by Molly Bergen
January 27, 2017
Source: Human Nature – Conservation International
Alluvial gold mining in the rainforests of Guyana. This is a medium-scale operation; many Guyanese work in the artisanal, small-scale gold mining sector, which is built around removing minerals from topsoils. As the gold runs out, the supply accessible from the surface will be the first to disappear, leaving many people in search of new livelihoods. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)
Editor’s note: Last week, Conservation International (CI) Guyana and partners launched a new initiative to improve mining practices and ease the transition to a greener economy in the South American country. In this interview, CI Guyana Vice President David Singh explains how a country dependent on revenues from nonrenewable resources can make this shift.
Question: What is the current state of Guyana’s economy, and how do nonrenewable resources fit in?
Answer: In the decades after Guyana declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, gold was a bastion of our economy; in fact, at times it was the direct source of revenues to pay civil servants. Even now, with the distress within the country’s sugar industry and the challenges facing the rice industry, gold has proven to be a reliable source of foreign exchange. It has kept the economy afloat, and it has provided a lot of employment for people. I would estimate 10 percent of the country’s workforce is directly involved in the gold mining supply chain — not just the mining itself but the services that make it possible (shopkeepers, truckers, etc.)
However, the country’s entire economy tends to focus on mining at the expense of other types of industry when the price of gold is high. For instance, the heavy equipment operators in the sugar industry left their jobs to go work in the gold mines, which of course impacted sugar production. With soaring gold prices, teachers and nurses left their jobs to work in the mining industry. Without any active intervention to diversify the economy, such a high-level connection with the gold price is leading us into a “resource curse” situation.
Q: What sorts of threats does mining place on Guyana’s people and ecosystems?
A: The use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a huge problem. It’s a highly toxic substance, but miners use mercury to separate the gold from the soil. When they burn the amalgam made up of gold and mercury, it evaporates into the atmosphere, but comes back to Earth in rainfall. You can breathe it in or ingest it by eating fish or other food that absorbs it. In addition, mercury occurs naturally in the environment, and the process of excavating minerals and stirring up soils releases it into the air. In extreme circumstances, you end up with Minamata disease as a result of severe mercury poisoning — your limbs go numb and shake, you lose your vision, you become impotent. The symptoms are similar to malaria, so the two are often confused.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining has historically been the biggest driver of deforestation for Guyana. When you look at gold prices on the world market and at deforestation rates, there’s a high correlation between the two.
Besides all of these impacts, the one that may have the biggest effect on the most people is the eventual exhaustion of the resource — and artisanal small-scale miners will be the first to feel it. Small-scale mining is built around removing minerals from topsoils, where the ore is already broken up by erosion. That gold supply will be the first to disappear; larger-scale machines would be needed to drill through rock and access the minerals deeper underground. The communities that are currently dependent on mining ought to be taking a 10-to-15-year view of their own income prospects, so they have a plan for when the mineral resources run out.
Q: What is Conservation International doing to help Guyana and its people shift to more sustainable sources of income?
A: I believe we have a huge opportunity — indeed, a responsibility — to help Guyana use the revenues it has accrued from mining to fuel the transition into a more diversified economy based on a low-carbon, green development strategy.
To do this, we are taking a sustainable landscapes-based approach that considers the whole supply chain rather than trying to improve conditions at only one site. One important aspect of this will be to create alternative livelihood options that give those working in the artisanal and small-scale mining industry other sources of income. We have been piloting this approach in the Rupununi region near the Brazilian border. There we’ve worked with community-based enterprises to develop nature-based tourism, support family farming and aid other low-impact enterprises that connect people to their environment while helping to improve livelihoods. Another important feature of this is to help more established enterprises access low-interest loans from a local bank.
When you look at the history of the global mining sector, small-scale mining is a huge contributor to the gold mining supply chain. The U.N. Environment Programme estimates that some 30 million people in 80 countries contribute some 15-20 percent of global mineral and metal production. If we really want to help change the course of Guyana’s economy and have a positive impact on how ecosystems are managed, we have to work with this sector.
In a way, doing this in Guyana — a small country where small-scale mining is legal, albeit with restrictions — will likely be easier than it would in other, larger countries, where most of it is illegal and unmonitored. In addition, the US$ 6.2 million investments that have been committed to this work by the Norwegian government and the Global Environment Facility are at the scale to have a significant, positive impact in a country the size of Guyana.
Gold is also a huge part of our culture and traditions, a source of pride and value to the Guyanese people. Given this, the national government’s strong commitment to sustainability in recent decades — even making it clear that income from the gold sector should be used to speed up transition to a green economy — is especially commendable.
In Guyana, the story of El Dorado — the legendary city of gold that first attracted many Europeans, including Walter Raleigh, to Guyana — has become a part of who we are. To build on that legacy, CI aims to show how with the right actions, gold can play a real role in helping people achieve a better quality of life and conserve the ecosystems that will sustain them long after the gold is gone.
David Singh is the vice president of Conservation International Guyana.