17 December 2006

A Mess of Pottage?

Common Sense
John Maxwell

The Land of Look BehindThe proponents of unsustainable development have not had a good week. The people of Jamaica and the world are waking up to discover what they stand to lose if the Jamaica Bauxite Institute and the bauxite mining companies get their sweaty hands on the Cockpit Country - The Land of Look Behind.

From all over the world, support has been building for the preservation of this singular treasure. A few letters have been printed in the press and the talk shows are just beginning to reflect public anger. But perhaps the single most damaging fact to the cause of the JBI et al was the announcement, a few days ago, that a new cancer drug has been extracted and developed from an endemic Jamaican plant.

This is much bigger news than the simple fact that this drug is proving effective against certain forms of cancer. It is more important because this is the second major discovery of the treasures hidden in the Jamaican portion of the biosphere.

As I reported 253 columns ago, scientists had discovered "On the roots of the mangroves in Kingston Harbour and perhaps elsewhere in Jamaica, . a tiny animal, smaller than the first joint in the average adult's little finger, an orange-coloured soft-bodied creature which looks more like a flower than an animal. The name of this insignificant beast is Ecteinascidia turbinata - known to its admirers as a sea-squirt.

It is one of a number of marine animals which manufacture proteins that are proving effective in fighting cancer and may yield substances which may be able to defeat other diseases. A big Spanish drug company, PharmaMar, has bought the rights to a new drug derived from one of the sea-squirt's proteins.

"Early trial results have indicated that ET-743 may eventually play a role in treating certain soft tissue sarcomas and other cancers including advanced-stage breast, colon, ovarian and lung cancer, melanoma, mesothelioma and several types of sarcoma. Ecteinascidin not only shrinks and kills tumours, it also restricts cancer's ability to resist other drugs Infinite Injustice" (Infinite Injustice - March 17, 2002)

In another column, nearly a year later, I reported on the government's plans to devastate another priceless, world scientific resource - an unprepossessing wilderness place called Harris Savannah, just off the Doomsday Highway near May Pen, which one of the world's most noted botanists, Dr George Proctor, thinks is a botanical treasury of world importance.

"After rain, Harris Savannah is a botanical bonanza, full of species unknown until Proctor discovered them. Many are new to science. Apart from their intrinsic interest to botanists, some could be of profitable horticultural economic interest; others may contain substances which may lead to important medical or other scientific advances. Most of the world's standard medications are made from compounds first discovered in plants and other 'insignificant' forms of life." - (Treasure in the Badlands November 29, 2003)

In a press release two weeks ago, the head of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute described the campaign against the destruction of the Cockpit Country as 'almost hysterical' - which may or may not be a reference to the fact that so many active environmentalists in Jamaica are women.

I must confess that I too have a long history of 'almost hysteria' dating back, perhaps, to the time when Dr Lyew Ayee was a baby. This year makes 50 years since I led a successful campaign in Public Opinion weekly to force the Caribbean Cement Company to install electrostatic precipitators. These scrubbers recovered seven tons of dust daily, from the smokestack of the company which, until then, had been choking the lungs of Jamaicans high and low.

If that was 'almost hysteria', Dr Lyew Ayee can make as much of it as he wants. Campaigning for a National Minimum Wage (on Public Eye) and for disarming Jamaica and against the death penalty and against the rape of Hope Gardens may also have been 'almost hysterical.' I really don't care what Dr Lyew Ayee calls me or my allies. What we care about is what unsustainable development is likely to do to Jamaica.

For instance: It was reported, some years ago, that the NRCA had turned down a foreign exchange earning development project to build an incinerator in Jamaica to burn imported toxic wastes. I would like to ask Dr Lyew Ayee whether, had he been a member of the NRCA Board at the time, would he have voted for or against the proposal?

I would like to ask the question of several other people, including the former prime minister among others, because it is the sort of question which, in my view, separates the 'almost hysterical' from the sound, sober, reliable forward-thinking people who only have Jamaica's best interest at heart.

Water, water everywhere and .
In the Manifesto of the People's National Party in 1997, the party declared its commitment to "work towards creating a society of high moral values and attitudes; the party best able to unite the people into one common band marching to the goal of creating a better quality of life for all."

Lest it be misunderstood that the party was speaking about foreign exchange, the next sentence makes it clear what the PNP considered the components of a "better life".
"Protecting and conserving our island's resources is an imperative, if we are to preserve its natural features and beauty.
Man is dependent on the integrity of the environment and there is a sacred obligation to protect God's earth and to preserve the quality of life for future generations.

The PNP believes that orderly development can and must co-exist with a healthy respect for the natural resources that sustain development.

We have therefore pursued a collaborative national effort with the private sector and individual communities, to rescue areas of the environment that are under siege." [my emphasis]
The Cockpit Country is one of those areas now under siege and it may be the most important such area, worthy, as the government once believed, of being declared a world heritage site.

In 1997, the government was just four years into a commitment to ratify the SPAW Protocol of the Cartagena Convention. The founder of Greenpeace International, the late David McTaggart, told me he considered SPAW the single most effective piece of international legislation for the protection of habitat and life forms, and he made three visits to Jamaica to be assured by three different ministers of environment, that Jamaica would soon ratify SPAW.

Although the document itself is housed at the International Seabed Authority's Headquarters just a few hundred yards from Gordon House, where our parliament meets, the government has not seen it fit so far to honour its promise.

