“Sometimes we make sure that we catch enough rainwater to use or we would have to search out the creeks to for water clean enough to drink,” said Guyanese villager Fabian George in a June interview
with the United Nations University. The negative effects of a mining boom fueled by surging gold prices have become so widespread in the small South American country, which is about the size of Idaho
, that the government has temporarily stopped issuing new gold and diamond mining permits.
The ban, which was announced on July 6 and is still in effect, will last until officials are able to complete a review “of the current management/oversight arrangement of river and tributary mining.” A statement released by the Guyanese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment explained that “damage caused by increasingly irresponsible mining in Guyana’s rivers and tributaries,” has been a cause of major concern for citizens who depend on them to survive.
Guyana, a former colony of both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, has a population that is predominantly split between people of African and East Indian descent who were recruited as indentured servants for the tea industry during the 19th century. Amerindians – indigenous Guyanese people – made up just nine percent of the population, as of the most recent census in 2002. A vast majority of Guyanese (71.5 percent) live in rural villages, most of which are located near the coastline. The remaining population resides in the capital, Georgetown, or one of four other urban centers.
While mining is responsible for just nine percent of the country’s GDP, it accounts for almost 60 percent of exports. Gold, bauxite (the precursor to aluminum), and diamonds are extracted and exported to countries including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In 2011 Guyana produced 363,000 ounces of gold, which represents a 23 percent increase since 2009 and can be attributed “to consistently active mining by small- and medium-scale miners that benefited from the continued increase in gold prices on the international market,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The Communities and Small Mining Initiative reports that more than 15 percent of Guyanese citizens economically depend on small-scale mining to support themselves.
Dredging the Jungle
These small-scale operations, also known as artisanal mines, generally employ rudimentary methods to extract and process minerals, as opposed to large scale industrial operations. As of 2011 there were less than 10 industrial-scale companies with any sort of presence in Guyana, while the number of licensed artisanal miners is more than 14,000, according to the government. Although the latter usually consists of just a few workers, they are also incredibly environmentally destructive.
The methods used most by artisanal miners in Guyana begin in one of two ways, according to the Blacksmith Institute: either large water hoses are used to quickly erode a plot of land or barges are used to dredge up sediment from the bottom of a river. Then, they “combine mercury with gold-laden silt to form a hardened amalgam that has picked up most of the gold metal from the silt. The amalgam is later heated with blow torches or over an open flame to evaporate the mercury, leaving small gold pieces.”
The environmental impacts of artisanal mining in Guyana are well-documented and include “drastic increases in the sediment content of river water, increased levels of mercury in river water, creation of artificial sandbars in rivers, deforestation and degradation of land fertility, and mosquito infestation and malaria,” according to a Harvard Human Rights Program study.
A report issued by the Guyanese Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment last month noted that current environmental problems associated with mining operations include, “widening of the river channel[s] and weakening of soil at river banks resulting in toppling of trees into the river course, blockages and changes to the main river channels resulting in un-navigable channels in the dry seasons.” High levels of turbidity, which is a measure of water clarity, have resulted in the deaths of some fish species that serve as a primary food source for riverine Guyanese communities.
The health of Guyanese rivers and streams is of particular concern to the Amerindians who make up the majority of the population in Guyana’s hinterlands where most artisanal mining occurs. The Harvard Human Rights Program report points out that indigenous people, most of whom survive on subsistence agriculture, are disproportionately affected due to their dependence on waterways for food, transportation, communication, and sanitation.
Adapting to a “Changing World”
Over the past few months the environmental, social, and health effects caused by gold mining in Guyana has become serious enough to warrant a temporary governmental halt to the issuance of any new licenses. In the meantime, scientists employed by the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission are attempting to find a viable alternative to using mercury – the most damaging practice of artisanal miners – amid increasing pressure from the international community. In addition to polluting waterways and contaminating fish, mercury releases highly toxic vapors when it is burned away from gold, which can damage both internal organs and unborn children.
Damages from the run-away mining sector aren’t limited to the environment. The Amerindian Peoples’ Association in Guyana blames increases in prostitution, drug trafficking, and human trafficking on the country’s gold rush. According to the UN, “interior police investigated nearly 50 bush murders last year, about 40 more than normal, many from fights over gold and women or from drunken rum sprees by miners on time off.” Unlicensed mines and illegal aliens who cross the border from Brazil, compounded with a large smuggling operation that bypasses Guyanese gold taxes via Suriname, have left the government struggling to “enforce regulations, hire enough trained jungle mines inspectors, qualified geologists and other personnel to keep pace, and generally maintain order,” according to the UN.
On July 28, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission issued a statement regarding the future of mining, and stressed the need to create a “holistic plan to have the industry adapt to a changing world.” For now it seems that complaints from Amerindian groups and other Guyanese citizens are the driving force in affecting change within the country, but opposition from interest groups such as the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association is intense. The government has acknowledged international pressure too as a factor in its decision to suspend new permits and recently began a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme to develop a natural resource management plan. It remains to be seen exactly what measures will be taken to address the serious problems facing the Guyanese people as a result of gold mining, but given the strong economic imperative for artisanal miners and the severity of environmental and human health effects, action must be taken soon.
Keenan Dillard is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and an intern with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.
Sources: Amerindian Peoples Association, Blacksmith Institute, Bureau of Statistics (Guyana), Center for International Forestry Research, Central Intelligence Agency, Communities and Small-Scale Mining, The Daily Herald, Demerara Waves, Environmental Protection Agency, Guyana News and Information, Harvard Law School, Inter Press Service, Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (Guyana), National Communications Network (Guyana), Stabroek News, United Nations, U.S. Geological Survey, USAID.
Photo Credit: “Gold Mine (Mahdia, Guyana),” courtesy of flickr user caribbeanfreephoto (Georgia Popplewell).