, fully owned by the Russian company UC Rusal. Over the past several decades this company has repeatedly polluted the once beautiful Rio Cobre river, endangering lives and the health of residents, destroying water quality, killing off biodiversity – and depriving thousands of fisherfolk and other citizens whose livelihoods depend on the river from earning a living. Over and over.

Residents of Kent Village on the Rio Cobre in St. Catherine protesting the fish kill last July.

JET has been advocating for the plight of these citizens. As in many such cases, the matter of compensation for this terrible loss has dragged on for several months since the most recent major pollution event last summer. The fish, and the river itself, have not yet regenerated (as they have had to do several times before). Now, the Jamaican Government has, astonishingly, thrust a piece of paper at the fisherfolk, asking them to indemnify it from future claims, while offering an inadequate sum in compensation. And they still have not been able to earn as usual, so they are in a “hard place” and many are forced to accept the amount and the Government’s terms. I find this quite shameful and indeed, disrespectful.

Oh, by the way: I firmly believe that Nature has rights, too. We have to stand up for her rights – and, closely linked to that, the rights of Jamaicans to a healthy environment and a chance to earn a sustainable living.

This is “environmental injustice.”

Civil society group expresses concern with Jamaican Government’s insistence for fisherfolk to indemnify them

The Friends of the Rio Cobre, acknowledge the recent payments made to fisherfolk by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) for their losses as a result of the July 2022 pollution incident in the Rio Cobre, caused by WINDALCO. Roughly J$16 million was paid to approximately 120 fisherfolk for loss of revenue – this equates to approximately J$131,000.00 per person. To receive these funds, however, they each had to sign a Release and Discharge form indemnifying the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) from any future claims.

The Release and Discharge prepared by NEPA’s legal team states that each recipient will, “…hereby fully release, discharge and indemnify the said National Environment and Planning Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Authority and Government of Jamaica from all claims and demands arising directly out of the said loss or damage aforementioned which I or my personal representatives, heirs or successors in title may now have or which may hereafter accrue to me from any matter arising from the said loss or damage aforementioned”.  It adds that signing the document does not preclude affected parties from, “…taking legal action against any non-governmental third-parties”.

Five months after the pollution event, fish have not grown to commercial size and fishers are still unable to earn the equivalent to what they earned prior to the pollution event. Typically, fisherfolk in this area can earn up to J$60,000.00 per month, sometimes more. This means, each fisher could have earned up to $300,000.00 since the fish kill.

Mr. Kestonard Gordon, representative of the Friends of the Rio Cobre said, “While it is the first time fishers are receiving any form of compensation for losses, it’s not enough. The performance bond was just not enough to cover all the losses.” 

“The income of the fisherfolk will be affected for months to come.  We understand that NEPA was to do an ecological assessment, but we do not know the status,” added Mr. Gordon. “We want the river returned to health as soon as possible.”   

Significant fish kills, as a result of toxic discharges into the river caused by WINDALCO, have occurred several times over the last few decades; most recently in 2011, 2019, 2021 and 2022. WINDALCO is still in court with NEPA for the 2019 and 2021 incidents. Since 2010, WINDALCO has received at least 15 warning, enforcement, and breach notices for such events as well as for dust emissions or failure to comply with other environmental permit conditions. Yet WINDALCO has been allowed to continue to operate despite these many breaches.

The fisherfolk were faced with an unjust choice: accept the GOJ’s low offer now and give up their right to take legal action against the Jamaican state or reject the offer and wait until a court case is heard, which is likely to take years.  Many desperately need the funds now so most have signed the form.  

In the Release and Discharge form, the GOJ states: ‘This is no admission of liability on the part of National Environment and Planning Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Authority and Government of Jamaica”. The GOJ’s failure to use all the tools at their disposal to bring WINDALCO into compliance is part of the reason the 2022 pollution event occurred.  

“NEPA has a mandate to protect the environment and public health,” said Mr Gordon. “Why then should the GOJ be indemnified?”

The Rio Cobre in happier days, looking towards the historic Flat Bridge. The water can be pretty deep here.

2 thoughts on “Is this justice for the citizens of Rio Cobre?

  1. Might there be a pro bono legal group that could clarify for the fisherfolk whether the type of agreements that are demanded by NEPA, it being a GoJ entity, might be found to be unconstitutional?……..and thereby rendering signed agreements null and void as far as demanding indemnification?


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