In the wake of the Opposition’s allegations that the deaths of four Guyana Geology and Mines Commission workers are linked to their exposure to mercury, Policy Forum Guyana (PFG) has called on the government to implement a systematic campaign for the eradication of mercury use.
The PFG, a network of civil society organisations which collectively focus primarily on accountability and transparency issues related to natural resources, climate change and extractive industries, issued a press release on Monday, questioning the response from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) that the health and safety of workers is among their highest priorities and that they will spare no expense to establish the truth of the allegation.
The fundamental question, the PFG is asking is, why was the original revelation in April that mercury was affecting the health of Gold Board workers not sufficient to trigger a systematic and sustained campaign to address mercury eradication at the level of law, policy and practice? The statement notes that if it is assumed that prolonged contact with mercury contributed to the workers’ deaths is the place to start, it is by no means the place to end. Both the Opposition’s allegations and the MNR response treat the victims as unfortunate and isolated occurrences, rather than predictable, it said.
According to the PFG release, the link between continued exposure to mercury fumes and possible fatal health consequences is as scientifically well established, as the link between cigarette smoking and cancer. The logical response, therefore, is not only generous healthcare packages for the immediate victims – though these are needed – but to set in place preventative measures aimed at the systematic and comprehensive eradication of mercury use, the PFG stated.
The PFG release said that staggering levels of complacency over the use of mercury in the amalgamating and recovery of gold have resulted in gold smelting taking place all over the city and in the interior. The fact that mercury, or quick-silver as it is popularly known, is carried around by women in their purses, played with by little boys and kept on open shelves in homes, it has lulled people into believing that it is harmless in all circumstances, and has encouraged casualness over its destructive potential when heated.
The statement further added that none of the regulatory agencies responsible for mining, nor the mining community itself, has demonstrated responsibility over the dangers of mercury use. Mining, the PFG noted, is dominated by an obsession with money and nothing which increases [operating] costs, regardless of the consequences is taken seriously. The PFG said that applied to health and safety in the mining operations, protection against disease, use of mercury and the massive environmental costs generated by mining at all levels.
According to the PFG release, some evidence of seriousness on all sides would be to link the calls for tax relief, duty-free concessions, preferential fuel prices and other incentives in the industry to reduced levels of mercury. Other proof would be for mercury eradication to figure more prominently in the assessments carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency on all levels of the gold industry.
The PFG said that only official interest shown in the Minamata Convention, i.e. the International Convention for the eradication of the use of mercury, was to seek an extension of the deadline of its application to Guyana. The PFG added that the proof of this assertion is that a clear timetable for the progressive eradication of the sale and use of mercury, along with the rigorous monitoring of its implementation, are not yet in place.
According to the PFG statement, official statements regularly assert that the use of mercury negatively impacts lives and the environment wherever it is in use – whether in Georgetown, or in hinterland communities, and must be eradicated. To this end, the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association and the Guyana Women Miners Organisation are regularly exhorted to cooperate with the various government authorities to eliminate the scourge of mercury from the environment. But cooperate with what? the PFG asked.
Guyana’s rivers are silent victims of this irresponsible approach to mercury, the PFG statement noted. Communities which depend on fish in the vicinity of mining operations in the South Rupununi have dangerously high levels of mercury in their systems. Studies from societies that take mercury more seriously than we do, (Colombia, for example), have demonstrated that simply living on a river where mining takes place, even long distances down river, renders communities vulnerable to mercury poisoning because the fish that ingest mercury migrate downstream.