Where the Black Water Runs Clear

[Note: I wrote this in Guyana in 2002 while working for the Guyanese Geology & Mines Commission on a Canadian-funded project as environmental advisor]

Carefully I navigate my teeth, gums and jaws around the wonderfully aromatic curried powis (a large clumsy canopy-dwelling bird, sort of a cross between a bush turkey and a buzzard), ever mindful of the sharp and jagged shattered bones, hollow and tubular, that have already punctured my gums in places. As camp cook, this is Snowy’s early morning revelry, afforded by the fortuitous passing of an Amerindian hunter, keen to offload his avian prey plucked from the rainforest canopy for some cash. As we devour his bush kitchen creation, prepared in the Guyanese way with deft blows from the cutlass and an ample portion of East Indian spicy curry, Snowy is philosophising in his uniquely Rastafarian way about our good fortune and what the universe may be attempting to say to us all. Snowy, a strange name for a man whose skin shines sheer ebony, works alongside his lithe and able-bodied assistant, Rastaman (Troy). They are both wary of our team’s waning enthusiasm for the continued fare of baked camp-oven bread and salt-fish curry. Fresh meat is on everyone’s mind.

Our jungle camp is the field outpost for the Guyana Geology & Mines Commission (GGMC) in the remote North-West District (NWD). The disputed border with neighbouring Venezuela lies nearby to the west. The Barima River, upon whose steep banks we are perched, starts its journey in Venezuela then winds its way through this undulating limestone lowland jungle, before crossing back again and discharging eventually into the Orinoco Delta. Not far from here just a few hours away is the site of the infamous Jonestown, virtually indistinguishable now from the surrounding jungle, where in 1979 were found the remains of American cult leader Jim Jones and over 900 of his followers, supposedly victims of a mass suicide. But for my Guyanese colleagues this bizarre historical event is furthest from their minds.

Our outpost is nothing more than a series of huge canvas and nylon tarpaulins stretched across an A-frame structure made from bush poles. Beneath this we hang our hammocks and take refuge from the daily downpours. As environmental mining consultant to the Government of Guyana (GOG) and the Guyana Gold & Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) I am based out of these illustrious digs for several weeks at a time. My colleagues on this project are just two of the handful of mining engineers in the country. Our task as mandated by the GGMC Commissioner is to address the negative environmental impacts from the placer (alluvial) gold and diamond mining in these remote locations. We’re two days by Atlantic ferry and inland river speedboat from the coastal capital of Georgetown. But once you’re here there are muddy roads to travel. Four-wheel drive vehicles, their trays overladen with cheering miners, heavy dredging pumps, PVC pipes, barrels of diesel and female sex workers, roar past our camp between the inland river town of Port Kaituma and the various mining camps, or backdams as they call them in Guyana.

The bush meat devoured Terry, the staff driver, resumes his awkward position under the four-wheel drive, greasy hands tinkering above him. He’s mumbling to himself about how he gets neither support, parts nor time to maintain this our only work vehicle. With mining camps springing up all over the place as people claim to have hit new placer deposits in the buried gravels, our environmental extension activities demand constant travel between shouts, as the gold-fever affected miners call these new claims, and this affords no down time for the ailing Hilux Dualcab utility. But Terry is a relentless man.

Our departure this morning has been delayed by six hours as Terry strained and sweated rivers to repair CV joints, steering rods and sagging suspension leafs. This hurry-up and wait scenario is well known in these parts and taking advantage of the situation Snowy was able to prepare us the tasty meal of curried powis before our delayed departure for the backdam. I decide to sneak in some hand washing down by the cool and crystal clear brook, tinted with the tannins oozing from the jungle floor. In Guyana they call this blackwater and it has a national reverence and supposed magical qualities: it is said that if you drink the blackwater and eat the labba (a diurnally active jungle floor-dwelling rodent, the smaller cousin of the largest rodent of them all the capybara, and a highly prized bush meat) then you’re bound to return to Guyana forever. Escaping into the jungle out of the harsh heat of our camp clearing is a welcome relief and I am joined at the favoured washing spot by the women from a small Amerindian community nearby. They laugh at the white man doing his own washing, as they beat and slap their mens’ clothes upon the moss-covered rocks into bucolic obedience: a state resembling cleanliness. However, I’m more at odds with another dilemma: an environmentalist adding to the steady inflow of detergents and phosphates into these pristine streams, these revered blackwaters.