Jamaica is the only significant signatory not to have ratified SPAW and while the SPAW document lives in Jamaica, Jamaica's representatives to SPAW meetings are observers only, not members.

This is clearly sound, anti-hysterical behaviour.
But the governing party has clearly broken important promises to Jamaica, or at the very least, not remembered to fulfill them.
The PNP manifesto (p 49) made explicit promises in 1997: ". During our third term we will:

. Undertake a comprehensive programme to clean up the physical environment and to protect our beaches, watersheds, reefs and other sensitive ecosystems;

. revitalise our national parks and gardens and establish additional national and marine parks
.The new millennium is the time to reaffirm our responsibility to protect and enhance our environment, so that the country we hand over to future generations will be a better place to live in."
Pretty strong words, but the party was not content with that. On page 71, under the title: "Our Pledge" the party drew a line in the sand:

". . to protect and safeguard our environmental heritage, thereby protecting our fragile ecology for the benefit of future generations.

That, of course, sounds almost hysterical to me, given Hope Gardens and Long Mountain and Harris Savannah and the Doomsday Highway and Bloody Bay and Pear Tree Bottom and Point, and Palmyra and Winniefred Beach.

American Hysteria

On the website of the US Army Corps of Engineers, there is a fascinating document of 118 pages, including appendices etc.
This document is called Water Resources Assessment of Jamaica and is dated February 2001.

As a technical military document the assessment is, as might be expected, a dry, businesslike paper, all 118 pages of it. It even includes the latitude and longitude of every Jamaican locality mentioned in the text and you may be interested to know that the coordinates for Albert Town are 1817 N 07733 W.

The authors are very meticulous. There may be however, some cause for alarm in developer circles. All three specialists who carried out the assessments are geologists but since they are all women, there is clearly some possibility that their conclusions may be regarded as 'almost hysterical".

However: "This information may be used to support current and potential future investments in managing the water resources of the country and to assist military planners during troop engineering exercise and theatre engagement training. . in addition to assisting the military planner, this assessment can aid the host nation by highlighting critical need areas, which in turn serves to support potential water resources development, preservation and enhancement funding programmes.

Highlighted problems are the lack of access to water supply by much of the population, the density of the population in Kingston, the lack of wastewater treatment, and contamination by industrial processes associated with bauxite mining, sugar cane processing and agricultural activities."

As we know, dunder from sugar estates is often pumped into sinkholes, killing fish and causing widespread pollution of what could be drinking water. The fertilizer used on sugar cane in western Jamaica is one of the factors destroying the famous seven miles of Negril Beach and of course, we know, as I reported a few weeks ago, that the head of Jamaica's Water Resources Authority has reported on the pollution of the aquifer, big time, by bauxite effluent in St Elizabeth.

One of the problems with dealing with Dr Lyew Ayee is that some of what he says, if reported correctly, appears to defy common sense, if not science. He appeared to suggest that surface water would not contaminate the underground aquifer. The lady geologists from the Corps of Engineers say that the streams in the Cockpit Country areas "are fed and in some cases feed the interior karstic limestone aquifer." (p.18)
"For instance, the water in the upper reaches of the White River, may, in places disappear into the limestone aquifer and then rise several kilometres downstream. Drainage in this area is primarily underground and any precipitation is quickly channeled or absorbed into the subsurface."

Again, on page 19 they report that in the Cockpit Country "any water that runs off the central mountains is quickly channeled or absorbed into the subsurface" and they instance the Martha Brae River, the largest source of water on the north coast.
"The Moneague Blue Hole, located in the Dry Harbour Mountains Basin, was once a good freshwater source.

However, this has recently become contaminated. The contamination is believed to be from a bauxite lake, Mt Rosser Pond, which has a high sodium effluent.

"While this might seem to put paid to any further bauxite development in the area, we need to consider one additional point made by these highly trained geologists: "Surface water is generally fresh; however, some major threats to the water quality are from industry, human and animal wastes, insecticides, and herbicides. Most of the mineral industry is based on bauxite mining, and some of the bauxite produced is refined into alumina on the island. Bauxite mining is surface mining, which is land-intensive, noisy, and dusty.

Jamaica can produce about three million tons of alumina per year. The refining process creates a thick fluid called "red mud" which has high levels of sodium and hydroxide ions, iron oxides, and organic substances.

About one ton of red mud waste or residue will be produced from each ton of alumina. The land mass cannot accommodate this high volume of waste. This waste is often ponded into lakes, either man-made or karst depressions, with no consideration of the environmental effects.

The effluent is free to seep into the subsurface, or to mix with precipitation, creating caustic ponds. The disposal of the wastes from alumina processing is a major environmental problem. Discoloration, turbidity, and high coliform bacteria counts, due to the high organic content."

I hope you read that extract carefully. When I read it, one line jumped out and bit me:
"The land mass cannot accommodate this high volume of waste."

I think that this is a fact that many Jamaicans have known subconsciously for a long time, but we keep denying it, in the interest of foreign exchange.

I keep on referring to poor, tiny Nauru, that Pacific island composed largely of phosphate, fossilised seabird dung, which has been mined almost into non-existence. Those who are left on Nauru will soon have to leave forever, because their country is about to disappear beneath the waves.

In Jamaica, we have a slightly different problem. If, as they say, water is life, bauxite will soon make life impossible on this island. Life, that is, as we understand it.

If the developers have their way, we will be selling our birthright not for a mess of pottage, but a mess of red mud.
Esau, Esau, wherefore art thou Esau?"


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