Concerns that Guyana prioritising wealth over public health

Concerns that Guyana prioritising wealth over public health

Mission to UN mounted by Guyanese authorities seeking to shield gold miners from mercury ban is earning widespread concern from NGOs.

(Caribbean 360)  GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Thursday November 29, 2012 

The gold mining industry has become a boon for Guyana and this year, recorded sales of gold will bring in more than US$600 million to the economy, about six times more than sugar.

Since world gold prices began to surge as investors search for a hedge amidst ongoing global economic uncertainty, gold has become Guyana’s leading export industry, easily surpassing sugar, bauxite and rice as the main economic pillar.

According to the Inter Press Service (IPS), in a bid not to lose out on this lucrative industry, Guyanese authorities are opposing a proposal at the United Nations (UN) level to impose a legally binding ban on the use of mercury in the global gold mining industry.  

Officials from the Caribbean country are said to be lobbying during the three-day UN Environment Programme (UNEP) review conference in Bogota, Colombia, which ends today, for a grace period before having to comply with anticipated treaty restrictions on the use of mercury to recover gold.

Small-scale miners add mercury to pans of gold-rich ore, where the element clings to the gold and sinks to the bottom. According to the IPS, 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 jewellers.

The IPS reports that Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud has included active miners and mercury suppliers in his delegation. His argument is 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.

However, a recent study by the Guianas office of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reportedly found elevated levels of mercury not only in miners who use it almost daily while panning for gold, but in jewellers 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.

The Amerindian People’s Association (APA), which monitors the situation of nine native tribes in the jungle, has reportedly stated that 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.


—Guyanese Online  Post #2140

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