Yet is the blackwater really revered? The miners are dumping tonnes upon tonnes of tailings into these rivers, and not far from the one that I now lie immersed in they have turned them from blackwater to milk chocolate, killing biological activity through sheer sediment load and the bio-accumulation of mercury. The Amerindians complain to the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs because they can’t drink the water or safely eat the fish (unbeknown to many of them and according to a WWF-funded national study done three years ago, yet withheld from effective publication by the GOG, they have levels of mercury in their hair above safe international thresholds). The Minister for Amerindian Affairs, recently occupied for the first time by an Amerindian and a woman at that, complains to the Minister for Mines (who’s also the Prime Minister), who in turn complains to the Commissioner of GGMC, who thus assembles his office-bound managers, gives them a good rap over the knuckles and says were going on a field trip.

The midday sun is now burning my white white skin as I continue to hurry-up and wait with my Afro-Guyanese colleagues. Looking as roadworthy as can be, bound with wire and odds and ends, the Hilux is now ready to meet the fact-finding entourage of the Commissioner and his managers. Travelling by light plane from Georgetown to Port Kaituma and then by four-wheel drive out to the camp, they arrive visibly shaken and thankfully late just as Terry makes the final adjustments. Terry looks as seriously run down as the vehicle: he’s suffering a relapse of malaria, something very common in these parts and which I would later feel the full life-threatening effects of myself. The rest of us fresh from morning bathes and tropical idleness, rally ourselves into activity, as the Commissioner makes a cursory tour of the jungle camp and staff quarters. Apart from the blood stained dirt floor, which Snowy spilt during his earnest preparation of the wild bird curry, the camp looks good, but the Commissioner is upset: there is no pot of coffee or cool drink for his entourage and he publicly berates poor Snowy for his lapse of duty. We all feel for him as we’re grateful for his culinary efforts just sampled, but we remain silent. The Commissioner is a commanding figure and the source of his real frustration is neither the paupered state of his NWD outpost, nor the fact that he’s just endured a back-breaking jolting ride from Port Kaituma, but more to do with the socio-environmental business at stake in the backdams. His message to the miners will be black and white and we’re all heading out to Eyelash, the name of the backdam with the worst environmental impact in the NWD, to accompany him on this important mission. Eyelash backdam is three hours drive, yet only thirty kilometres away over terrible mud-soaked roads. With the midday heat now pushing thirty eight degrees Celsius and the humidity at around ninety percent we set off, Commissioner in the front with a rapidly deteriorating Terry at the helm, his managers in the back seat and the field staff, including my two mine engineer colleagues, all crammed into the open tray. Today everyone seems intent on avoiding the wrath of the Commissioner.

Coming into any backdam in Guyana’s remote and underdeveloped hinterland is a culture shock. In many cases the number of Brazilian and Venezuelan miners is double the number of Guyanese. They have the capital and the technology to invest in a country which until now never had any environmental regulations. In Brazil and Venezuela, both geographic neighbours to Guyana, the government shut down the small-scale mining industry: too hard to regulate and extract royalties, and too hard to minimise the widespread environmental impacts. So the miners just picked up their equipment and moved over the border. Many Guyanese resent this influx, others see it as an opportunity to invest and learn.

But this is about to change, and in more ways than one. Guyana the last country in South America to adopt national protected areas legislation is also on a path to regulate the environmental impact caused by the mining industry. Big mines have had their share of criticism in Guyana in the past: after the huge and catastrophic cyanide spill into the Essequibo River (Guyana’s largest river) in the mid-nineties by Canadian transnational gold mine Omai, the large gold, diamond and bauxite mines have tightened up their act with huge dams now mandatorily holding all wastewater and tailings on site, and in Omai’s case, still only a few hundred metres from the Essequibo banks. It is the small-scale miner with almost zero collateral that is now the challenge for environmental regulation.

The small-scale miner, or pork-knocker as they romantically call themselves, is able to penetrate deep into the jungles, by boat and then on foot, and so the task of ensuring that all production is declared to the Guyana Gold Board for collection of royalties is a logistical nightmare for an under-staffed and under-resourced public service. In addition to this small but significant on-going loss of revenue is the inability to police the fledgling environmental regulations that specify that tailings must not be ejected directly into any drainage line, backswamp, stream or river, and that tailings dams must be constructed for the purpose of containment, settlement, and ultimately the discharge of cleaner water. Guyana is mindful of their resource (they don’t call it the Land of Many Waters for nothing) and as an interim measure the government has set the maximum turbidity limit for mine discharge water at 30 NTU (a unit of turbidity, where 10 NTU is the reading from one of those still surviving unpolluted blackwater creeks). However, most of the receiving waters in Guyana’s backdams are well over 1000 NTU, some peak at the 5000 NTU mark, while other near solid creeks are simply off the scale!

