What President Granger had to say on Thursday on the environment and, in particular, the protection of the rivers of this country is most welcome.

Speaking at the observance of World Environment Day at State House, the President made a clarion call for the protection of rivers.

“River pollution – anywhere and at anytime – impacts adversely on water quality, health and the economic and social well-being of residents.  Our rivers must be protected from pollution caused by environmental damage and degradation and the discharge of effluent from manufacturing, mining and farming”, the President said.

He added: “Gold mining is impacting adversely on our rivers. The dreadful ‘draga’ dredges used in gold mining are degrading our river banks and increasing the turbidity of our rivers. Effluent from gold mining has been contaminating our rivers.

“Mercury used in the amalgamation process in gold-mining has found its way into our waterways – rivers, rapids and creeks – and presents a threat to aquatic systems and our biodiversity. The amalgamation process in gold mining can cause mercury to leach into the soil and waterways, affecting both humans and the ecosystems.

“It is true that mining remains a vital sector in our economy, nevertheless we have to be very careful.  Support for safe and sustainable mining is a key element of our Green State Development Strategy – our road map towards the good life for everyone”.

Positing that Guyana is in transition to becoming a `Green State’,  the President pledged the following steps:

– enforce our existing mining and environmental laws more rigorously so as to ensure robust environmental monitoring and to eradicate river pollution;

– eliminate the use of mercury from the gold mining sector eventually while introducing economically feasible alternatives to mercury; and

– employ greener and safer mining practices which minimize waste and reduce negative environmental impacts. 

For a number of years this newspaper has advocated the end of alluvial mining because of the enormous threat posed to the integrity of our rivers, pollution with tailings and heavy metals and the endangering of the health and livelihoods of downstream communities.

The heavy pollution of the Konawaruk River in Region Eight going all the way back to 2003 stands as stark testimony to the blind eye that has been turned towards the damage inflicted in river systems in regions 7 and 8. To date, there has been no comprehensive report by the authorities on the state of the Konawaruk and what measures can be taken to restore it.

Aside from the failure to set out policies and make the requisite legislative changes, successive governments have signally failed to ensure that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were accoutred with the resources to police their sprawling mandates. Neither the GGMC nor the EPA has sufficient numbers of wardens in the mining fields, transportation and resources to get the job done. There is also the ever-present problem of corruption and its dilution of enforcement measures. So,  while at the leadership level there have been the customary declarations about the protection of rivers, there has been an abject failure to match words with actions.

There is no doubt that the gold industry is mightily influential in the corridors of powers which is what explains the conundrum of the stolen Curacao gold shipment of 2012 and the reported continuing smuggling of the precious metal via local ports. In the fifth year of his tenure, the fact that President Granger has had to address this issue is either a reflection of his recognition of the failure to take action or just plain lip service. The public will wait to see what action will be taken on the ground as it relates to pollution of rivers by mining.

There are two other aspects of the President’s address that were worthy of comment.

The first was the denunciation of single-use plastics and the steps that his government intends to take. President Granger said: “Plastic pollution is dangerous. It represents a threat to our environmental security. It has contributed to congested drainage systems, flooding and squalor, depleted aquatic life and contaminated creeks, rivers, freshwater and marine waters. The indiscriminate and insanitary dumping of single-use plastics also threatens the health of citizens.

“Restrictions on single-use plastics which still proliferate in our markets and commercial stores and not to mention places of entertainment, are one area in which action can be taken immediately. Single-use plastic bags are used, usually, for short periods of time only but the waste they generate lasts a lifetime within our landfills and dumpsites.

“Plastic pollution can be prevented and eradicated completely.  Government is developing policies aimed at reducing, and eventually eliminating, plastic pollution.  Government ministries have already been instructed to begin to phase out the consumption of single-use plastics, including plastic bags, containers, cups, cutlery, straws and water bottles in the short-term.

“I iterate the call, made last year, for Guyanese, everywhere, to help beat plastic pollution by curtailing their use of single-use plastics, disposing of plastics responsibly and switching to environmentally friendly alternatives”.

Again, while steps have been taken in the Caribbean and globally to seriously curb single-use plastics there has not been  decisive action by the government here especially in light of the severe challenges posed to drainage in the city and elsewhere.

Second, conspicuously absent from this address by the President and other policymakers on the proposed transition to the Green State is any reference to the gross contradiction posed by the coming extraction of millions of barrels of oil offshore.

Civil society grouping, Policy Forum Guyana recently adverted to this contradiction. It noted that In November 2015, civic, business and Government participants approved the “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions under the Paris Climate Change Agreement. However, it noted that with oil production projected at 700,000 barrels per day by 2025, Guyana’s carbon per capita footprint will rise steeply from its current 4.2 tons per capita to reach 108 tons per capita.   President Granger and his government must address this fundamental contradiction frontally.

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