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Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

Caribbean Islands



In spite of its relative decline, during the 1980s mining remained the most important sector of the economy in terms of foreign exchange (see fif.___, Mining and Related Activities). Bauxite was by far the most dominant mineral and subsector in the economy. The mining of bauxite had generated over 50 percent of export earnings since the 1960s. Nevertheless, bauxite production was declining and output in 1985 equaled 6 million tons, only half of the 1980 level (see table __, Bauxite and Alumina Production and Exports (1980-1985), Appendix A). As bauxite exports declined and receipts from tourism increased in the 1980s, it seemed possible that tourism might replace bauxite as the greatest foreign-exchange earner.

Although a large foreign-exchange earner, bauxite production represented only 5 percent of GDP in 1985 and employed under 1 percent of the labor force. The very capital-intensive nature of the industry made it a controversial subsector because of the high rates of unemployment on the island. Likewise, the large presence of North American aluminum companies extracting the ore was also a prominent issue.

Bauxite was first produced commercially in Jamaica in 1952 by Reynolds Metals Ltd. In only six years, Jamaica became the largest producer of bauxite in the world. It retained this position until 1971, when it was surpassed by Australia. In the late 1980s, Jamaica ranked third in worldwide production behind Australia and Guinea and accounted for roughly 13 percent of world output of bauxite and 7 percent of alumina. During the first half of the 1980s, Jamaican bauxite production declined drastically as half of the six North American companies ceased production or left the island completely, and world prices for bauxite entered a prolonged depression because of oversupply. The departure of foreign companies encouraged the government to buy into the bauxite industry, and by 1986 the government-run Clarendon Aluminum Plant was the most successful producer on the island.

Jamaica's bauxite reserves are large, exceeding 1.5 billion tons. At the present rate of extraction, reserves could last another 150 years. Jamaica's bauxite is not extremely alumina pure; one ton of Jamaican bauxite contains only about 0.4 tons of alumina. The island's bauxite comparative advantage lies in the easy extraction of the metal ore as a result of its close proximity to the surface.

Although generally beneficial for the economy, Jamaica's bauxite industry must import large amounts of caustic soda and heavy machinery to mine and export the ore, making the industry highly import intensive. Likewise, the mining of the ore has raised environmental concerns over bauxite by-products discharged in highly visible red lakes.

Jamaica also has significant reserves of several other commercially viable minerals, including limestone, gypsum, silica, and marble. Limestone covers about 80 percent of the island, making the total estimated reserves of 50 billion tons virtually inexhaustible. Certain limestone reserves are of very high quality. Nevertheless, limestone production has been rather small and extremely dependent on external market forces. Although 83,000 tons of limestone were exported in 1984, none was exported in 1985, and estimates for 1986 were placed at close to 100,000 tons.

Gypsum, mined in eastern Jamaica since 1949, was the second most important mineral in the 1980s. Reserves of at least 80 percent purity amounted to over 4 million tons out of total reserves exceeding 40 million tons. Some gypsum was used in the local manufacturing of tiles and cement, but over 90 percent of the mineral and its derivative, anhydride, were exported unprocessed to the United States and Latin America. Jamaica normally produced roughly 180,000 tons of gypsum a year.

Data as of November 1987