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Recognising outstanding bauxite industry leaders

Lance Neita

Sunday, November 12, 2017

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National Minerals Week 2017, which commences on November 19, will afford the opportunity to display a wide and varied showcase of mineral activity in Jamaica. The Ministry of Transport and Mining, as well as active participants from private and government agencies, will be eager to share information on the history, activities, and benefits accrued to national development from that sector of the economy. This will include bauxite and alumina, limestone, gypsum, cement, marble, as well as the role of those who have the responsibility to lead and develop the associated industries.

Bauxite mining makes up the greater part of this sector. Jamaica has reaped huge benefits from an industry now 70 years old, but which has long outdone its predecessor industrial counterparts in agriculture and manufacturing as a most significant contributor to the economy.

At elementary school, when we had classes devoted to civics, we would turn the pages of the Longman's books to read that the leading manufacturing companies in Jamaica were involved in the production of matches, soft drinks, sugar, tobacco, soap, and textiles. Later, the industrial front on Spanish Town Road would open to let in Tia Maria, the J Wray & Nephew headquarters, and other now familiar names.

Mental and English classes would start off with the perennial question, what are the leading Jamaican products? We learnt to recite: sugar, coconuts, bananas, coffee, cocoa, pimento, ginger, citrus, and tobacco.

Tourism would eventually emerge from its reserved and privileged corners to a become leader in industry, even surpassing bauxite, which at one time stood supreme as the bastion of the Jamaican economy in the 1960s.

I always had a special linkage with the sugar industry. As much as it is in trouble these days, the sugar industry has a resilience and an attraction that makes its players passionate about its survival.

In my youth we lived in the sugar belt of Clarendon, surrounded and in close proximity to factories Sevens Estate, New Yarmouth, and the great Monymusk. Across the parish border s we were aligned to Bernard Lodge and Innswood. Sugar meant immediate jobs for those leaving school without gateways to university. It also offered seasonal employment to thousands across the country: men who were proud of their peculiar skills, whether it be cane-cutting, trucking, tractor-driving, mechanics, etc. It was understood that on leaving school your father would be talking to one of the bosses for arrangements to be at work first thing Monday morning, thus to avoid being a drag on the household's funds.

But for me there was more to sugar than the industrial bustle. It was cricket. Every sugar estate had excellent cricket grounds and enjoyed intense rivalries with each other on the cricket field. More than that, it was the sugar estate that fuelled the rural parish Nethersole cricket teams. As boys we were always assured of Saturday afternoon cricket on the village green featuring the best of Jamaica's cricket, Senior Cup or no.

One peculiarity about cricket in the sugar regions was the ubiquitous Indian (colloquially called Coolieman) spin bowler. I believe every estate club team, and consequently all parish teams strengthened by the sugar estate core of players, had an Indian flighting the ball disarmingly to capture the last five or five wickets after the pace bowlers had been put to rest.

In Clarendon, when Alvin Budhoo took the ball to bowl, it was the signal for the youngsters romping elsewhere to gather along the boundary to watch, learn, and then cheer each wicket falling to the guile of the Coolieman's spin. The same would apply in St Mary, St Catherine, Westmoreland, and Trelawny.

As sugar faded in the 1960s and 70s, along came the bauxite companies with their own sports fields and clubs, their own fiercely contested competitions, and a highly successful and popular Inter-Bauxite Sports Association that generated an All-Bauxite senior cup team, with players like Renford Pinnock, Rex Suckoo, Trevor Henry, Ordelmo Peters, Calder Neita, Beresford Peart, Colin Hinds, and Gene Holland, that threatened to topple the vaunted club teams from off their pedestals.

The bauxite industry will be one of the featured exhibitors and leading participants at the Minerals Week Trade Fair and Exhibition. Bauxite has played such a powerful role in driving the economy since its introduction in 1943 that one wonders where Jamaica would be without it.

The entry of bauxite was not expected to be much more than a capitalist race between the alumina giants of North America who saw Jamaica as a little outpost for expanding their businesses and taking off the profits. That perception was changed very early in the game as the pioneer companies — Kaiser, Reynolds and Alcan — immediately launched community relations programmes as they gradually opened up an industrial front in rural areas unaccustomed to the huge machinery, big ships, and 'monster' locomotives that began to dominate the landscape.