Working against plans to regulate this elusive industry is the fact that the Guyanese pork-knocker is essentially a subsistence miner, who knows of no other form of income generation. Close down the backdam as the Commissioner has alluded to and Guyana faces a social backlash: armed with the guns they use to defend their claims in the backdam, the miners may well converge on Georgetown, the small urban capital, already rocked daily by months of political instability and delinquent crime that some say is politically-sponsored. Murder and assassination are a daily occurrence and the tabloid press have pages devoted to the latest carnage.

Having arrived in Eyelash and secured the use of one of the local bush camp rum shops, the Commissioner orders for miners to be assembled in a hastily organised public meeting. The drone of hundreds of diesel generators is drowned by the melodic blasts of Brazilian forró music and the competing reggae and hip-hop favoured by the locals, as we go around inviting those not out on the claims to come and join the forum. Men are either resting in hammocks or drinking in the bars if not out dredging the overburden in the creeks. It’s like a frontier town: sleazy bars and restaurants strung along the single, mud road, a legacy carved out by the now defunct Barama logging company ten years previously. We manage to get together about thirty miners; nearly all are Afro-Guyanese. The Commissioner starts his diatribe.

“What we have here in Eyelash gentlemen, as in many other backdams across this country, is an ecological disaster. One that must be stopped!”

His words devolve into platitudes about how they must work better from now on. By the looks on these guys’ faces I can see that their reality will not bring fruition to the suggestions being made today. Our message is: recycle dirty water, build tailings dams, plan your operations. But these pork-knockers don’t have the money or the means to invest in machinery to build such structures, let alone the know-how to implement the planning necessary to bring change. Neither do the government’s mines officers in the field. Many of the Brazilians however, do have excavators and some environmental know-how gained from their experiences with legislators back home, yet in this frontier environment where visits from officials are seldom, they rarely bother when they know they can all get away with it.

The Commissioner’s visit is intended to warn the miners of a brave new future. Now his presentation has moved on to the risks of HIV infection and the prevalence of violence in the backdam, some directed against women and sex workers. The executive secretary of the Guyana Gold & Diamond Miners Association adds his comments to those of the Commissioner. He has little respect in these parts as the members of the GGDMA are mainly the big money men working larger mechanised operations away from these lawless backdams: the pork-knockers’ gripe is that the big money men always manage to get the Government to support their claims for tax breaks and concessions.

Weeks later I would return to Georgetown for my reporting duties with project managers and debriefings with government ministers. I would also meet with my friend, the Brazilian Ambassador to Guyana and he would have some news for me. In recent months the tide of Brazilian miners staking their fortunes in Guyana has turned. Recent rumours in the context of the newly elected government of Brazil of a re-opening of the small placer gold and diamond mining industry have started to lure Brazilian miners back home. Previously used as a scapegoat by the GOG complaining of lost royalty revenue escaping the country through illegal Brazilian miners, the government is now alarmed at the prospect of a local small-scale mining industry without the technological and informal financial backing of these Brazilian operators. And as a sign that other international trends are placing the GOG under further stress, the Prime Minister, with the portfolio for mining, in an address to industry regulators, miners and stakeholders, announced that just as international embargos on the so called ‘conflict diamonds’ in Liberia and Sierra Leone have reduced foreign incomes for those impoverished nations, the potential embargo of non-environmentally friendly produced gold and diamond could affect Guyana’s foreign revenue in the future. The clean up must go on.

