Guyana Seeks to Shield Gold Miners from Mercury Ban

(IPS) – As regional delegates meet to discuss a legally binding ban on the use of mercury this week, Guyanese officials are arguing that an exception should be made for the South American country’s lucrative gold mining sector until an acceptable alternative is found.

Since world gold prices began to surge in the last five-plus years, gold has become Guyana’s leading export industry, easily surpassing sugar, bauxite and rice as the main economic pillar.

The runaway prices have also attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investments by Canadian, U.S., Australian, Russian, Chinese and Brazilian firms, all eager to open huge mines in the country that colonial-era British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh once believed was home to the legendary “El Dorado”.

The plan to lobby for a grace period to comply with anticipated treaty restrictions on the use of mercury to recover gold is to be pitched at the Nov. 26-29 U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) review conference in Bogota, Colombia, where government officials, industry players and activists will gather to debate the issue in-depth.

Small-scale miners add mercury to pans of gold-rich ore, where the element clings to the gold and sinks to the bottom. Studies show that up to 15 million miners around the world are exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in this way, along with others in the industry like jungle shopkeepers and jewelers.

It is also a major environmental hazard, travelling thousands of miles in the atmosphere and poisoning local water sources.

This year, recorded sales of gold will bring in more than 600 million dollars to the Guyanese economy, about six times more than sugar. Officials say about half of the estimated national annual production of about 650,000 troy ounces is smuggled to countries like neighbouring Suriname and Brazil where royalties and taxes are cheaper.

Natural Resources Minister Roper Persaud has included active miners and mercury suppliers in his delegation. He says he plans “to vigorously tell the meeting that up to 100,000 people depend on the sector for a living and so the status quo must remain until an equally efficient way of trapping gold from mud, sand or alluvial rock is arrived at.”

“We import large quantities of mercury in Guyana but mercury is not abused here,” Miners Association spokesman Tony Shields told IPS. “We use far less than, for example, the Brazilians and miners in other countries, but the industry will die unless we get the grace period and until a satisfactory alternative is found to the use of mercury.”

Shields argues that if uncertainty about restrictions or an outright ban is not dealt with quickly, miners will simply hoard mercury supplies. Most remain convinced that mercury is the best method despite its known negative effects on human health and the environment.

A recent study by the Guianas office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found elevated levels of mercury not only in miners who use it almost daily while panning for gold, but in jewelers who inhale the dust when working with raw gold and in jungle shopkeepers who often barter for gold, a revelation that caught most in the industry and environmental community off-guard.

Critics note that the Guyanese government has been hard-pressed to control the industry’s spectacular growth, which has brought increased lawlessness – including a spike in the annual murder rate from about 10 to 50 a year – and more importantly, pollution of waterways and general damage to the environment.

As an indication of how serious the situation is, the umbrella Amerindian People’s Association (APA), which monitors the situation of nine native tribes in the jungle, says it is overwhelmed by daily complaints from members about rivers being so polluted that animals no longer water at them.

Residents say they now have to trek to faraway creeks that are hopefully less polluted to get potable water, fish and wait for animals to trap, as dirty and dying waterways are chasing them away.

“The situation is a serious one but nothing much is being done to alleviate it,” APA spokeswoman Jean LaRose told IPS.

The mines commission and the WWF have collaborated in recent months to demonstrate alternative equipment like the shaking tables and a retort system that hardly uses mercury, but miners’ representatives like Shields, as well as government officials, argue that mercury is still the most efficient method.

Meanwhile, several large Canadian companies are at an advanced stage of exploration and will soon be going into full production on large-scale mines in the malaria-infested interior of the Amazon. They will likely use cyanide, whose effects are also known to be harmful to the environment.