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ENVIRONMENT: Mining Threatens Jamaica’s Wildest Region

Mark Thompson* - IPS/IFEJ

KINGSTON, May 8 2007 (IPS) - Jamaica’s famously rugged and undeveloped Cockpit Country could be threatened by bauxite mining if the government does not expand proposed boundaries for a nature reserve, local environmental groups say.

Cockpit Country, Jamaica. Credit: Jeremy Francis

Cockpit Country, Jamaica. Credit: Jeremy Francis

The Cockpit Country boasts the world’s most dramatic karst topography, with steep hills and deep, bowl-shaped valleys. The area, which earned its name from its resemblance to cockfighting pits, is the largest remaining area of intact wet limestone forest in Jamaica.

It is also the main supplier of water to five of the island’s principal rivers, and five of Jamaica’s 14 parishes derive their water supply, in whole or part, from this forested area.

While a section of the Cockpit Country has been designated as a forest reserve, the commissioner of mines still has the power to approve mining and prospecting after consultation with the Forestry Department.

Now, a team from the Department of Geography and Geology at the University of the West Indies has been charged by the government with delineating the parameters of one of the largest remaining blocks of limestone forest reserves on the island. That it is also a repository of the economically important bauxite resource has made the Cockpit Country a sought-after location for prospecting and potential mining.

The crucial task of defining the boundaries for the purpose of conservation represents a retreat from the original position of the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. Despite concerns raised by environmental and community stakeholders, there was a marked absence of dialogue on the issue.

Late last year, the agriculture minister, Roger Clarke, went ahead and issued a “special exclusive prospecting licence” for bauxite in East Trelawny to Alcoa Minerals of Jamaica (Jamalco).

“To issue a prospecting licence for the Cockpit Country behind closed doors, after ignoring all inquiries from interested groups and while publicly going through the motions of a public consultation for a new National Minerals Policy for Jamaica, is the ultimate insult to the people of Jamaica and the process of governance,” said Wendy Lee, executive director of the Northern Jamaica Conservation Association.

She, along with other concerned groups, has initiated a campaign to preserve the Cockpit Country. The bauxite company maintains that prospecting would be harmless, but some fear that the cutting of roads and other activities would upset the delicate balance vital to the survival of the biota.

While the area remains largely pristine, the non-profit Jamaican Caves Organisation notes that its complex system of interconnected underground passages is highly vulnerable to disruption from human activity.

“These changes manifest themselves as reduced flow, and reduced water quality at the downstream risings, as well as flooding in the upstream catchment areas,” the group said, calling for further research into the Cockpit Country’s hydrology.

Public outcry eventually resulted in the suspension of the licence and brought the government to the discussion table last December.

Since then, there have been several meetings involving the ministry, the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group, a coalition of community and green groups, and people who reside in and around the Cockpit Country. As recently as late March, Clarke declared that there will be no mining in the Cockpit Country and charted a harmonious path forward.

However, this path is contingent on an agreement on what constitutes the area of the Cockpit Country.

Michael Schwartz, a scientist from the Windsor Research Centre located in the heart of the Cockpit Country, has been studying the area for over a decade. He suggested that the boundary issue would take a while to sort out since there are many specified outlines based on different criteria.

“We’ve got different definitions such as the core geomorphological boundary, a general geomorphological boundary showing all the cockpit karst and there are biological boundaries. The fact is that any boundary we finally set will need a buffer zone around it to ensure that the part we really want to conserve is protected from further development,” he stated.

Diana McCaulay, chief executive officer of the Jamaica Environment Trust, has also been following the issue closely, and is not satisfied with the area delineated by the government’s Forestry Department.

“According to their map, it’s the ring road that goes around a much smaller area than the area that should be protected from mining. So it leaves out the Appleton Valley and the Litchfield and Naussau Mountains… a lot will hinge on the definition of the boundaries.”

The rugged area is centred in the parish of Trelawny, extending to the parishes of St Elizabeth and St James. It is home to at least 79 of the 100 bird species found in the island. Numerous animal species in this unique landscape are found nowhere else in the world, such as the Giant Swallowtail – the largest butterfly in the Americas.

Scientists recently described a new species of tree frog, endemic to Jamaica and so far known only to the Cockpit Country. There are also more than 60 species of plants unique to this region, some isolated to just one hill.

The Cockpit Country retains the memory of Maroon resistance, providing refuge for runaway slaves who were able to force the British into signing a peace treaty in 1738. Their descendants still inhabit the area and keep the Maroon culture and tradition alive.

Recently, the Forestry Department launched a Local Forestry Management Committee for the Cockpit Country to ensure the sustainability of the resources for the benefit of all. The Maroons demanded to take the lead in the process.

“If we had not been protecting the Cockpit Country for these many years, it would be deforested. It would be well cut down like other places in Jamaica and that is why we are against mining anywhere in the area… it will erode the whole aspect of life in the Cockpit Country,” said Harris Cawley, deputy colonel of the Accompong Town Maroons.

Cawley estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 Maroons inhabit the Cockpit Country, whose total population is about 80,000 people in 90 communities.

He said that they would soon be establishing tours along their original trails in the Cockpit Country. Other residents of the area have sought to embark on tourism projects based on the area’s ecology and heritage.

The 1.1-billion-dollar bauxite mining industry is second only to tourism in economic importance to the island. According to 2005 figures from the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), the industry employs over 3,500 people. Jamaica has produced more than 120 million tonnes of crude bauxite since 1974 and JBI officials have suggested that bauxite can be mined in Jamaica for another 100 years until all the reserves are exhausted.

While bauxite occurs in over a quarter of the island, Hugh Dixon of the Southern Trelawny Environmental Association is concerned that the authorities may be inclined to sacrifice valuable areas that fall within this “red zone”. Environmental interests like Dixon have been advocating for the Cockpit Country to be declared by government as a Protected National Area, as stipulated in the 1997 Policy for a National System of Protected Areas in Jamaica. They also wish to see it protected and managed as a World Heritage Site.

Michael Schwartz of the Windsor Research Centre remains confident that the unique area will be spared from the potential harm of bauxite mining.

“I can’t imagine from this point that the government would consider allowing mining anywhere in the buffer zone, core cockpit area or in the Cockpit Country conservation area. I don’t think we’re going to be seeing any mining in this special area,” he said.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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