Illegal miners likely contributed to higher deforestation

The Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) believes that in the matter of the approximately US$20 million which the country will probably not be able to collect under its forest protection agreement with Norway on account of increased levels of deforestation, the mining sector may have a virtually clear conscience.

The association’s Administrator Colin Sparman told Stabroek Business in a telephone interview on Wednesday that while gold-mining operations in interior regions have become a major factor in the clearance of trees, the mining sector, or at least much of it, is guided in its forest clearance pursuits by the letter of the law laid down by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment through the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC).

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Robert Persaud
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Robert Persaud

There is, however, a caveat to the GGDMA official’s pronouncement. The seamier side of the gold-mining sector includes illegal miners whose operations take no account of the environmental considerations that attend the pursuits of the mining industry. Sparman says that while he cannot “get into figures” it is widely felt that the indiscriminate tree-fellers – many of whom, it is felt, come from across the border in Venezuela – are at least partially responsible for the smaller amount that will now accrue in forest payments.

In this regard, the problem on indiscriminate tree-felling and its consequences has to do with the age-old problem of too few GGMC functionaries to police the interior and perhaps the generous measure of indifference to transgressions which the commission itself says exists amongst its officials.

But there is another side to the deforestation saga which the GGDMA does nothing to hide. “You cannot make an omelette without breaking an egg,” is how a senior member of the GGDMA put it recently. That is simply another way of saying that gold-mining and the environment will probably always be strange bedfellows since, with the best will in the world, mining gold is by no stretch of the imagination, an environmentally amenable pursuit.

By the admission of the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) and by both Natural Resources and Environment Minister Robert Persaud and President of the GGDMA Patrick Harding it is mining, overwhelmingly, that must carry the can for the accelerated deforestation. Last year, according to the GFC, the area of deforestation increased to 13,516 hectares from 9,881in the previous year. And while Minister Persaud says that, in effect the state is doing a good job of managing the country’s forests, a local minder casually remarked that what is probably truer is that the despoilers have simply not, as yet, gotten around to those sections of forest that remain undisturbed.

President of the GGDMA  Patrick Harding
President of the GGDMA
Patrick Harding

The bottom line would appear to be that economics has served to fashion a pragmatic official posture to forest conservation. The exponential growth of the gold industry to the point where the commodity now accounts for in the region of 50 per cent of the country’s foreign earnings last year—in excess of US$700 million—means that when the numbers are crunched the industry made a profit anyway. In his own contribution to the discourse, Harding was keen to make the point that gold declarations so far for 2013 totalled 415,000 ounces compared with 349,000 ounces for the same period last year.

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