Drilling for bauxite samples in Jamaica's Cockpit Country is threatening the plants and animals that live in the region's moist tropical limestone forest, said conservationists today. Bauxite is the raw material for aluminum.
Cockpit Country is in northwestern Jamaica near the tourist resorts of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. It is about 130 miles (209 kilometers) from the capital city of Kingston. Central Jamaica was once blanketed with wet limestone forests. The 173 square miles (450 square kilometers) of Cockpit Country represent the largest and most intact portion left.
At risk species such as the black-billed parrot, the yellow-billed parrot, the ring-tailed pigeon and the plain pigeon live in this uninhabited area of yellow and white limestone karst terrain, distinguished by its dramatic topography of rounded peaks and steep-sided, bowl-shaped depressions - said to resemble cockfighting pits.
These species forage mostly on bromeliads - epiphytic plants growing on the branches of trees. But bromeliads are especially vulnerable to forest fragmentation and caustic dust from mining.
Several of the region's 300 caves, such as Windsor Great Cave and Marta Tick Cave, are notable for the size and diversity of their bat caves. Some caves support colonies of more than 50,000 bats. Three species of bats, including the at risk Jamaican flower bat, are endemic to Jamaica.
Cockpit Country is Jamaica's top refuge for endemic plants. At least 101 species of unique plants grow in this region, some isolated to just one hillock, according to the Nature Conservancy. Based in Arlington, Virginia, the group is working with Jamaican conservation organizations to safeguard the region.
Alcoa, the world's largest producer of aluminum, has been mining bauxite in Jamaica since 1963. Since 2004 it has been prospecting for bauxite in Cockpit Country. The company's license expired in May, but it is expected to be renewed.
Typically, bulldozers remove topsoil and dig out the mineral before the soil is replaced and replanted with grass or crops.
According to Marilyn Headley, Jamaica's conservator of forests, trees will be replanted if the forest reserve is mined.
But environmental groups say such damage would be irreparable.
"Unfortunately for the birds, landscape, and many communities, Jamaica is pushing hard to extract every bit of bauxite from her soils to export for aluminum production,"said Susan Koenig, of the Cockpit Country Stakeholders Group, a coalition of environmentalists, tourism industry representatives and schools.
"The ecological damage wrought by the industry is astounding for a medium sized island," said Koenig.
Bauxite is a major driver of Jamaica's economy, generating $900 million in 2004, with $370 million of that staying in the country, according to the Jamaica Information Service. The country is the fifth largest bauxite producer in the world.
In July 2005, Alcoa's Board of Directors approved plans to join with the government of Jamaica to expand the Jamalco alumina refinery in Clarendon. Jamalco is owned 50 percent by the Jamaican government and 50 percent by Alcoa Minerals of Jamaica.
The first phase of this expansion, due for completion by year-end, will add about 150,000 metric tons per year of production capacity to the refinery.
Jamalco mines bauxite in the hills of Manchester with a mining contractor, refines it into alumina at the refinery in Clarendon, and ships the alumina from the port at Rocky Point primarily to Alcoa's Canadian operations.
Koenig argues that 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 generates 45 percent of Jamaica's foreign earnings, and directly or indirectly, provides jobs for around a quarter of the working population, she claims, adding that mining employs far fewer people and is not sustainable.
"We are well aware of the environmental sensitivity and cultural significance of Cockpit Country and, as always, remain open to discussion with any group that is interested in our activities," Kevin Lowery, a spokesman with Alcoa, told the "Miami Herald" today.
Bauxite mining is not the only threat to Cockpit Country, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Small-scale agriculture, particularly yam cultivation, is an immediate threat to the forests, said the group. Farmers use saplings harvested from the forest as "yam sticks" to support the plant as it grows. Demand is estimated at six million yam sticks per year.
Clearing of land to make room for cattle, crops and housing developments that serve the needs of a growing human population has led to reduced water quality, soil erosion and the decrease of vital plants and animals.
Poor farming practices that cause a loss in soil fertility and erosion leads to a loss of topsoil and dirtying of Jamaica's water supplies.
As farmers cut more and more of the tropical rain forest, fewer of the country's native animals have the food and shelter they need to survive.
The Nature Conservancy is working with three local partners, the South Trelawny Environmental Agency, the Windsor Research Center and Jamaica's Forestry Department, to develop a long-term protection plan for the region.
The plan includes developing a field demonstration site that uses yam sticks made of recycled plastic instead of saplings.
Part of the plan is to offer tax exemptions or direct payments to private landowners who set aside at least 100 acres (40 hectares) of forest as a reserve.
The Conservancy is also training at least 10 residents of Cockpit Country communities as enforcement officers to patrol the area for illegal loggers and miners.
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