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Friday, December 8, 2023
KINGSTON, Apr 6 2001 (IPS) - A land use and forest cover study to determine the rate of deforestation and to kick-start a forestry conservation programme here has revealed that bauxite mining is the single largest contributor to deforestation in Jamaica.
In 50 years of operation the industry has stripped 5,099 hectares land of trees, including some 3,218 hectares of forest. It has also caused the destruction of an undetermined number of hectares by opening access roads into forests.
Bauxite is the island’s second largest foreign exchange earner after tourism. Last year the industry earned 726 million dollars and the government received more than 68 million dollars in taxes on those earnings.
The price of those earnings, however, is a high one. Bauxite is extracted by open cast mining which requires the complete removal of vegetation and topsoil.
The study corroborates earlier Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) and watershed management maps that show significant degradation of forests and watersheds in mining areas in the parishes of Trelawny and St. Ann on the island’s north coast and St. Elizabeth, Manchester, Clarendon and St. Catherine on the south coast.
Most affected are the parishes of St. Ann and Manchester mined by Kaiser and Alumina Partners (Alpart) respectively. Kaiser is the only exporter of crude bauxite and is owned by the US-based company of the same name. Alpart is owned jointly by Kaiser and Hydro, a Norwegian firm.
The JBI regulates and monitors the operations of bauxite companies, oversees and controls their access to lands for mining as well as monitors environmental effects and damages caused by the operations. The agency has denied that bauxite contributes to the destruction of forests.
JBI Public Relations Officer Hilary Coulton says that since the start of mining in 1951, 4,042 hectares have been mined by the companies operating here.
“Forest has been disturbed mainly where haul roads have been constructed. Bauxite does not generally support forest growth, as it is poor in nutrients,” she said.
Alcan Jamaica’s mining manager Richard Reid said his company, mined only pockets of land within wooded areas. Alcan estimates that it has mined 100 hectares of land annually since it began operations here 48 years ago. The second largest alumina producer behind Kaiser, Alcan is owned by Alcan Canada and the Jamaican government.
Reid agreed with the JBI that forests are affected only when access roads are constructed.
Once access roads are cut, however, loggers, coal burners and yam stick traders move in, taking the trees in and around the designated mining areas. These activities are among the biggest contributors to deforestation on this northern Caribbeen island.
No one knows exactly how many trees are destroyed each year. But a 1994 Ministry of Agriculture project estimated that every year about 15 million yam sticks are used to prop up the vines of the tubers that are the backbone of many rural communities. This is equal to the 150,000 cubic metres of round wood consumed each year.
Approximately 59,000 cubic metres of hardwoods and 3,000 cubic metres of softwoods are reaped each year, says Owen Evelyn, the head of Trees for Tomorrow, the joint Jamaica/Canada programme which, in 1996, began the land use study that is now providing information on deforestation of the island.
The Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department, which is administering the Trees for Tomorrow project, believes that fire wood and charcoal production are perhaps responsible for the largest amount of trees reaped here annually. A UN/World Bank report puts fire wood consumption at 745,000 cubic metres and the Planning Institute of Jamaica says 41 percent of local households are regular users of charcoal.
The study is being used to develop a National Forest Conservation Plan which is due to be debated in parliament later this month.
Despite its findings, however, the forestry department has no power to prevent further degradation by the companies. Under Jamaican law, mining rights supersedes all others, Conservator of Forests Marilyn Headley said.
Bauxite mining may also have additional consequences for the island’s long-term survival. Government Geologist/Mining engineer Oral Rainford speculates that the large scale removal of vegetation, as required by the open cast method, may be causing abnormal rainfall patterns and prolonged droughts in some areas.
In recent years Manchester, St. Elizabeth and Trelawny, three of the parishes with severely degraded mining areas, have experienced abnormal weather patterns including prolonged droughts and changes in the rainy season.
Island-wide, rainfall has decreased by 20 percent over the last 30 years, dry spells are longer and harsher and the temperature has risen by one percent.
The National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) says bauxite mining may have done some environmental damage to the island given the range of interlocking activities. The agency listed dust, which causes health and property damage, and noise pollution as possible environmental problems.
“Denudation of hillsides and displacement and destruction of flora and fauna also impact negatively on the environment. These changes have not been significant enough to impact on the climate, water or food balance, but if efforts are not made to control the tree loss, there could be serious localised disorders,” NEPA added.
Alcan’s Farm Manager Silvan McDonald says the company is dedicated to easing as much as possible, the problems associated with its operations. In a move to protect some of the island’s biodiversity Alcan established two sanctuaries to relocate and preserve wild orchids found inside its mining areas.
A plan to plant one million food and timber trees in mainly marginal areas is half-way complete. The tree planting is in addition to the company’s land restoration programme.
Bauxite companies are required by law to return the land to a productive state, once a mine closes. Land restoration involves filling the cavities and laying some 38 centimetres of topsoil. So far the land recovered has been suitable for only housing, the planting of food crops such as vegetables and for pasture for cattle.
As of today 3,059 hectares have been restored, the JBI’s Coulton said. But Rainford believes that some lands must go back to their original forested state, if permanent environmental damage is to be avoided.
McDonald says, his company has no plans to plant forests. The bauxite companies, under the National Forest Management and Conservation Plan, will work with the government to plant some trees.
The programme will also include stricter levels of monitoring and more vigilant protection of the island’s forests, says Headley.
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