After the meeting and his warnings made, the Commissioner wants to take a walk into the backdam, and my fellow colleagues the mine engineers and I oblige, leading the Commissioner through vast clearings where gallery rainforest stood before, around dredge pits and milk chocolate coloured ponds. The surrounding emerald forest begins to cast long shadows but the sun still has plenty of bite left as we stand around and see the all too familiar mining activities churning gravel and overburden into slurry. We even see the occasional miner washing down his sluice box mats adding mercury directly to them: a dangerous and illegal practice. As I’ve witnessed on previous occasions I imagine the miner later that night putting the amalgam (the heavy combination of mercury and the attracted gold) into a sardine tin and placing it on top of the camp fire. The mercury will burn off as vapour leaving him to claim his little chunk of gold from the tin. The mercury vapour falls as it cools and contaminates the soil, the bush camp tables and the uncovered food. It also falls on the miners themselves. The GGMC has produced leaflets about the use of retorts and have even begun distributing low-cost versions amongst Amerindian miners, a group least able to access this health conscious hardware. But in all my travels I have never once seen a retort, let alone one being used to burn off and recycle mercury.

“Where is the original creek line?”, queries a perspiring Commissioner. “This is it!”, we respond, “You’re standing in it.” Mining practices have dredged all the channels in search of the placer gold and diamond (alluvial deposits in buried sand and gravel). The creek is a series of filthy ponds and abandoned dredge pits strewn with giant buttress tree roots and enormous burnt trunks, unfathomable in size and leaning dangerously over the dwarfed miners below, busy blasting away the overburden with water canons.

Satisfied that his managers have seen the reality, the Commissioner orders the return to camp. Terry is unable to drive. All afternoon he’s been suffering an intolerable cold sweat as the malaria fever takes hold of his shuddering body. It’s time for a now compassionate Commissioner to take the wheel, while poor Terry bobs and sways with the rest of us in the back of the Hilux tray for the return journey to camp. He’s in a bad way and there’s no treatment out here, but within a few days Terry would be fine: after all he is still a relentless man.

Back at camp the Commissioner berates his managers for not having attended to the living conditions of us staff in the field. There is talk of proper buildings with gauze netting on windows to provide decent quarters and office space, which would allow mines officers to undertake their arduous paperwork in the cool of the evening in a mosquito-free environment. But this is pie in the sky stuff. Bizarrely though the visiting entourage from head office have left us a porcelain toilet fixture. They say that it will be installed soon, but this is not a priority, well at least not for Terry shuddering in his cot behind us.

That night Snowy, illiterate, asks me to read him some of the newspaper. We have a new one, only four days old, which the recently departed head office entourage has graciously left behind. It is rare to get news in these jungle locations, and a Georgetown paper is a prized possession. The Guyana Chronicle talks of the latest wave of drive-by killings. This time it is of someone we all know: the wife of one of our geologists, shot dead in a neighbourhood rum shop in the capital. The bandits were targeting Guyana’s Public Prosecutor as he sat with his Justice Ministry colleagues. They wounded him but killed a number of innocent bystanders. The dead woman’s husband is away on a geo-exploration survey, way up in the next river system, far away from our camp and out of radio contact. We soon learn via the bush telegraph, over the departmental HF radio frequencies that a GGMC team has been sent in to find him and pass on the terrible news. That night swaying in our hammocks in a late cool breeze, mosquitoes buzzing just beyond the nets that enshroud each of us, we silently contemplate our battles. I am full of remorse for our geologist colleague and he doesn’t even know what happened yet. The symphony of frogs, crickets and the faint flutter of small insectivorous bats hunting inside our bush camp, lulls me to rest. But I’m mindful too that some bats are of the blood-sucking variety. Settling down for the night I curl my body inwards away from the edges of my mosquito net.

The remainder of the camp crew stagger in from their nightly torchlight bathes down by the creek and ready themselves for bed. I hear some laughing and references to the latest disappointing performances from the West Indies World Cup team: being Australian there’s always a lively debate when it comes to cricket. Snowy lights the oil lantern, a nightly ritual that I suspect has something more to do than just keeping a light on for those night-time toilet walks. As he tumbles back into the adjacent hammock I listen to his final Rastafarian philosophy for the day. I can sense that he’s just glad he doesn’t have to live in Georgetown and I guess that he’s sort of right when he surmises that it’s safer out here in the bush.

The black howler monkeys start up in the distance, their powerful roar barely audible, and I’m left pondering Snowy’s comments. Guyana’s hinterland is home to Amerindians, miners and misfits. If the backdam is going to be a safer place for all, then the blackwater must remain black, the labba must remain free from mercury and the pork-knocker must be capable of adopting the brave new world of environmental mining techniques. In this perfect world Amerindian tribes, with 14,000 years of ancestry on these lands, may then, too, have a say in their future. Or are these late night mental images just the beginnings of a rising malarial fever affecting my better judgement?

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