By Earl Moxam
News on Monday of the imminent resumption of bauxite mining at Alpart in Nain, St. Elizabeth, has served as a reminder of the history and role of the plant in Jamaica’s bauxite/alumina sector.
The plant, built in 1969 by three companies which formed Alumina Partners of Jamaica, was opened in 1970 to great fanfare. In the 44 years since then, however, it has been closed twice – first, for a period in the 1980s, and then in 2009, on each occasion falling victim to the vagaries of international market conditions.
At the opening of the plant in 1970, Prime Minister Hugh Shearer was quite pleased to announce the new projections for national bauxite and alumina production, based on the added capacity brought on stream at Alpart: “The bauxite mining capacity, which is now 9.7 million short tons per annum, will be increased to 11 million tons in 1973. Alumina installed capacity, which at 31st December, 1969 amounted to 2.1 million short tons, will increase to 3.2 million short tons in 1973, and when all plants reach maximum capacity, that total capacity… will be within five million short tons. At that time the annual bauxite production will be doubled to approximately 20 million tons, with roughly one-half of this amount being converted into alumina, and the other half exported as bauxite.”
Mr. Shearer also announced that, with the additional production capacity, the country’s export receipts from the sector should increase to $280 million, from the 1970 figure of $100 million.
Regarding Government revenue to be derived from the sector, he projected that this should reach $52 million per annum by 1973.
The “general picture” for the sector, he said, was one of “tremendous growth,” while welcoming “the important contribution which the partners (Reynolds, Kaiser, and Anaconda) of Alpart have made to this industry.”
Ominously, even then, Prime Minister Shearer noted that “in the last 10 years, large new sources of bauxite have been discovered in other countries, and that competition from bauxite producing areas for investment has intensified.”
Nevertheless, he expressed confidence in Jamaica’s capacity to hold its own, and was then still the world’s largest producer of bauxite.
End of Bauxite
He also acknowledged, however, that “what we have is a wasting asset… and these large sums of money that we are receiving will someday come to an end, when the reserves are exhausted. “
It was therefore the responsibility of the Government, he said, “to spend these sums that we receive wisely, so that permanent assets are created, which will, in turn, be capable of producing an income to replace revenues now received from the bauxite and alumina industry.”
The Prime Minister made a significant declaration of intent for the sector: to covert as much of the bauxite as possible into alumina, “and when the technical problems of cheap power for smelting are solved, we should convert as much as possible of the alumina into metal.”
That latter goal is yet to be achieved, with all attempts to establish a national or regional aluminum smelter having failed.