For half of the more than eight years since the closure of the Alpart refinery in 2009, Frank Witter has been Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern.During the other four years, he was the constituency caretaker representing the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
So he watched, at close quarters, the people of St Elizabeth and neighbouring Manchester struggle as unemployment soared with close to 2,000 losing their jobs over a period of months leading to closure in 2009; and as the bottom fell out of the local economy in the months and years after Alpart’s closure.
Now he is also seeing resurgence on the ground in recent months as Alpart — which was bought last year by Chinese metals giant Jiquan Iron and Steel (JISCO) from Russian conglomerate UC Rusal for US$300 million — gears up for reopening of its refinery, scheduled for June 20.
There are now 763 Jamaicans — mostly from St Elizabeth and Manchester — employed at Alpart alongside 263 Chinese, JISCO Alpart executives say.
“I think what is happening here is a game changer for the people of south east St Elizabeth and surrounding communities,” Witter told a local media house last Friday during a high-profile visit by Cabinet ministers, Government officials and representatives from other agencies including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Economic Growth Council.
“I am very excited by all that is happening,” he said.
“Given my experiences of the negative impact of closure, understand how I feel now that I am seeing increased economic local activity, including the reopening of businesses such as bars and restaurants,” said Witter.
Friday’s visiting delegation, including Finance Minister Audley Shaw; Mining and Transport Minister Mike Henry; Director General of the Planning Institute of Jamaica Dr Wayne Henry, and resident representative of the International Monetary Fund Constant Longkeng Ngouana were told that JISCO Alpart remains on track for the refinery’s reopening on June 20.
It’s expected that alumina exports from the 49-year-old Alpart plant through its refurbished Port Kaiser facility close to Alligator Pond will reach 1.35 million tonnes by late next year.
Port Kaiser is already operational with raw material imports arriving since last week. Bauxite mining on the Manchester Plateau — which along with the Essex Valley region of south East St Elizabeth has 30 years of bauxite reserve — is scheduled to begin within days with ore to be transported to Alpart by cable lines.
Bauxite ore is the base material for the refining of alumina — a white, granular material which is smelted in the world’s industrialised countries to form the light metal aluminium used in an array of products ranging from food wrapping to kitchen utensils, cars, and aeroplanes.
Mining will be carried out by contractors rather than workers directly employed by Alpart, the company’s Jamaican Assistant Managing Director Patrick James told visitors.
US$96 million is slated to be spent by JISCO on start-up operations this year with US$34 million already spent, James said.
It’s anticipated that alumina refining will enter a new and expanded phase with the construction of a new, technologically advanced refinery next door to the existing plant, for which, according to Mike Henry, Cabinet has already identified adequate bauxite reserves. Subject to approvals, including environmental, JISCO officials are eyeing start of construction for the second alumina plant next year, with completion set for 2020.
Shaw claimed “thousands of additional workers will be employed” as a result of the new plant. The finance minister also painted a rosy picture of additional integrated industries to be implemented by JISCO in the years ahead. This includes a factory to make aluminium foil for export and a high-tech agricultural production programme.
“JISCO has indicated down the line, a factory to process intermediate material, that is to say the alumina goes to China, intermediate raw materials come back to Jamaica for further processing for export into the western hemisphere,” said Shaw.
“The primary good identified is the production of foil — aluminium foil — which … is a very popular product. They (JISCO) will bring intermediate material back to Jamaica and set up a factory in Jamaica to develop aluminium foil. That factory alone will create another 400 to 500 jobs, so the value chain is there,” he said.
While there has been talk of a long-term aluminium smelter, Shaw said such a venture is, for now, purely theoretical.
“For now there is no discussion about aluminium, that is to come sometime in the future on the assumption that we have appropriate technology in terms of energy that can be consistent with our environmental requirements and standards,” he said.
But he spoke glowingly of prospects for agricultural production alongside bauxite mining using JISCO’s high-tech methods.
Shaw said he and colleague Cabinet minister Henry had seen and experienced the fruits of JISCO’s investment in agriculture during a visit to the metals company’s operations in China.
“JISCo has shown how heavy industry can coexist with agriculture. I think that is something that is very exciting for us here in Jamaica,” said Shaw, who is member of parliament for Manchester North Eastern an important farming area which is targeted for bauxite mining.
Speaking directly to Witter, Shaw said, “You are over here (St Elizabeth), I am in Manchester, and the lifeblood of our two parishes outside of the alumina sector is agriculture, especially small farmers.
“We are absolutely excited about the possibilities of the transfer of technology by JISCo, not only in alumina but in agriculture.
“It comes at a time when we are about to launch a US$70-million investment in establishing the Essex Valley irrigation project right here. We are about to start that project which is partly funded by a grant from the United Kingdom Government and also in combination with a loan from the Caribbean Development Bank.
“So we will have the irrigation project to assist our small farmers and JISCO is here to assist us with elevating the levels of technology so we can increase our yields in agriculture… This is exciting, this is adding value and this is integrating our farmers and our communities in the process of wealth creation,” said Shaw.
That was a point underlined by Minister Henry. “In China we saw blue skies and clear smoke coming out of their (JISCO’s) plant. We witnessed that they are located on the edge of the Mongolian desert, yet they are producing some of the nicest fruits (and) a winery …,” the mining minister said.
Henry said JISCO had shown that “If you look at the environment and balance your approach you can produce at different levels…”
Ngouana hailed the evidence of an integrated, dynamic approach to JISCo’s investment. “I am very pleased to see not a static project but a development plan with multiple projects,” he said, and praised built-in “technological transfers and that environmental concerns are being taken care of”.
The reopening of the plant after almost nine years signalled “resilience, which is a feature the Jamaican economy needs to develop”, the IMF rep said.
PIOJ head Dr Wayne Henry spoke of the “expected significant impact” on the Jamaican economy of resumed alumina refining at Alpart “always mindful of environmental and labour market sustainability”.
Shaw cautioned his audience that productivity at Alpart must be of the “highest quality” to make a success of JISCO’s investment, expected to run into billions of US dollars in the years to come.