Bauxite mining threatens unique Jamaican wildlife
Jamaica’s Cockpit Country, around 450 km² of uninhabited moist tropical limestone forest with its extraordinary landscape of peaks, potholes and caves, and home to 27 of Jamaica’s 28 endemic bird species is at risk from bauxite mining.
Under licences already granted, mining companies have begun drilling for bauxite samples, the raw material for aluminium, to meet the world’s rapidly escalating demand for this valuable metal.
Conservationists in Jamaica are concerned that despite its international importance, the fate of the Cockpit Country is likely to go unnoticed by the rest of the world.
“Unfortunately for the birds, landscape, and many communities, Jamaica is pushing hard to extract every bit of bauxite from her soils to export for aluminium production,” —Susan Koenig, Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group
“Unfortunately for the birds, landscape, and many communities, Jamaica is pushing hard to extract every bit of bauxite from her soils to export for aluminium production, and we recently learned that this threat is close to reality for Cockpit Country,” said Susan Koenig of the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group, a coalition of concerned environmentalists, tourism industry representatives and schools.
Jamaica is recognised internationally for its high levels of endemism and is part of the Caribbean Biodiversity Hotspot. Jamaica’s endemics include 828 flowering plants, 505 land snails, 21 amphibians and 34 reptiles, five bats and 20 butterflies. Some of these—including two amphibians, two reptiles, and 65 plants—are found only in Cockpit Country. It is likely that the sole viable population of the endemic, globally Endangered giant swallowtail, is confined to Cockpit Country.
Up to 95 percent of the world’s Black-billed Amazon Amazona agilis—one of two threatened endemic Jamaican parrots—live in Cockpit Country, which is also home to the Endangered Jamaican Blackbird Nesopsar nigerrimus. This species forages mostly on bromeliads—epiphytic plants growing on the branches of trees. But bromeliads are especially vulnerable to forest fragmentation and caustic dust from mining.
“The ecological damage wrought by the industry is astounding for a medium-sized island,” —Susan Koenig, Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group
Bauxite/aluminium is Jamaica’s principal export, and deposits underlie around one quarter of the island’s surface. But the industry has a patchy record of meeting its requirements to “restore” lands devastated by mining—and the government has a similarly poor record of enforcing the penalties for failure to do so. One community is currently preparing legal action on behalf of hundreds of people whose homes, lands and livelihoods were damaged by one of Jamaica’s major bauxite extraction companies.
But even if the “restoration” work were carried out, it would not improve the prospects for Cockpit Country’s biodiversity. In a typical “restored” site, a thin layer of topsoil has been bulldozed back over densely-packed limestone gravel and non-native grass planted. Examples of native forest regenerating in such reclaimed pits are difficult to find, according to Koenig.
“The ecological damage wrought by the industry is astounding for a medium-sized island (11,000 sq. km). If you were to overlay a map of our bauxite reserves on a map of other major producers, such as Australia, Brazil, and China, they cover a few pixel points: for Jamaica, it’s approximately 25% of the island,” said Koenig.
Jamaica Environment Trust and the other Cockpit Country Stakeholders are calling upon the Jamaican government to withhold permission for the bauxite companies to begin work, at the very least until a more stringent and realistic environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been carried out. The EIA should look not only at Cockpit Country’s biological and cultural heritage but also at the area’s role as the major aquifer for central-western Jamaica, and the part its forests play in reducing flash flooding and erosion after tropical storms and hurricanes (which seem to be increasingly frequent as a result of Global Climate Change).
The Cockpit Country Stakeholders also point out that even discounting the value of ecosystem services, damaging one of the world’s most important and spectacular karst landscapes to get at the bauxite underneath makes no long-term economic sense. Tourism now generates 45 percent of Jamaica’s foreign earnings, and directly or indirectly, provides jobs for around a quarter of the working population. Mining employs far fewer people and is not sustainable.