While events in Linden were commanding public attention, the National Toshaos Council Conference was held in Georgetown between August 6 and August 10.  In previous years it has generated greater public interest because there was no news on the scale of the troubles in the mining town to obscure its proceedings. This year, however, not a great deal emerged about it, although last week, the Region 7 Toshaos released a statement relating to their concerns about the way in which it was conducted, while Toshao Solomon Lewis of Kurutuku subsequently had some comments to make on the subject as well.

They all were of the view that they were not accorded sufficient time to raise their issues, although the Toshaos from Regions 1 and 9 were given extra time to talk about the support they were receiving from the government. This is not the first time this kind of complaint has been heard; accusations about government-managed sessions have been made in relation to the previous conferences as well.

One of the main complaints which they sought to relay at the conference concerns mining close to their lands, or on lands traditionally used by them. Toshao Lewis was quoted in our newspaper as saying at an AFC press conference: “Our water was being polluted destroying our fishes… at the present moment, the fish that we love to eat we can’t find that now. They kill the fishes, they kill the animals. We can’t get to use water anywhere.”  In their statement, the Region 7 Toshaos said: “There are numerous examples where miners empowered with a permit feel that they have the authority to do as they please. Often they have little regard for the authority of the village councils and the rules of the community and openly say that they have been given permission by the GGMC and that the village cannot do anything about it.” They went on to say that they were “incensed” by the granting of licences which are part of the Upper Mazaruni lawsuit currently before the court, and that such leases should not be issued until the resolution of the suit.

They did concede that Amerindians were also engaged in mining, but they said that such permission can be revoked by the village council if it was harmful. As things stand, small and medium-scale miners have to seek permission from a village council if they want to mine on indigenous lands; large-scale operators, however, do not. The Guyana Geology and Mines Commission can issue permits to them in the teeth of Amerindian objections if they deem it to be in the public interest.

Of course a lot of Region 7 complaints concern small miners operating not on titled lands, but outside them, quite often in areas of traditional indigenous usage – where they go to hunt and fish, for example. Quite a number of Amerindian villages have applied for extensions to their lands, and according to reports there are 41 such applications pending. In some cases, the land approved the first time around did not correspond to what they traditionally regarded as theirs, was insufficient for their needs, did not encompass areas of customary usage, or is now inadequate given the expanding population of the village. It might be added that such extensions would afford greater protection from the consequences of mining.

The issue has now come to the forefront because the government and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed a document two weeks ago whereby the latter would administer a project for the demarcation and extension of Amerindian titled lands. The project is worth $360M, and the money in relation to it derives from the Norway funds. This development produced an immediate reaction from the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA), which objected to the extensions on the grounds that the Amerindian peoples have title to 14% of the nation’s land, and the “proposed extension… would result in approximately 35% of Guyana being made available… to a people who represent less than 10% of Guyana’s population.

The association went on to accuse the government of miniaturizing the small and medium-scale mining sector, in view of the fact that the industry has been expanding at the fastest rate ever, and the demand for mining lands is now higher than ever before.  As such, therefore, it would have been expected that government “would hasten the issuing of mining lands to ensure that the country can capitalize on the current high prices for gold and other minerals,” rather than reduce the land available for mining. The President of the GGDMA Patrick Harding also alluded to the overlapping of extensions with existing mining properties and named five areas to which the association took especial exception.

This particular conflict of vested interests in the interior was inevitable, and the government should have seen it coming two decades ago. It is the high price of gold in recent times which has brought the issue to a head, more particularly since the previous President suddenly became seized of the importance of preserving the environment. The gold industry has attracted an army of small miners into the interior, particularly from those areas on the coast where there is high unemployment. The impact on the environment aside, the cost of that influx is being paid by the Amerindians.  Most of them are subsistence farmers, fishers and huntsmen, and the GGDMA cannot believe that its members have an inalienable right to contaminate rivers or ground water by the use of mercury, or to overhunt all the animals in the bush for their own use. Even if mercury is not a major problem, the turbidity of the water caused by dredges would make it unusable for drinking and washing purposes.  In addition, the contempt shown by some miners for the Amerindians and their representatives is well known, while there is an inevitable consequence to the opening up of the interior in an uncontrolled way, because it puts pressure on indigenous culture. Having said that, of course, it also has to be admitted (as mentioned above in the context of the Toshaos’ statement) that nowadays there is a significant number of Amerindians in some areas involved in mining themselves.

Since the government has never had an interior policy or a land use policy deriving therefrom, added to which the legislative framework is unclear, it is placed in the position of dealing with every issue which comes up on an ad hoc basis. It is not that everyone does not have a legitimate claim at some level or another, it is just that those claims are in a very general sense incompatible. There could be mitigation of some of the mining issues if the government were prepared to invest in research on mercury alternatives – whether the mining sector likes it or not, there will be international moves in one form or another which will necessitate the phasing out of mercury – as well as in gold recovery rates as suggested by former GGMC Commissioner William Woolford. A lot of work on these must have been done already elsewhere, one would have thought.

After strong complaints by the mining sector government has already backed down over the issue of river concessions as well as mercury use. The GGDMA has accused the government of targeting small and medium-scale miners, but it is probably not so much a question of specifically targeting them in a hostile sense, as the fact that getting a reduction in mining numbers in the interior for environmental reasons, inevitably must involve a contraction in the total of small miners. Whether as one correspondent to this newspaper suggested, it is at all feasible for small miners to form co-operatives, say, in order for them to become part of larger enterprises, is simply not known. If it is, then perhaps the association could explore the ways in which they could be encouraged to do this, and put them in touch with the requisite expertise.

As for the Amerindian land extensions, each will have to be looked at on the basis of its merits, and in the meantime, the government should start working on developing a policy in relation to interior land, some portions of which may have to be reflected in the legislation. It will be a contentious issue, but at least everyone will then be clear about what the ground rules are.

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