Sedimentary, My Dear

Jamaica’s underground untapped wealth

Jamaica sits on 150 billion tons of limestone, but the export of this calcium carbonate rock only amounts to USD3.5 million each year. That’s a lot of unmined potential.

A general view of Kingston in Jamaica, October 3, 2016

Though bauxite has been the main export of the Jamaican mining industry for decades, the country’s largest mineral resource is actually limestone, a rock formed over millions of years from the accumulated skeletons of sea-dwelling creatures.

According to the Ministry of Transport and Mining, 70% of Jamaica’s total surface coverage consists of limestone, totaling an estimated 150 billion tons; 50 billion tons are deemed recoverable.

Besides, a significant part of the reserves are of high-quality limestone, defined by a high concentration (95-98%) of calcium carbonate. It is estimated that Jamaica is blessed with over 9 billion tons of these rocks.
Predominantly used as a construction material and a road base, limestone can be utilized in a wide range of sectors.

Powdered limestone is used in the paper, paint, rubber, and plastics industries, but the high quality of Jamaican limestone also makes it suitable for the food, pharmaceutical, and metallurgical industries.

The largest deposit is located in the Cockpit Country protected area in Trelawny, but exploration efforts have revealed spots of high-grade limestone in four other parishes: St. Elizabeth, St. Mary, Portland, and Westmoreland.

Recent studies from the Mines and Geology Division of the Ministry of Transport and Mining confirmed the presence of approximately 2.5 billion tons in Sherwood Forest, Portland, and more than 6 billion tons in targeted areas in St. Elizabeth and Trelawny.

Limestone in Jamaica is usually extracted in open pits and in February 2016, 77 licensed limestone quarries had operations in Jamaica.

The main company in the sector is Lydford Mining, each year exporting 120,000 tons of high quality limestone including 100,000 tons of industrial-grade and 2,000 tons of ground material. According to the Planning Institute of Jamaica, production in 2016 totaled 2,748 kilotons, rising from 1,960 kilotons in 2015 thanks to higher local demand from the construction industry. Exports in 2016 totaled USD3.5 million a 7% increase from 2015.

Most of the exports are directed to Canada, the US, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and South America.
Despite the huge reserves of limestone and the large number of quarries operating in the island, a majority of the quarries operate under capacity, and the sector lacks financing. Production is able to meet local demand and then some, but less than 10% of extracted limestone is shipped abroad.

Jamaica is missing out on a huge opportunity given the lucrative market for limestone in the Americas. On top of the quality of its mineral deposits, Jamaica boasts competitive advantages given the fact that unlike most neighboring countries, limestone deposits are not located in residential areas and the country benefits from an existing pool of experienced mining workers.

In a presentation released on April 18, 2017, Minister of Transport and Mining Michael Henry reaffirmed that the government is committed to promoting limestone as a means to encourage “cross-sectorial integration and promote rapid economic development”. The Minister also announced that the Mines and Geology Division would continue to produce geology evaluation reports on the limestone deposits in the parishes of Trelawny and St Elizabeth during the year. The objective is to “substantially increase the throughput of limestone” through land leasing and renting of vacant buildings.

In December 2015, Jamaica was selected to be part of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific-EU Development Minerals Program. Funding of EUR750,00, roughly USD824,000, was granted to promote the sector’s productivity and help manage mining operations. The quarry industry is expected to grow in the coming year, stirred by construction projects, especially hotel construction and expansion and road projects, such as the USD384-million Southern Coastal Highway Improvement Project (SCHIP).

Limestone may cover a majority of the island nation’s surface, but producers are just beginning to scratch this surface.

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