Saving the Forest to Secure the Mine in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country

Excavator loads bauxite into truck at a mine in St. Ann, Jamaica

This essay on bordering and the overlap of mining and conservation projects in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country is the seventh piece in the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.

Last year a protected area was created in Jamaica to shield the biodiverse Cockpit Country from bauxite mining. The government has promised that no mining will take place within the boundaries of the protected area. The way the boundary was drawn, though, and its implications, beg the question of borderline violence. Critics argue that the resolution threatens the Cockpit Country, a forested area of western Jamaica characterized by its karstic landscape, conical hillocks, steep valleys, sinkholes, caves, and underground streams. Known as the heart of Jamaica, it is a haven for endemic and endangered species, a fertile ground for Jamaica’s famous yam farming, and a source of people’s livelihoods and fresh water. The area is also home to the Accompong Maroons, descendants of the runaway slaves and Indigenous peoples who fled slavery, found refuge in the rugged environment, and, to this day, consider the Cockpit Country a sovereign state. Despite massive resistance, the Jamaican government approved the protected area and the mining concession in one go. While this may sound like an exceptional case, it is not. 

The Mining-Conservation Nexus

In reality, mining and conservation are “two sides of the same coin.” Mining, gas, and oil concessions often overlap or are located close to protected areas, a clash which is expected to worsen with the growing demand for “green” minerals and biodiversity “offsetting.” Creating areas of nature conservation has become a common “fix” for mining companies to secure space for extraction while being green. The growing affinity between mining and conservation derives not only from a shared claim to the same spaces but similar logics, strategies, technologies, and alliances, both seeking to make value out of “nature,” whether out of extraction, carbon credits, biodiversity offsets, rewilding, or ecotourism. When one is proposed to compensate for the other, they legitimate and justify each other and instigate a dependence on mining for nature conservation.

Bulldozers remove the top layer of soil at a bauxite mine in Pará, Brazil. Photo by João Ramid, 2013.
Bulldozers remove the top layer of soil at a bauxite mine in Pará, Brazil. Photo by João Ramid, 2013.

Another crux is that extractive and conservation frontiers move with similar problematics. While mining is known to displace people and nature, protected areas such as national parks, forest reserves, and heritage sites can similarly exclude local livelihoods and knowledges, especially when the discourse of “pure nature” or “wilderness” is deployed and when boundaries are strictly policed. If mining displaces people and creates “domestic migrants,” protected areas can equally strip people of their land and generate “conservation refugees” who are evicted and must pay the price of global conservation. Despite these shared problematics, the attempt to suppress mining protests by creating a protected area remains a common strategy to pacify resistance and control spaces. A drawback of such an approach is that protected areas do not guarantee protection: despite their protected status, areas once considered to be designated in perpetuity are susceptible to downgrading, downsizing, and political revisions. This boundary effect between protected areas and the surrounding zone can be expected when boundaries are proposed to protect nature.

The border is a fictitious governing tool with paradoxical concrete powers to divide and separate.

The question is: how can we conceive of this interrelated politics and what margin is there for resistance? Philippe Le Billon has argued that it creates “spaces of double exception,” a doubling of the spaces where people lose their rights in the name of green interventions. An analogy is drawn to “the state of exception,” a condition under which people are stripped of their “regular” rights, such as in the colony, detention camp, or clandestine prison. Achille Mbembe argues that the “exception” has become a norm that reinforces a society of enmity. The enemies of the state, in the case of extraction-conservation, are the frontline environmental and land defenders and anti-mining activists who are cast as “radicals,” “extremists,” and “terrorists” and who face stigmatization, intimidation, and criminalization. Traditional land uses, including shifting agriculture, artisanal mining, and hunting, are equally cast in negative terms and as threats to pristine nature or national economies. This creates a forceful but fictitious polarization between nature protectors and destroyers. Alternative values and interests held by local communities and social movements are often pitted against extraction and conservation interests, which are frequently backed by the state and its legal and security apparatus. The affinity between companies and the state can make it twice as hard for those opposing the mining-conservation nexus because “the closer the ties, the more likely it is that this system can overrule existing alternatives.”

Resisting Sacrifice in Cockpit Country

This dynamic is evident in the case of Jamaica, where the state owns 51 percent of the mining venture. People who risk losing their homes and livelihoods fear having their homes transformed into a state-sponsored sacrifice zone. The governmental promise not to mine inside the protected area leaves little comfort, given the cost of protecting one area for the sacrifice of another. With no state to turn to, people have found no other alternative but to appeal to international bodies and sue both the state and the mining companies on human rights grounds. The Accompong Maroons, who have threatened with war and conjured the warrior spirit of their ancestors to fight mining till the last Maroon, have also sued the state for invading Indigenous territory.

An area that runs the risk of being mined, following a legal battle temporarily won by a mining company. Photo by Marie Widengård, 2022.

In June 2022, Chief Richard Currie, who acts as the Head of State of Cockpit Country, tweeted that the Maroon government had filed a lawsuit against the government of Jamaica and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, partly because of the “trespass to the Maroon estate which has been unlawfully permitted by the Government of Jamaica to be mined for bauxite and other raw ore minerals.” The position of the Accompong Maroon government has categorically been that the Cockpit Country belongs to them, a right guaranteed by virtue of the 1738 peace treaty and by being recognized internationally as Indigenous people and therefore entitled to land rights as under international laws. Although the Jamaican prime minister affirms that the Maroons were “literally an independent state within Jamaica during the time of slavery,” he calls the current Maroons’ claim for sovereignty “the stuff of guerrilla wars.”

