Bauxite is the ore from which aluminium is made. Jamaica contains some of the largest known deposits of bauxite in the world. The mining areas are located in the western and central parts of the island. After mining, most of the bauxite is carried to alumina plants where it is refined into alumina. The alumina (or in some cases unrefined bauxite) is carried to export ports by rail. Most of Jamaica’s bauxite is refined into alumina and the rest is exported unrefined. The marketing of bauxite and alumina is done by large international companies. The video below shows aspects of the bauxite mining and refining process undertaken by Alcoa in Jamaica and elsewhere.
This video shows details of the bauxite refining process.
Trends in the Jamaican Bauxite Industry
The future looks relatively secure for the industry. The capacity of the alumina plants has been increased as a result of recent investment. The reserves are great enough to last several decades at current rates of use. The bauxite contains few impurities. It is soft and therefore easily mined. Transport costs are low as a result of rail lines and ports which are in place. Jamaica is also located close to North America and can therefore easily supply the smelters there.
Challenges facing the Jamaican Bauxite Industry
Jamaica is finding it more and more difficult to compete with other bauxite producers around the world. Countries such as Australia and Guinea have become important bauxite producers. Also, aluminium smelters have been built in Europe, Asia and South America. North America is no longer the major producer of aluminium.
Output per worker is lower and their wages are higher than in other countries. Jamaica needs to find a way to reduce the cost of mining bauxite to remain competitive. This is especially so as transport costs have dropped. This has caused mining costs to become a more important factor than location near a smelter.
Environmental Issues caused by bauxite mining
Due to the methods of mining (open cast), the end result of mining on the landscape is very unsightly. Jamaican regulations ensure that the land is reclaimed when mining in an area is complete. The topsoil is removed and preserved before mining begins. When mining is done, the land is smoothed , the topsoil is replaced and grass is planted.
Another issue is the disposal of the red mud produced when refining bauxite. This mud is dumped into large “ponds”. The caustic soda contained in the red mud can kill nearby vegetation and make the air unpleasant to breathe. It can also pollute water sources. However, improved methods in alumina plants produce less red mud. Also, drains under the ponds extract some caustic soda for reuse in the alumina plants. The video below is a news report which outlines some of the environmental issues caused by bauxite mining in Jamaica.
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