That changing perception was expressed by then Chief Minister Norman Manley who, in 1957, articulated the country's admiration in a 1957 Ministry Paper dealing with the 'Agricultural Operations of Bauxite Companies'.

“It is clear,” he said, “that the policy in regard to tenants has been an enlightened and beneficial one, and that the resettlement programmes have been well conceived and efficiently carried out.”

And in regard to land rehabilitation, Manley went on to say, “The work in Jamaica has been attracting attention from many parts of the world because, if early indications of productivity are maintained, Jamaica will quite truly have reached the stage of eating its cake and still having it, as the lands will yield their bauxite and at the same time increase their agricultural productivity.”

The Minerals Week Trade Fair and Exhibition will no doubt showcase aspects of the bauxite and other mineral industries not well known to the public. The land rehabilitation process referred to by Chief Minister Manley is still conducted with the policy unchanged, so that every bit of land that produces is precious, and that the objectives of land reclamation are to restore mined-out lands to some form of economic viability as quickly as possible. This is not just a legal requirement, but a practice venerated over the years by an industry that is run almost 100 per cent by Jamaicans, and not, as some might think, by expatriates.

The arguments put forward concerning the Cockpit Country's bauxite assets, in parts where they exist, has been quite off the mark where the impression is given on occasion that the industry is an exploiter. The history of the company's involvement in Jamaica's economic and social development has been anything but exploitive.

Cultural and heritage preservation and presentations have played a prominent part in the outreach programmes of the companies. To my knowledge, the companies have demonstrated respect for the country's heritage, including the Maroon historical traditions and the Cockpit Country's biodiversity. I remember well that Alpart teamed with the Social Development Commission's O J Lawrence in the 1990s to help advance the annual Maroon celebration ceremonies as the tourism and popular celebration event that it is today.

Consider that Jamaica and international master potter Cecil Baugh always credited Kaiser Bauxite with having given him a start in 1960 when the company gave the young artist an opportunity to train young Jamaican craftsmen in pottery at Maggotty, in St Elizabeth, and unrestricted access to their clay reserves at Hodges Pen in that parish.

The national minerals exhibition may or may not have space to recognise some of the pioneers of the industry who made their mark in ensuring that their companies' programmes should be tied into the feelings and aspirations of their host communities. The Government of Jamaica have already recognised a few of those outstanding leaders. The late Don Tretzel, head of Kaiser Bauxite 1953 to 1974, became the first expatriate to receive Jamaican national honours when he was appointed Commander of the Order of Distinction. Ed Coyne, the general manager who succeeded Treztel, was also invested invested into the Order of Distinction, also at the rank of Commander.

That 'gentle giant' of Alcan Jamaica, CEO Keith Panton, was decorated with a similar honour while in office. Dr Carlton Davis was awarded the Order of Jamaica partly for his outstanding services to the industry, and the head of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), Parris Lyew-Ayee Sr, has also been honoured with the Order of Distinction at Commander level.

Quite recently, Anthony “Tony” Porter, international geologist and author, who served the industry through Alcan Jamaica for many years, was appointed Commander of the Order of Distinction for his work and contribution. There are many others who have served the industry and Jamaica who would themselves regard their contribution and success as recognition in itself. Many believe that these individuals should still be recognised further at levels that will enshrine their contribution.

I tread cautiously when I have the temerity to name people but, with all due respect for privacy, it is hoped that the outstanding career of Pansy Johnson, who was the first female head of a local bauxite operation, be recognised at a national level. Johnson retired this year as chairman of Noranda Bauxite after leading the company as senior accountant, mining manager, president, and general manager. Hers was an outstanding performance of excellent leadership that earned the admiration and respect of her employees and the general community. Executive director of the JBI Parris Lyew-Ayee Sr spoke for his colleagues when he said, “She demonstrated how a Jamaican manager is to operate in a multinational organisation and not forget her roots, creating history by showing how a woman can manage a bauxite operation in Jamaica.”

The industry, and the nation too, should not forget the contribution of the late Dr James Lee, a pioneer surveyor of bauxite deposits in Jamaica and former head of Alpart Farms Unit. One of the outcomes of his early exploration days for Kaiser in the 1950s was the stunning collection of over 37,000 Taino artifacts collected and filed. Dr Lee's collection was presented to The University of the West Indies in 2002 and remains a premier focus of study for world archaeological interests.

Lance Neita is a writer, historian, and public relations consultant. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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