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Mischief and misinformation

'Confusion now has made its masterpiece'

Monday, September 23, 2019

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The original quotation from American All-Star and New York Yankees baseball catcher Yogi Berry may well be the timeline for an anxious nation mesmerised by the current bauxite-mining debate. The arguments on either side, or more accurately all of the many sides, became more heated last week with statements and counter statements. With all the noise and smoke around, questions are being asked:

• What are the different sides seeking to achieve?

• What in any case is the argument?

• What are the mooted points?

• And, most importantly, is there a real risk of just losers, and no winners, coming out of this debate?

Take, for example, the bauxite company on the north coast, which is the only operation in the history of the industry that has never closed down. The inevitable question arises, what if Noranda were to join Alpart in the departure lounge, God forbid, who would be the loser?

Between Alpart and Noranda, a quick estimate of jobs lost would tally into some 2,000 direct and indirect jobs, taking with them several thousand income opportunities provided from contractor services, temporary employment, and local purchases amounting to millions of dollars. Not to speak of the huge national budget support earned from salaries, wages, taxes, royalties, etc.

But the environmentalists say jobs are not the only thing, while pointing fingers at some of the bauxite employees who waved placards at their street demonstrations last week in Kingston, saying “Save our jobs!”

“They are only protecting their interests,” fumed a leader of the protesting Cockpit Country Warriors group on the other side of the street, “while we are protecting a national interest, the preservation of the Cockpit Country.”

“Mining in the Cockpit Country is what we are opposed to,” said the leader, “because it would destroy the potential for the pharmaceutical industry, for ecotourism, the aquifers, the heritage sites development, and the protection of the flora and fauna that currently exists.”

But, hold the phone. Significantly, Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) is reported to have said last week that, “As far as the economic benefits of bauxite mining to Jamaica goes, more information is needed from the Government to ascertain those benefits, as weighed against the long-term cost to the environment.”

The economic arguments vs the environment arguments, that's as good a place as any to start the discussions among the contenders.

Let's start with information exchange and nailing down the facts:

Noranda has maintained that it is committed to continuing open and frank dialogue with all their stakeholders. Indeed, as the company's newsletter, circulated last week, read: “There has been much confusion and hearsay around the topic of bauxite mining, Noranda, and the Cockpit Country.” So maybe there is room being prepared around the table for all the contending sides to sit and meet. Noranda is ready, and so is JET. In fact, JET Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Stanley appeared taken aback when some Noranda employees demonstrated outside her offices last week. She thought that they should have asked for a meeting.

“Why not try to engage us and have some dialogue so that we can get a better understanding of each other's positions?” she seemed to ask.

More than one way to engage, I guess.

But it ain't over till it's over. And, in fact, it hasn't even started yet.

This is Jamaica, so naturally the politicians must step in. The parties have already entered the debate. They have an important role to play, but, alas, they seem to be taking sides.

Both parties have also called for consultations. Now, as my Auntie Roachy used to say, nobody in the world loves a consultation more than a political party or a Government. Look at the hundreds of reports and consultations neatly filed away in cabinets. The question is, which side fully understands the implications of this seemingly never-ending tussle, and which side is serious about consultations?

So, please, our worthy politicians, help the nation to resolve this impasse without any political tit for tat. Decide quickly on who will actually set the table for all in the obviously needed general consultations, round-table talk style, bringing all interests, Government, bauxite industry, environmentalists, Cockpit Country Warriors, regulatory agencies, civil society, and political parties together.

I believe that the stakeholders want to meet, and are going to meet for the simple reason that if it is understood that Jamaica's economic stability is at stake, they will all meet and come to their senses.

Will the Government move to the centre, or will the issues become bogged down on the political campaign platform?

The debate is much too hot. Last week, in a historic and unprecedented display of employee soft power, Noranda employees, some 400 of them, rolled into town on 15 buses to demonstrate before Parliament (a joint sitting) to ask for their support to stabilise the arguments, rationalise the issues, and clear up the confusion. But this demonstration was not one-sided. There across the other side of Duke Street, hundreds of Cockpit Country Warriors had assembled, beating drums and blowing the abeng in a display of the strong fighting spirit of the Maroons that goes back hundreds of years.

