The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) has sounded an alarm over the pollution of rivers in the Upper Mazaruni area, in Region Seven, which it says are under threat from reckless and illegal mining.
After a recent visit to the Upper Mazaruni, the organisation said yesterday that the Puruni River is “a ruinous mess of tailings and devastation” for miles and is “unnavigable for large stretches.”
“Guyanese gold-mining effluent in the Cuyuni, added to that coming from Venezuela, spews poisoned yellow effluent into the Essequibo at Bartica in such volume as to discolour large stretches of this ‘mighty’ river’s western shores,” it said, while pointing out that the Potaro region, which has been “plundered for decades by mining,” is on a course to be reconfigured on the country’s maps.
It noted that large stretches of the Upper Mazaruni itself, between Jawalla and Imbaimadai, are in danger of becoming unnavigable in the current dry season even by canoe, if the current “reckless and illegal dumping of tailings along its banks continues unabated.”
The GHRA said even though mining on that stretch of the Upper Mazaruni River and on its banks are illegal, it continues unhindered every day.
It added that because of the buildup of debris, which create sandbanks and reefs, experienced Amerindian boat-pilots are forced to seek assistance of miners that are familiar with the river in order to navigate safely away from the newly-created obstacles.
“Incredibly, in the present dry season, a person can now wade across sections of the upper Mazaruni River, something which will become commonplace if mining is allowed to continue unhindered,” it warned, while explaining that the blockages in the rivers result in Indigenous communities along the Mazaruni not being able to eat fish from the river, even without the deterrent of mercury poisoning.
The statement said that while there has been visible progress in the communities, all will be nullified if there is no access to potable water or if there will be a need for expensive purification techniques for the villagers to access safe water.
The statement noted that the organisation’s visit, enabled by the Policy Forum Guyana (PFG), gave the group the opportunity to discuss the impact of mining within the Akawaio communities on the Upper Mazaruni and while the many social and environmental challenges were highlighted, discussions all led back to threats to the main waterways.
However, according to a source from the Regional Democratic Council (RDC), the issue of miners, whether legal or illegal, polluting the rivers has been “an age old” one that would’ve been brought up to the relevant authorities several times before. “We would’ve heard some time back that the tailings are being dumped into the river and so when it is dry it is extremely difficult to traverse the area,” the source said.
While complaints are normally brought to the RDC, the source explained that at the end of the day, the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) is the regulatory agency which has full control over the mining and enforcing its regulations. And the source pointed out that the GGMC is well aware of what has been going on since reports would have been made from the region itself and other private persons about the ongoing issues communities are facing.
“We [RDC] don’t have the enabling authority,” the source said, while adding that nevertheless the miners would have been asked to ensure that they are not dropping their tailings in the river.
The source explained that in addition to the Upper Mazaruni, the Middle Mazaruni is also severely affected and currently the only rivers that are unpolluted are the Kamarang, Oko, and Ekereku rivers. “It’s coming all the way from the Upper Mazaruni way down to lower Mazaruni and the water colour has changed from black to brown and that’s all from the pollution,” the source said.
However, he reiterated that it is beyond the RDC’s reach and it has to be something that has to be regulated by the overlapping agencies, such as the GGMC, the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) and the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commis-sion. He said that in a majority of the cases where mining lands are allocated, the region is not informed and therefore is unable to monitor. “It’s not until something is reported that is when the office is notified and then we are drawn into the fray,” he said.
Efforts to contact the GGMC for a comment were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, in addition to the negative effects of the pollution on the nearby communities, the GHRA statement said eco-tourism is also affected since swimming on the western side of the Essequibo, where most eco-lodges are located, is in jeopardy along with sports, fishing, yacht harbours and bird-watching.
“The strength of the mining lobby in Guyana is formidable, exemplified in former President [Donald] Ramotar being forced within a month to rescind a temporary ban on new river mining due to clamour from the industry. Similar pronouncements by the current administration have fallen equally on deaf ears,” it pointed out, while stating that the justice system has failed to enforce constitutional protections in relation to environmental matters.
It noted that Guyana recently approved the UN Convention on Climate Change, which calls for a transformative approach to life as a whole, fundamentally challenging the morality of markets as the dominant mechanism for progress. “A green economy implies transformation on an ambitious scale, requiring new governance structures appropriate to the challenge,” the GHRA said, before adding that a “National Commission of Inquiry,” comprising all local interest and expertise from the diaspora, is the first step to “energize a process of transformative action.”
It indicated that such a commission should aim to ensure that people can live and work in health, vibrant places and be dedicated to restorative and preventative actions on waterways, lands, protection of wildlife and all other forms of life that are under threat and would hold persons who have reaped the wealth of the country morally and financially accountable for their actions.