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GUYANA: From Lush Jungle to Muddy Moonscape

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Aug 21 2007 (IPS) - Late last month, three Guyanese cabinet ministers flew to a southwestern jungle community near Brazil to probe reports that an unscrupulous group of gold and diamond miners had plundered the area so recklessly that roads simply disappeared and the area&#39s water system had crumbled under the weight of heavy machinery.

A large mining excavation in Mahdia, Guyana. Credit: WWF Guianas

A large mining excavation in Mahdia, Guyana. Credit: WWF Guianas

It was not the first time that the state-run mines commission has had to rush in teams to restore order in a community where rich deposits of gold and diamonds were found. But the very nature of what occurred at Mahdia, 321 kilometres from the city, left nearly everyone in shock, not the least among them 1,200 families cut off from water supplies and stranded by impassible roads for days.

As reported by the cabinet team, miners working the area with land dredges mounted on moving equipment had stumbled on a rich vein of mineral deposits that ran right under some of the main roads leading to Mahdia. Instead of bypassing it as the law requires, the miners simply attacked the roads with a level of ferocity not seen in years, leaving water-filled, mercury-tainted trenches up to 20 feet deep.

Worse yet, the area&#39s underground piping system was wrecked, cutting off supplies to more than 6,000 people for several days. The result was an immediate cease work order for the miners. Authorities also seized nearly a dozen dredges and sent police and the military in search of other equipment hidden deep inside the jungle as owners fled.

By mid-August, most of the dredge owners had admitted to owning equipment used in the destruction of the road network and water system – just the latest example, authorities say, of mounting acts of irresponsibility plaguing the South American country&#39s third most important export sector after sugar and rice.

Studies conducted by a string of local and international agencies have suggested that unless miners adhere to eco-friendly rules and use mercury-free systems to capture gold from ore, there will be significant pollution of waterways in the very near future.

The Guyana office of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) admits to facing an uphill task trying to change bad habits cultivated by miners over the years even as it has seen clear evidence of increased heavy metal pollution in the interior.

"Our studies done in the northwest and upper Mazaruni in the west have shown that people and marine life are being affected. Some of the miners have mercury poisoning because they inhaled it from an open flame. It will take us years to change those habits. It won&#39t happen overnight," said WWF Representative Dr. Patrick Williams.

In the United States, the prestigious Harvard Law School Human Rights Programme documented some of the headaches authorities are facing with the sector in Guyana. It pointed to very lax government controls in the country&#39s Amazon region, noting severe human rights abuses and devastating environmental damage

"Medium- and small-scale gold mining as currently practiced and regulated inflict severe environmental, health, and social damage on the areas and people near mining operations," said the programme&#39s spokesperson Bonnie Docherty.

"Our observations confirmed that the areas around mines resemble a moonscape of barren, mounded sand and mud. Since small-scale miners typically wash the topsoil away in order to get to the gold-bearing clayey soil underneath, the sites of former mines are quite infertile and incapable of supporting regenerated rainforest," she said.

Mines Commissioner Bill Woolford says most local miners abide by the law, but blames a small bunch of local and Brazilian wildcat miners for breaching regulations in an extremely poorly policed area.

"In the case of Mahdia, only the courts can order us to return equipment to miners. We are going all out for forfeiture. The guys were simply irresponsible," he said.

David James, an attorney attached to the umbrella Amerindian People&#39s Association (APA), says that in at least one community in the western Essequibo region, up to 96 percent of the population is at risk of mercury pollution.

He is worried that the new Amerindian or indigenous peoples act gives power to ministers to override a decision by village captains and councils if they decide against allowing mining in their districts.

"We would love to challenge that part of the act, but our laws are not suited to class action lawsuits. That is the way we would prefer to go but it is difficult," James said.

Meanwhile, Williams says that the courses of several rivers have either been blocked or changed by fallen trees, large deposits of mining waste sedimentation have been left by miners and in some cases, entire areas have been clear-felled to allow for operations.

"But we really want miners to use mercury-free systems. We want them to change to the retort (an ore spinning system) that does not require mercury use. We are engaging in public education programmes to change habits but time is needed," he said.

As a reminder of how bad the situation can get, exactly 12 years ago this month, a dam at a mine owned by a Canadian company in western Guyana collapsed, spilling an estimated 3.2 million cubic metres of cyanide-tainted waste into the nearby Essequibo River, discolouring it for days and polluting water to communities downstream for months.

The spill at Omai Mines was the worst environmental disaster in living memory and led to calls for a tightening of regulations that is yet to occur.

"For example, excessive sediment from mining operations has turned rivers and creeks near mining sites a milky, orange colour, making them unusable for bathing, drinking, and washing clothes," the Harvard study found.

"Mercury deposits in rivers from mining are reported to be causing severe public health problems, including childhood deformities, muscle wasting, and mysterious skin rashes. Mercury has also contaminated the local fish population, a primary source of food for Amerindians," it said.

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