The sides taunted each other for a while, but there was no confrontation.

But take a close look at the two gatherings. They looked like the same people, like brothers and sisters, eyeing each other across the street. In fact, one Cockpit lady looked on and said in open admiration, “Wait, what a way di bauxite man dem look strong. A wha' dem a eat, bauxite?”

There was much laughter.

I enjoyed a long conversation with several leaders of the Cockpit Country Warriors while we took a break from the noise and the singing and the dancing on their side. We agreed that we all looked alike, so do we, as leaders, really want to continue to encourage the division of Jamaicans into separate camps, far apart, and shouting at each other.

An even closer ear to the ground revealed that many of the bauxite campers knew brothers and sisters on the other side, as some were from the heart of Trelawny and the Maroon areas. Even I was slightly and humorously castigated by many friends from Trelawny for betraying my Maroon heritage — check the name Neita attached to Ulster Spring.

We wondered if the strife and name-calling between both sides would achieve anything, or whether we shouldn't arrange a round-table meeting ourselves to try and clear up the misconceptions and rumours. Truly, there is an abundance of misinformation as well as mischief aplenty making the rounds. Indeed, the famous quotation from Shakespeare, “Confusion now has made its masterpiece” adequately describes the state of the nation surrounding this discussion.

But, hark, after this week's exchange on Duke Street and Constant Spring Road, there could be light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly more people are claiming that, “Oh, they didn't know.” They didn't know that neither Noranda nor any other entity is mining in the Cockpit Country. They didn't know about Noranda's 1,000 community footballers, that Noranda is the heart of the push cart derby, that the industry has granted thousands of scholarships, and of the industry's real contribution to the economy. And, hush, they didn't know that Noranda has so many strong-looking Jamaicans working at the company (99.9 per cent of the employee count, as one poster said).

On the other side, they didn't understand why the Cockpit Country Warriors were so passionate about the defence of their rights. Perhaps they didn't know that the Cockpits have a genuine fear about losing their yam fields and their traditions.

Perhaps nobody knew that so many people with Maroon blood in their veins worked with Noranda. They didn't know that the Maroon music was so sweet. And they didn't know about the wide range of business ventures and level of entrepreneurism that exist in the Cockpit Country, including the budding Cockpit Country Yam Wine industry.

But all Jamaica knows of the rich heritage and culture of the Cockpit Country, regarded by some as sacred.

And the bauxite team placards said, “We respect the Maroon heritage and Cockpit Country heritage, are not mining, and have no intention to mine in the protected areas.”

But there is so much misinformation in the public arena. People as far away as Cornwall County; indeed, from overseas, are calling on relatives out here to protect their land. Another reputable source avows that from their research, bauxite mining will corrode your roof. Surprise, surprise, and a resounding no.

This leads to the desperate need for truth and accuracy in this debate, as, yes, Jamaica's economy is at stake. Sugar has lost thousands of income earners. The alumina industry is nervous. They both account for a high percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP). Bauxite payments help to support national budget expenditures on schools, hospitals, roads, infrastructure. The industry is well known for its support for education. I daresay there are some politicians, and, yes, journalists, who may want to admit that their parents worked in the industry, which would have guaranteed some kind of education allowance from primary to university levels.

So are we seeing light at the end of the tunnel?

The logical argument for accurate information and clarity seems to be emerging. Without any attempt at predicting outcomes, let us move on with the debate which the Jamaica Observer has started, and which readers and the ringside audiences are now asking for.

This is not a Noranda thing. This is not a Cockpit Country thing. This is not a bauxite mining thing. This is not even a JET thing. It is a Jamaica thing.

So the debate continues, as it must, but we may have reached the point at which all parties are beginning to think consultation, think facts, forget personal ambitions, forget ego, and seek resolution.

As for my Maroon friend in the cockpits, I will continue to dance with you and exchange laughter, even as we have our deep differences. This is Jamaica, and we share the most unifying motto in the world: “Out of many one people.” Respect to all sides.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, journalist, and author who has worked in the bauxite industry for some 40 years. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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