Gold mining and the environmental tradeoff

Nothing has happened over the years to persuade informed observers that government is even remotely close to securing the upper hand in the fight against serious environmental transgression by mining operations in remote regions of Guyana to which, as a general rule, we pay less than merited attention.   Indeed, one of the consequences of the steady rise in the price of gold, has been a heightened indifference within a section of the mining community to the desirability of a balance between maximizing gold recovery, on the one hand and leaving a more pleasing environmental footprint behind, on the other.

Mind you, the posture of the delinquent mining operations has  benefitted from the Guyana Geology & Mines Commission’s (GGMC’s) seriously deficient environmental policing regime (which at times bears a resemblance to studied indifference)  coupled with what is widely believed to be a generous measure of official corruption in the enforcement, or lack thereof, of environmental rules governing mining, particularly, it appears, as these pertain to the pollution of waterways.

The whole situation leaves one to wonder whether, in the face of what is now the considerable dependence of the country’s economy on the returns from gold mining (the Ministry of Natural Resources has already pronounced on the likelihood that 2017 will be another record year for gold production) we may not have lost our way completely as far as the balance between gold recovery and protecting the   environment is concerned. Have we found ourselves almost completely ignoring altogether the heavy environmental tradeoff that accrues from the excesses of some gold mining operations and conveniently setting aside the reality that in the longer term that posture will come back to haunt us? Never mind the increasingly prevalent and well-rehearsed official pronouncements about the desirability of protecting the environment. At the end of the day is it not the immediacy of the gains that derive from increased gold production that provide the greater short-term incentive for the decisions that we take?

The available evidence suggests that the despoliation is occurring in those less populated and less well-traveled parts of the country so that – at least in the view of the transgressors and those who, for one reason or another, turn a blind eye – the damage is both easily concealable and easily forgettable.  Were those affected parts of the country more generally accessible there would have been less chance of serious environmental transgression without detection and attendant pressure for corrective action. There is something utterly shameful in these ugly secrets that we keep given our pursuit of internationally respectable environmental credentials.

Sometimes, like in January this year when a GGMC inspection team in the Mazaruni River happened upon an illegal gold-mining operation reportedly comprising around sixty workers and about half a dozen dredges, disclosure might trigger an appropriately robust public response. Almost always, however,   these illegal mining operations are able proceed for considerable periods of time without the knowledge of the GGMC.

There is the argument about the lack of resources to provide adequate environmental ‘cover’ across the various mining regions though, setting aside the issue of a lack of resources, other issues like sectoral and official indifference to the consequences of inadequate policing would appear to be a significant part of the problem. After all, where is the evidence, on the ground, of a serious and sustained collaborative effort between the GGMC and the Guyana Gold & Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA) to significantly reduce environmental transgression and  – perhaps more pertinently – where is the evidence of meaningful government investment in creating an infrastructure that is able to effectively enforce (and even strengthen) the existing environmental regulations governing mining.

This brings us to last week’s alarming disclosure by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) regarding what it says is an unfolding environmental catastrophe in parts of the Mazaruni, not least the rivers. The report, graphic and chilling as it is, surely merits the serious attention of a government that contends that the whole thrust of its development programme is underpinned by a strong environmental bias. And since it is gold-mining, the report says, that lies at the heart of the reported destruction of the environmental resources of the affected areas,  then we must hear from both the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Guyana Gold & Diamond Miners   Association (GGDMA) on just how such an extreme level of lawlessness could possibly prevail, presumably over a protracted period of time, without much earlier detection, reporting and corrective action.

Perhaps there might well be the possibility of challenges to the GHRA’s report by those sections of the gold-mining lobby that seek to institutionalize the notion that gold’s current status as a national money-earner somehow justifies extremes of environmental lawlessness. The correct thing to do, of course, would be for a verification exercise to be undertaken to determine just how long the despoliation described in the GHRA report has been going on and whether or not it was reasonable to expect that the GGMC ought to have been aware of those transgressions long before now. The outcome of a probe should be used as a basis for investigation and immediate shutting down of the offending operation (s) and taking action against the owners of the operations.

There is need to go further. In the face of what has become the routine unearthing of illegal and environmentally questionable gold mining operations, there is now the need for a thorough independent investigation that seeks to determine the levels of both the efficiency and effectiveness of the GGMC’s environmental monitoring regime, what are the critical constraints to such limitations as that regime might have and what it would take to address the weaknesses. After this most recent report from the GHRA on the environmental damage being wreaked by illegal mining in the Mazaruni area, another public pronouncement from the Ministry of Natural Resources insisting that it is doing the best that it can with the resources that it has, will not suffice. Given the returns accruing from the gold-mining sector a more deliberate, more structured environmental monitoring regime which, in the first instance, seeks out and sanctions excesses like those recently discovered in the Mazaruni area is the least that the authorities should aim for in the immediate term. If we understand that the challenge cannot be met and overcome overnight, it is still   scarcely believable that atrocities like those described in the recent GHRA report can possibly persist in the face of a meaningful upgrading of official oversight. The alternative, of course, would be for us to ignore the transgressions in the mining sector and to dwell in an illusionary world of sound environmental credentials.

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