Lance Neita | Bauxite industry is more than red dirt
The faded record jacket is still in a prized corner of my cabinet after 43 years, with its blurb asking the question, “How can a company mining for bauxite strike gold?”
The answer has been documented over those many years on the cover of the long-playing 33 1/3 rpm album: “It takes people – not plants or institutions – but people who excel at their jobs and who abound with the type of creative performance that struck gold at the Jamaica Festival in 1979.”
In 1977, Karl Fuller, then Kaiser Bauxite’s property manager and more recently legendary RJR compère of the Great Christian Hymns Of Our Time radio programme, had been given a challenge by his General Manager Ed Coyne to unearth the wealth of artistic talent that existed in the Kaiser family in Discovery Bay and form a choral group drawing from all levels of the organisation, hourly and salaried, male and female.
The record jacket tells the story. The Kaiser Singers went on to enter and win a gold medal in the Jamaica Festival 1979, and then further afield to the Kaiser Corporate auditorium and Oakland City Hall Plaza in California for sell-out performances before appreciative audiences from another land, and another culture.
There is much to draw from this story. It adds another layer to the characterisation of the bauxite worker. Back then, in 1979, truck drivers, engineers, accountants, welders, machinists, locomotive operators, maintenance and production workers, all removed their hard hats to sing and to celebrate “another side of bauxite” where hourly and salaried workers get together to make their individual contributions to Jamaica’s cultural enrichment.
In the example of the Kaiser Singers of the 1970s, and another group, the Brinkley Golden Age Singers from the mud lake areas around Alpart, the miners go beyond their core function to share in the traditional customs and art forms that bond people together in the building of a nation.
Cultural expression and preservation have been an integral part of bauxite’s social outreach programmes.
One company’s social responsibility policy cautions that events over the years have proven that establishing sustainable relationships with host communities and securing their support and understanding is common sense and amounts to best business practices.
Overcoming any misalignment between the overall benefits of the activity and its local impact is vital to the sustainability and long life of the operation.
“Any company that is seriously misaligned with the concerns and the culture of its neighbours,” it goes on to say, “is likely to pay a huge price in stability, as any long-term investment in Jamaica requires as stable and harmonious a context as possible.”
Come back in time with me to the exploratory and land-purchasing teams that set about drilling and surveying lands in St Elizabeth, St Ann and Manchester in the early days of the industry.
It is said that it was those pioneer activities that brought the industry into intimate contact with Jamaican small farmers and opened the door to 70 years of close relationships and partnerships, and mutual respect enjoyed with rural Jamaica in particular.
Today, the bauxite landscape is literally dotted with schools, colleges, playing fields, community centres, clinics, senior citizens associations, small farmers associations, service clubs, housing developments, small and large businesses, that bear the stamp of industry development assistance.
More to the point, it is an outreach that continues to embrace the best of Jamaican culture, the festival performances, the ol’-time picnics, the quadrille, cricket at the sports clubs, the May Day parades and fairs, the nine nights, the mento bands, the Trysee Singers.
This community-oriented approach is one of the things that makes Jamaica bauxite mining unique among any other similar bauxite operation in the world.
It has provided a level of sustainability that contradicts the worn-out cliché that there is no such thing as sustainable mining.
Sustainable bauxite mining is achievable because of the permanence and value of strong cultural relationships as well as the practice of land rehabilitation after mining.
Contrary to some wayward expressions and simplistic thinking, bauxite mining is not about creating holes in the ground. Nor, I hasten to say, is it about singing.
The thousands of careers developed through education assistance policies over 70 years remain sustainable. Some of these are listed in a paper by Anthony Porter, international geologist, author, and former Alcan senior executive.
“In the years of bauxite investment in Jamaica, the industry has contributed immensely to many areas of national life, most notably, but not limited to, agriculture, national budget support in times of need (as in the 1990s exchange crises), construction, community development, education, employment, farming (tenant programmes), housing, medical centres, natural disaster assistance, (e.g., June 1979 floods), research, roads (e.g., Melrose and Spur Tree bypasses), scholarships, schools, sports, training, water supplies, and so on.
“Being a geologist by profession, it is imperative that readers also be aware of the vast intangible and impossible-to-quantify contribution made by the many scientific professionals that have worked in the industry these past 70 years.
“Another benefit, albeit unquantifiable, but which must be taken into account by anyone or any organisation wishing to undertake a cost-benefit analysis, are the thousands of students who have been educated both in Jamaica and overseas from the company education assistance programmes, and who have gone on to become specialists in their chosen fields, and have become global authorities.”
MANAGING EACH RISK
Sustainable bauxite mining is not a single “one-size fits all” prescription, it involves managing each risk with best available technologies appropriate to the circumstances. In Jamaica, bauxite mining zones are close to populated areas (this more so in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world) and this proximity has always been a test to managing environmental impact as well as maintaining good relationships.
There is no doubt that in spite of the goodwill from the general public and the expectations for increased national budgetary income in the immediate future, there is a downside from waste spills and dust escape which causes discomfort and provokes health fears and sometimes questionable health risk factors. The situation is not helped by the aesthetics of the red colour of bauxite soils, although I am encouraged by the restructuring and reframing around the Ewarton residue ponds as seen recently from the Mt Rosser road.
At the same time, mining-related activities create positive benefits for local communities, providing business opportunities and creating both direct and indirect employment.
Promoting positive outcomes and mitigating negative outcomes creates a more sustainable mining activity. The industry environment practices include best practices in dust suppression, wet scrubber systems, dampening of haul roads, specific plants protection, ambient air monitoring, and others.
One of the principles of sustainable bauxite mining practices is a focus on reducing the impact on biodiversity. One company, Discovery Bauxite, recently became the first private sector company to plant 100,000 trees in the prime minister’s national tree-planting initiative.
Another practice unique to Jamaica is the care taken to rehabilitate lands after mining. In all fairness, fingers that point at the weaknesses in pit mining fail to take into account that bauxite mining is more than just the single act of mining. It is an integrated process leading up to land rehabilitation and restoration, the aim of which is to return mined-out lands to the same or higher level of productivity that it had enjoyed before being mined.
There are numerous examples of the use of rehabilitated lands sometimes shunned by farmers, but in many cases used for producing crops, grazeland, roads, housing developments, and opportunities for agricultural development.
Pits are also being used for water storage, for example, the vast three million-gallon reservoirs now feeding greenhouse clusters which have expanded across bauxite mining areas in St Ann, Manchester, St Catherine, Clarendon and St Elizabeth.
The Kaiser Singers told us that beneath the bauxite mines there is real gold found not only in the red dirt but in the sustainability we are reaching out for in the communities and from people engagement enriched through partnerships in education, agriculture, arts and culture, health, sports, and community development.