Jamaica has for long seen turbulent economic times. This has been further propelled by the global recession. Today, Jamaica is almost two trillion dollars in debt, the dollar is sliding and the government has a poor grip on the country’s financial situation.
Tourism, agriculture/agro-processing and bauxite are Jamaica’s three major industries. Agriculture and Agro-processing have been underperforming for a long, while the bauxite industry is currently on hold. As for tourism, while the industry remains strong, the effects of heavy taxation are burdening the sector to an outrageous extent.
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The Need for a New Income Source
With no immediate foreseeable turnaround in any of the current industries evident, the development of a new industry—some form of sustainable foreignexchange earner is obvious.The scrap metal industry presented such a dream, regardless of how faint. The tumultuous problems with scrap metal however simply presented too may hindrances.
Rare Earth Metals
Why are we telling you all of this? Significant traces of rare earth metals have been found in Jamaica. Rare earth metals, as the name suggests are a series of metallic elements that are particularly rare, except for the fact that they are not usually found in any one place in significant deposits. These metals are used for making components inhigh end electronic gadgets such as cell phones and computers. Without doubt, rare earth metals are very important in today's technologies.
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Lanthanum, for instance, is used in the batteries of many of today's gadgets, being far more efficient than materials formerly used for the storage of power. Neodymium allows for the smaller and more powerful magnets that are essential in many other devices. Yttrium is used in lasers, and erbium amplifies light impulses when used in optical fibres that transmit data.
The Nippon Light Metal Pilot Project
Scarcity and demand have made these elements expensive relative to other minerals, like, for instance, bauxite. It’s obvious then, that from Jamaica's perspective, the excitement over the Nippon Light Metal project is justified.
From Jamaica's point of view, this is potentially the most important economic development since commercial quantities of bauxite were discovered more than 60 years ago.
As it was when Jamaica joined the bauxite-alumina production chain, there is the geopolitical significance of our joining the rare-earth metals market. The latter fact will require sensitive management of relations with our emerging major economic and development partner, China.
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Kingston and Beijing enjoy a strong friendship. The Chinese are investing heavily in Jamaica's infrastructure. The need to embrace good business opportunities is clear, however it must be within a framework free of political tampering and that ensures safe environmental practices.
The Nippon Light Metal project, positive as it is, points to a failure in Jamaica. Nearly three decades ago, research in Jamaica, including conferences organised by the Geological Society and the Jamaica Bauxite Institute on bauxite tailings, pointed to the presence of rare earth metals and other minerals in our bauxite and bauxite tailings. However, weak government support for investment, as well as short-sightedness and an absence of aggressiveness by research institutions like the University of the West Indies and private-sector firms, caused the initial work to stagnate.
Let’s hope that as we move forward, Jamaica will ready itself for both the benefits and other effects of rare earth metal mining. Not only will there be need for governmental support, but support from all stakeholders including the private sector and public institutions.
By Norvan Martin