The heightened animosity between the state and the Accompong Maroons highlight that resistance becomes particularly explosive in spaces of (post-)colonial violence where territorial rights often precede the state. Land and mining laws can often be traced back to the colonial era, which confuses the question of what is lawful and right. When Indigenous status is not recognized by the state, governments can reconstruct peoples as rebels rather than rights-bearing Indigenous peoples with long-standing land claims. In this way, unsettled historical claims muddle the question of who is acting within or outside the law. Giorgio Agamben noted the analogy between the state of exception and the right to resist. Both can draw on extrajudicial grounds to act outside the law. Like the state exception, civil disobedience can be motivated by a perceived necessity to protect the nation, the land, nature, culture. The court has become an interesting space where the relation between the exception and the norm is battled out.

While legal action has become the latest strategy, in Jamaica, years of street protests and other claim-making by anti-mining movements have been partly successful. After long negotiations, the government decided to diminish the area destined for mining. A so-called “clawed-back” area was withdrawn from the mining lease. A local environmental movement calls this progress but not victory. There is uncertainty as to where this clawed-back area really is and how long it will stay protected as the boundaries between extraction and conservation keep on moving. Another concern is that the clawed-back area will be compensated for elsewhere. The protected area has grown from 74,726 hectares in 2017 to 78,024 hectares in 2022, but the battle determining the boundaries of the Cockpit Country continues.

Map of proposed boundaries designating mining, forest, and community use in Cockpit Country published in the report, “Public Consultations on Defining the Boundaries of the Cockpit Country” prepared by Dale Webber and Claudel Noel, 2013.

Among the issues is that the government decided to protect only the core of the Cockpit Country. Communities had lobbied the state to protect an area five times larger than that preferred by the government on the basis of autonomy, subsistence, culture, and aesthetics. A public consultation in 2013 showed that stakeholders wished for a wide boundary to ensure also watershed and heritage protection, and that economic opportunities for the local communities and the nation at large should be part of the Cockpit Country boundary discussion. The public advice was to protect not merely the core but to include a transition zone that would allow certain farming activities and an outer boundary that would work as a buffer zone. Currently, there is a sharp edge between that which is protected and that which will be sacrificed, which leaves communities on both sides of the border in a dangerous position.

Theorizing Borderscapes

Cockpit Country boundary marker. Photo by Marie Widengård, 2022.

This short glimpse into the process of binding up space for extraction and conservation shows that it is no easy feat to use the border as method to reconcile two things we might want to keep far apart. The boundary around the Cockpit Country Protected Area has expanded and shrunk over the years as a result of boundary disputes, but in no simple ways. The border seems to shift both to accommodate mining and to pacify opposition. In Jamaica, as elsewhere, the question of whether the boundary protects nature or mining interests lingers. People often suspect that protected areas act more as a cover to remove people and safeguard extraction than they serve any conservation aims. This begs the question of what the boundary is doing in a more profound way.

Given the struggles unfolding through and against the border, I suggest that critical border studies can help create new insights on how these spaces come about and their implications. While the focus of critical border studies has been on international borders and migration, asylum, and international security, borders also occur within the nation-state, groups, and individuals. The concepts of b/ordering and othering is increasingly used to emphasize that the border method does not begin or stop at demarcation lines in space, but boundaries also border, order, and “other” in social terms.

I propose that the extraction-conservation nexus can be approached as a borderscape, understood as a landscape marked by the presence of a boundary, not only as line or fence but also by the imaginaries and practices connected to boundaries and boundary disputes. This means acknowledging that boundary work is not only the business of the state, but that citizens and residents, activists, and NGOs are active in constructing, resisting, shifting, or even erasing boundaries, and other animals, birds, plants, and “nature” also participate in (un)making boundaries.

The growing affinity between mining and conservation derives not only from a shared claim to the same spaces but similar logics, strategies, technologies, and alliances.

We should be wary, though, of how we use the border and continuously ask: for whom does the border exist and at what price is it established? A boundary meant to protect nature might be imposed to accommodate mining or further deprive people of their land and livelihoods. Noise, dust, and pollution also do not abide by the border but move freely across mining and conservation spaces, which adds to the notion that the border is a fictitious governing tool with paradoxical concrete powers to divide and separate. New friends and foes might emerge in these borderscapes, and temporal borders might further segregate between what is to be remembered versus forgotten. In Jamaica, the bordering serves as a reminder of the violence inherited from the past.

With this essay, I hope to inspire others to pay attention to the emerging borderscapes of mining and conservation, to who is using the border as method, and whether it is used as violence or resistance.

Featured image: Excavator loads bauxite into a dump truck at a mine in St. Ann, Jamaica. Photo by Marie Widengård, 2022.

Marie Widengård is a researcher at the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University, Sweden. Her research interests are broadly in the area of environmental social science, with a particular focus on political ecology, science and technology studies, and feminist perspectives. Contact.