KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaica on Monday lifted a nearly two-year ban on scrap metal exports as it seeks to boost foreign exchange, but critics worry the country lacks safeguards against plundering of its metal infrastructure.
In July 2011, Jamaica's government shut down the metal trade to stop thieves from stripping public and private property to cash in on the sale of recyclable metals such as copper. Brazen thieves even dug up graves and pried metal from caskets.
But on Monday, the lucrative export trade — which grossed as much as $100 million annually at its height in 2006 — was reopened after new regulations were put in place. The new measures include postings of police and customs officers at the island's three export yards and a requirement that metal exporters post a $75,000 bond with a government office, in part to help compensate theft victims.
Any exporter who is convicted of theft will lose its operating license and pay a roughly $21,500 fine, according to Anthony Hylton, Jamaica's minister of industry, investment and commerce.
Scrap metal thieves have been a problem across the globe for years as prices for copper and other recycled metals have remained high, driven largely by demand from China. In the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Guyana also temporarily banned their metal export trades for a few months after vandals disrupted local industries, including the power companies.
But in Jamaica, where high crime and corruption are chronic problems and unemployment stands at roughly 14 percent, some officials fear that the costs of reopening the metal export industry will quickly add up.
Gregory Mair, the opposition Labor Party's spokesman for industry affairs, warns that the trade's resumption will result in the "institutionalization of the theft of property across the islands." He said manhole covers, utility company equipment, roadway railings, water pumps, traffic signs and roofs will be targeted by vandals.
A local conservation group also claims that the island's new scrap metal sites breach environmental laws because they do not have the necessary environmental permits. The group, Jamaica Environment Trust, also worries that the government is not up to the task of monitoring the trade.
"We are not convinced that the (government) has the enforcement capability to regulate the trade," the Jamaica Environment Trust said Monday.
Hylton said the scrap metal industry and the effectiveness of the new regulations will be reviewed in six months. He has stressed that the scrap metal trade has been an important contributor to Jamaica's economy, employing as many as 10,000 people about five years ago.