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Natural Resources

Guyana’s Gold Boom Brings Pollution and Conflict

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Jul 19 2012 (IPS) - Pedro Melville, 62, a father of nine from Guyana’s northwestern gold and manganese mining district of Matthew’s Ridge, sees the impacts of unchecked prospecting on the local environment every day.

One major problem is contamination of water sources. Melville says some residents who previously depended on river water to drink now dig their own pits or trenches, allow the water to settle, and let the rain replenish it.

“The miners don’t care anything about the communities. All they want is what they could get,” he told IPS. “Hygiene is also a problem, and by that I mean the disposal of human and other waste. That is why we have diseases like malaria and typhoid. The situation is getting out of hand, to tell you the truth.”

Authorities regulating Guyana’s booming gold industry recently ordered a halt to new applications to mine for gold and diamonds in the country’s rivers and other waterways, setting off a sectoral firestorm and threats of protests from enraged industry players who accuse government of abusing its powers.

Melville, a member of the Carib tribe and himself a former miner who worked land dredges, believes the restrictions make sense. He says the nearby Barima River is so polluted it can no longer be safely used for domestic purposes, and blames corrupt officials in the city and urban centres for not properly regulating the brigade of local and Brazilian miners working in the jungle.

Besides pollution, officials say some river courses have been changed dramatically because of gravel islands left uncaringly in their centre by heavy mechanical dredges.

Paulina Williams, a mother of three from the western Upper Mazaruni Village of Kako, admits that her village has allowed a small number of locals and Brazilians to work claims in the Kako and Mazaruni rivers, but adds that the miners are presenting problems to villagers of the Akawaio Tribe, one of nine in the country.

“They give nothing to the community and litter the rivers and instead of paying us local taxes, they give it to the police who demand bribes from them. I agree that work on the rivers should be restricted,” she said.

Williams claimed the police are also shaking down Brazilians who don’t have work permits and allowing them to work without the permission of the village council.

Citing persistent complaints from native Indians and other interior residents, worried river boat captains and other stakeholders, Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud banned miners from applying for operating permits at the beginning of June, blaming widespread pollution and a plethora of other problems for the move.

But last week, the fairly militant Gold and Diamond Miners Association stepped in to organise an emergency meeting of members, passed a motion of no confidence in Persaud, and raised more than 50,000 dollars to bring court challenges to the move. It also threatened street protests if no compromise was reached.

Veteran miners said it was time the industry, by far the number one foreign exchange earner and among the largest single employers, flexed its muscles.

In the end, the ministry said the ban would only last for a month, to allow for a thorough review of the situation as pollution and turbidity levels had reached alarming proportions in some rivers, tributaries and creeks.

The miners’ association does not deny these problems, but argues that individual miners who transgress should be suspended or have their licenses revoked rather than penalising the entire industry for the behaviour of a few.

“That is our argument as the mining act is clear on how an errant miner should be punished. We see no reason for all applications to be turned away. Just deal with those who create problems,” said association administrator Colin Sparman.

The ministry had also criticised some dredge owners for allowing operators to work too near to river courses, uprooting 100-year-old trees which in turn fall across small rivers and block navigation. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Like the umbrella Amerindian People’s Association (APA) which has railed against the effects of indiscriminate mining, the ministry says that the future of subsistence farming and fishing are seriously threatened by mining activities, wildlife is disappearing because of the noise, and some species of fish are dying off from the pollution.

The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) describes the ongoing dispute as “a battle for control of Guyana’s rivers”, noting that the Guiana Continental Shield that includes Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana “is currently one of the world’s largest reservoirs of fresh water; even on limited cost/benefit economic calculations the uncontrolled destruction of our rivers is short-sighted.”

“This is the real context in which the battle for Guyana’s rivers is being contested,” it says.

“Within a matter of a few decades, fresh water will be as valuable as oil,” the group says, noting ongoing water disputes in the Middle East and China-Tibet region, as well as Southeast Asia involving India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Runaway world prices for gold in the past five years have brought more than a billion dollars in direct investment to Guyana and its eastern neighbour, Suriname, as dozens of Canadian, U.S. and Brazilian companies have set up shop, creating a mining boom that appears to have grown too large to regulate with current structures.

For example, only now is the mines commission moving to establish gold-buying centres in the western mineral-rich regions to make it easier for miners to sell their wares without traversing lonely jungle roads where they risk being robbed by heavily armed gangs. Local police investigate at least one murder a week linked to greed and general lawlessness.

The U.S. is also coming down hard on Guyana over the trafficking of underage girls to jungle camps where they are forced to work as prostitutes. Police have rescued several in recent months and remain vigilant for ongoing cases.

Added to all this is the problem of smuggling. Official natural resources ministry estimates indicate that up to half the national annual production of 600,000 troy ounces of gold are smuggled to Venezuela, Brazil and especially Suriname because royalty and tax rates are three times cheaper in Suriname than across the border river with Guyana.

Talks between the two governments are likely to soon yield an increase in rate levels in Suriname to help minimise smuggling, but the pressure to cope with a dramatic increase in investment remains heavy.

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