Chinese Mining Companies Endanger Health of Jamaicans

China’s extractive projects and pollution put the health of Jamaicans at risk.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 17 May 2019

Transnational Threats

A woman scans a toxic lake devastated by pollution from rare-earth element refineries, on the edge of the city of Baotou, China. China processes 95 percent of rare-earth elements worldwide. (Photo: Ed Jones, AFP)

The bauxite mine and aluminum refinery of Chinese state-owned industrial group Jiuquan Iron & Steel (Jisco), in the Saint Elizabeth region of Nain, Jamaica, are sickening people who live in nearby, by  polluting the air and water supplies of the area.

“Chinese companies have a systematic pattern of behavior: They violate human and environmental rights at the national and international levels,” Julia Cuadros, a mining specialist and executive board member of the Peruvian nongovernmental organization CooperAción, told Diálogo. “Some farmers abandoned [their crops] due to dangerous emissions.”

Investment and setback

The Jisco group invested $299 million to buy the Alpart metallurgic complex in July 2016, and spent an additional $60 million to reopen the refinery, the Jamaican government told the press. Jisco seeks to increase Alpart’s production capacity from 1.65 million to 2 million tons per year by late 2020, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute reported.

Residents of Upper and Lower Warminster in the southwest parish of Saint Elizabeth say mining activities compromise air quality, leaving households with spiraling health care costs. Clean water is less accessible, says London-based magazine Diálogo Chino in a March 2019 article. “The company’s future is well secure, but what about ours?” one local resident asked in the article.

“Chinese investments seek to move their polluting heavy [extractive and energy] industries to fragile Latin American and Caribbean economies,” said Cuadros. “They pollute water, the region, and threaten the health of communities, as they’ve done in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil. They don’t respect their international commitments.”

The Caribbean island has an estimated 2 billion tons of bauxite reserves, according to the study “Mining Exploitation in the Bauxite World,” conducted by Aurora Betzabé, Mines Department head at the Central University of Venezuela. “China is willing to invest in Jamaica for two reasons: natural resources and what it represents politically for its worldwide expansion plans,” Daniel Pou, an associate researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in the Dominican Republic, told Diálogo.

Chinese laborers work in an aluminum plant in Zouping, east of Shandong province, China. (Photo: China Xtra, AFP)

“Chinese presence in the island is not encouraging; some of the main problems with China is its [lack of] respect for human rights, low quality of investment, and tax evasion,” Pou said. “Far from being a step forward for Jamaica, the Caribbean, and Latin America, Chinese investments can be a setback.”

Although Jisco says communities where they operate are compensated with education, health, sports, agriculture, and general development, its methods don’t change, and human rights violations continue. According to Pou, donations or help amount to “numbing the pain” of the population. 

Rare-earth element

China brought some natural resources to the forefront that are now fundamental to the electronics industry. In Jamaica, China is developing a new minerals industry that will bring more Chinese involvement and pollution.

For years, researchers on the Caribbean island have been finding significant traces of metals known as rare earth elements—with great optical, electric, and magnetic properties—in the red mud derived from refining bauxite. The concentration of rare-earth elements in Jamaica is higher than in any other sites in the world, the Jamaican government told the press.

This is very attractive for China, which pushes to dominate the high-tech industry. China is the world largest rare-earth elements importer with 79 percent of all transactions, according to a December 2018 report from the Colombian-based Mining and Energy Planning Unit.

“Beijing will take advantage of its relations with Kingston to expand its business opportunities on mineral deposits, no matter the negative impacts of its investments on the health and rights of inhabitants. Besides monopolizing reserves, it will seek to aggressively remove the products from international markets for its own benefit,” said Pou.

China and Jamaica signed a cooperation agreement involving infrastructure development and investments on April 15. “China is willing to back Jamaica [if it receives] help to strengthen its influence in the Caribbean and Latin America. Jamaica is in Chinese hands,” Pou said.

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