The Amerindian and the Miner

[Note: I wrote this piece in 2002 soon after starting to advise the Guyana Gold & Diamond Miners Association on ways to improve the environmental credentials in the backdam]

He may be a miner, but he’s Amerindian too.

And he may be Amerindian, but he’s a miner as well, and like all miners he had to understand the new environmental regulations: no more discharging of tailings directly in the creeks and rivers and no more hydraulic mining.

Guyana, the Land of Many Waters, has plenty of water to use for removing the tonnes and tonnes of overburden (up to 3 metres in depth in places) that covers the precious placer gold and diamond in the alluvial flats, river banks and channel beds. It also has plenty of bodies of water into which the tonnes and tonnes of fine slurry of silt and clay laden tailings can be dumped with seeming impunity.

It is the Amerindian people of Guyana that are the first to feel the negative environmental and health impacts of these widespread practices. Whole riverine communities (and in this tropical country they all are riverine) are affected and they can’t drink the muddy waters, which also contain potentially lethal quantities of bio-accumulated mercury (used to attract the gold particles out of the slurry through the formation of amalgam). The fish are poisoned and certain species are disappearing.

But mining must and does go on. Precious metals form the basis of our technologically and industrially based society, and gold and diamonds, while also possessing strange non-industrial properties to some human beings, are part of Global Village Inc’s rapacious diet.

So why mine if you’re Amerindian? Simple…if you don’t cash in on this hidden income, then chances are the Government’s going to let someone else make money from it. But it’s not that simple either. Government legislation has connived to make mining to the Amerindian people of Guyana a bitter-sweet prospect. Unlike all other miners, Amerindians who mine gold and diamond deposits found on their tribal lands (and this is a contentious issue in itself as there is preciously little demarcated native title in this country, after the British left saying that much more should be handed back) are free from the payment of royalties to the Governement of Guyana (GOG).

Some Amerindians make the connection, but not all: that at the current rate and the current state of zero environmental regulation (Note: there are now new laws coming in the Mining Act and the new EPA Act and the newly established EPA agency have umbrella jurisdiction too, but the policing in such remote and wild locations is a logistic impediment) mining is bad for their health, livelihood and sacred lands. But for a people caught between cultures, the westernised-globalised one based on the consumption of imported good and services forces them to see mining as a ready-made solution. What’s more it’s a form of employment and income, which unlike other forms of income, doesn’t require that they migrate to the semi-urban coastal conglomeration that is home for the overwhelming majority of Guyana’s ever-dwindling tiny population of 698,000.

Information and studies on environmental impacts of mining have been made. Last year I met Amerindians on the Middle-Mazaruni who still didn’t know where the results were for the hair samples they’d surrendered to an internationally-funded mercury study. This information, there if you ask for it, shows about 10% of the population with body mercury levels above the WHO safety thresholds of 5ppm.

After over two years in this South American country, that’s neither Latin American nor truly Caribbean, my work in the interior has been based on relationships, relationships with the people, with the miners, with the land, with the coast and with the economy. And dealing with miners, they told me as I started this new job (a consultancy with the GGDMA), was crucial to the success of the project. The Government of Guyana wanted the rivers clean but their impetus for change was internationally driven. Attractive re-financing of foreign debts (something Guyana may disappear off the face of the planet because of, especially if its remaining population all depart for the extra-territorial precincts of NYC and Toronto) comes at a price: the increased production of cheap exports for sale on foreign markets. But these exports, bringing precious foreign exchange earnings in a IMF structurally-adjusted Guyana, also need to be seen to be human-rights friendly and environmentally-friendly commodities. And so the sudden interest in environmental remedial works in the backdam (a general term for the areas, agricultural or bushland, away from the populated Atlantic coastal margin) seems to have been driven by this motivation. The GGDMA were forced to dance to the GOG’s demands and external funding was called into drive the new tailings management project.

Land dredging or low-tech hydraulic placer gold mining may become a thing of the past in Guyana as it has just about become everywhere else. The fact that Brazilians, Venezuelans, even medium-scale Australian operators have flocked to the lawless jungles of the interior of Guyana is because they can continue a low-cost (but commensurately low profit) form of mining that had since become outlawed in their own respective countries. In those countries mechanisation toward dry mining was enforced: it increased the profit margins, which was good for a government eager to realistically cash in on a previously hard to regulate industry of small, transient, unorganised miners – pork knockers as they romantically call them in Guyana, mechanised fossickers as you may find them called elsewhere) – and at the same time addressed all important environmental standards. Less tailings were produced and with increased mechanisation, rivers and creeks could be effectively isolated from mine operations with process water being regulated and contained for settlement on site.

In dealing with the government, the miners and the Amerindian communities, I soon became aware of the monumental leaps required to achieve this utopia.

So what of the Amerindian miner?

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