Jamaican communities living near to mining and quarrying operations often experience adverse impacts to air and water and to their quality of life.
At the same time, these commercial operations are also a source of jobs and economic development which restrains residents from taking action. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has been working with mining communities on the island since 2013. Our objectives have been to ensure community members know why good air and water quality is important to their health and about their rights under the law. JET has also worked on empowering communities to advocate on their own behalf, rather than simply filing complaints with JET and/or government regulators.
‘Community members knew what their problems were – dust, noise, impacts to water – but did not know how to address them and did not know who to talk to’
With funding from the Commonwealth Foundation, JET has been implementing a project entitled Jamaicans for Clean Air and Water since October 2016. The target communities are: Hayes/New Town in Clarendon, affected by a large alumina processing company and its Residue Disposal Area (RDA), Ten Miles at Bull Bay, St. Andrew, affected by quarrying by a cement company, Pleasant Farm in Ewarton, St. Catherine, also affected by bauxite mining, processing and waste and Port Morant, St Thomas, affected by sugar cane production and processing.
Community members knew what their problems were – dust, noise, impacts to water – but did not know how to address them and did not know who to talk to. JET conducted advocacy training, with a focus on developing familiarity with the legal framework for mining and quarrying, especially regarding the environmental permits issued for these activities. Residents learned, for example, that the companies were required to keep a complaints register at a location that was easily accessible to them. The registers did exist, but were held inside the companies, where local people did not have easy access. Because they were not used, the companies were able to argue to regulators that there were no complaints. We also taught communities how to do logs of pollution events, so that they would be able to provide evidence of these impacts. Work continues to encourage communities to use these unaccustomed avenues.
Participants in the training also learned how to use the Access to Information (ATI) Act. They knew they were affected by dust, and they knew air quality was being tested by the company, but they did not know how to get the information, or how to interpret it. During workshops, community members learned how to do a simple ATI request and were excited to receive the information from government agencies after their requests were submitted. Because the information was often highly technical, however, they still needed expert input from JET and its consultants to understand what was sent to them.
‘Community members also benefit from meetings with regulators through the project’
JET continues to push the regulatory authorities to proactively disclose information about air and water quality to the public, especially nearby communities, in a form that is understandable by a lay person. A major output of this first year of the project was the release of a Review of the Legal and Policy Framework for Air and Water Quality in the island of Jamaica. This was launched at an Editor’s Forum at Jamaica’s main daily newspaper, the Gleaner, and received broad media coverage. In 2018, we will engage with the main environmental regulator, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), regarding the recommendations of this study.
Community members also benefit from meetings with regulators through the project. Stakeholder meetings have given them the opportunity to meet the responsible officers and tell them in their own words of their experiences. The regulators had to grapple with their first-hand accounts and contact information was exchanged.
However, despite improved knowledge and networking facilitated by JET amongst the communities, participants still remain somewhat unwilling to contact government officials, as they fear victimization. JET set up a WhatsApp group to receive updates and this is being lightly used to exchange information, but the communities would much rather complain to JET and have us liaise with regulators on their behalf. Over time, through public education and training JET hopes to build the confidence of the communities and the wider Jamaican public, and inspire community-led advocacy on air and water quality, and other environmental issues.
Suzanne Stanley is CEO of Jamaica Environment Trust.