Accidental deaths in the gold mining industry in Guyana have been a steady occurrence over the years due to very questionable and highly risky operational methods, and a non-observance of proper Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) practices. Recently, the Ministry of Natural Resources revealed that fourteen persons have died so far this year from mining accidents in Mahdia alone and has apparently launched an enforcement operation to try to bring the situation under control.
We have deliberately written, “under control,” and not “back to normal,” since for far too long the “normal” for mining in Guyana has seen the indulgence in practices which flout the regulations, and mining-related deaths occur every year, usually as a result of catastrophic collapses of pits dug by excavators during “open pit” mining operations. This crazy “normal” has not been adequately addressed by the regulators from the Ministry over the years and illegal practices have become so entrenched that the sudden swoop of enforcers from the Ministry has created such a fallout that miners are crying foul.
While there is no denying the need for regulation, monitoring and enforcing compliance in the industry, one must wonder at the ability of once very lax enforcers to suddenly begin enforcement in a professional manner. In Guyana, issues surrounding compliance with regulations usually involve the pendulum-like extremes of non-enforcement to frenzied, frenetic enforcement. The miners have accused the Ministry enforcers of destroying “millions of dollars’ worth of equipment” and also seizing more equipment. One miner, pronouncing on the economic consequences of the actions to the area, posited, “More than a hundred miners out here affected and is not the miners alone, is shop owners, taxi drivers, barbers, everybody because mining is what sustains Mahdia.”
Knee jerk reactions are possibly par for the course with regulators and those in authority in Guyana, and sustained, sensible and strategic interventions on important issues rarely occur. If one were to judge from the extreme measures that the Ministry’s enforcement teams were obligated to take, it does point to a prior extremely lax approach to monitoring and control. If one justifies the destruction of machinery and equipment, it must be that those same pieces were beyond repair and/or a threat to life and limb and therefore illegal to use. One can only hope that meticulous records were kept of the items which were seized and confiscated or destroyed, including photographic evidence. And it is necessary to say this because unprofessional conduct cannot be used to enforce professional conduct in others. The first step is always to get your own house in order before policing another’s home.
In defence of the dramatic action taken at Mahdia, the Ministry of Natural Resources issued a statement as reported in our October 14 issue which said that Minister Raphael Trotman “ordered the operation since illegal and unsafe mining practices have continued to result in fatal accidents in the mining areas of Guyana.” The Minister definitely cannot be faulted for ordering the operation, and for letting the chips fall where they may, in terms of which miners are found wanting. But has the Minister and his Ministry considered the endgame? What is the strategy here?
Acting Mines Manager of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) Krishna Ramdass has identified Mahdia as recording the highest number of mining deaths for the year so far, and maybe the “shock and awe” approach is intended to send a strong message to all operators in the various mining districts to clean up their acts. But is the Ministry’s and the GGMC’s team of inspectors and enforcers capable of sustained, systematic countrywide interventions to pull the industry back from the precipice of unsafe OHS practices? Only time will tell.
We are all fully aware of how the Police Traffic Department launches one periodic exercise to another, ostensibly to enforce compliance with safety regulations on our roadways. We are also fully aware that these exercises are sporadic and never sustained and there are no publicly discernible signs of the success of these operations. However, these operations do sometimes cause much discomfort to the travelling public for a period until the general lackadaisical approach gradually takes over again and the “crazy normal” returns.
If the GGMC and the Ministry of Natural Resources is serious about addressing the issue of mining deaths and installing a regime of OHS best practices, it will need to arm itself with more than a strong-arm approach to enforcement. With the mining districts being in the interior regions of Guyana and therefore not easily accessible by the senior officials of the GGMC and the Ministry of Natural Resources in the normal course of business, one wonders as to the quality and regularity of reporting that is received by the Minister and his top aides and officials from the inspectors in the fields. One wonders as to the quality and regularity of the supervision of the field inspectors that occurs, particularly given the fact that corruption is rife in almost every sector of economic life in Guyana. With GGMC inspectors operating in outlying districts full autonomy might not be the best modus operandi for them to have.
Mining deaths in Guyana constitute an unnecessary loss of life by persons working hard to feed their families and chase their dream of living a better life, and any action to break the back of unsafe mining practices in all the mining districts in Guyana is welcome. However, the Ministry and the GGMC must work with the miners themselves to facilitate them becoming compliant with best practices in mining and with Guyana’s own mining regulations, so that the miners can get on with the business of safe and successful mining.
Because as the one miner correctly stated, “mining is what sustains Mahdia.”