The commencement of a slide in gold prices on the international market in April coincided almost precisely with new external signals that the local gold-mining sector will have to begin to contemplate what one might describe as life without mercury.
Shortly after the movers and shakers in the gold-mining sector had met to discuss the way forward for the sector now that a North American and European ban on mercury exports is in
place, Environment and Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud was quoted in the media as saying that it could be up to ten years before the local mining sector becomes mercury-free.
The pronouncement may have provided a measure of comfort for miners, some of whom now appear to have resigned themselves to life after mercury, though they are still some distance away from fully embracing any of the available mercury-free options. On the other hand, the minister’s pronouncement must also be seen in the context of the pace at which the international lobby against the use of mercury in mining moves. It is by no means beyond the realm of credulity that Guyana’s gold exports could be targeted by the anti-mercury lobby long before that ten-year period elapses.
The miners themselves appear to have adopted a more pragmatic position on mercury use in recent years and last week’s turnout at the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) headquarters to witness the Shaker Table demonstration suggests that the posture of stout resistance, which appeared to be in evidence not too many years ago, has waned. Certainly, this newspaper’s recent conversation with GGDMA President Patrick Harding suggested that the sector as a whole – even if not every miner – had assumed a markedly more enlightened position on the mercury issue.
Cost, of course, will be an important factor in influencing change and as it happens it appears that there is some mercury-free technology that might be available across the board. Mr Harding estimates, for example, that the acquisition of a new RP4 Shaker Table would cost the equivalent of three and a half ounces of gold.
Even if one is inclined to applaud what appears to be an effort on the part of the two critical stakeholders – the miners through their association and the government through the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) – to work together towards a mercury-free sector, it has to be said that the government displayed a good deal of dilatoriness in addressing this issue. More vigorous initiatives on the part of the government in the direction of actively seeking alternatives to mercury appeared to be decidedly lacking up to just a few years ago when the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), interestingly, largely through the work of the current GGMC Commissioner, Rickford Vieira, was pushing for the more vigorous pursuit of mercury-free mining methods. Vieira, if it is the desire of the government, can certainly be pressed into service in pursuit of a mercury-free future for the gold mining sector. His experience as an advocate of mercury-free mining during his tenure at with WWF is considerable.
As for the miners, they too will have their challenges since, by embracing mercury-free technology, they will, in effect be embracing methods with which they are unfamiliar. Here, there are roles for both the GGMC and the GGDMA, which institutions will, presumably be playing roles, separately and collectively, in the training of miners. The transformation of the some of the technology used in the mining sector also points to new opportunities for the private sector, which on the basis of the available evidence, are already being seized upon.