What has been Guyana’s proudest boast namely being the “land of many waters” threatens to become the source of her greatest shame. Tributaries of all of the major rivers in the North-Western regions of Guyana and some of the larger rivers themselves fall into this category.
The Puruni is a ruinous mess of tailings and devastation along miles of the river’s course, un-navigable for large stretches; Guyanese gold-mining effluent in the Cuyuni, added to that coming from Venezuela, spews poisoned yellow effluent into the Essequibo at Bartica in such volume as to discolour large stretches of this ‘mighty’ river’s Western shores. The Potaro, home of Kaieteur Falls has been so plundered for decades by mining that its course now has to be re-configured on the nation’s maps. Almost two decades ago the then head of the Guyana Defence Force issued a wake-up call to the nation, declaring the Konawaruk River to be “dead”. The nation slept on and the rivers continue to die.
A recent visit by the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) facilitated by the Policy Forum Guyana (PFG) provided an opportunity to discuss the impact of mining with the Akawaio communities on the Upper Mazaruni. While many social and environmental challenges were raised during this visit, discussions were dominated by the threats to the rivers.
Perhaps most startling of all, large stretches of the Upper Mazaruni itself between Jawalla and Imbaimadai, are in danger of becoming un-navigable in the current dry season even by canoe, much less outboard engines if the current reckless and illegal dumping of tailings along its banks continues unabated. Mining on this stretch of the Mazaruni River directly and on the banks of rivers inland to a distance of thirty metres, although illegal, continues to flourish. Experienced Amerindian boat-pilots who have traversed the river for decades now have to seek the assistance of miners familiar with the river to navigate the shoals, submerged sandbanks and reefs created by tailings. Incredibly, in the present dry season, a person can now wade across sections of the Upper Mazaruni river, something which will become commonplace if mining is allowed to continue unhindered. Indigenous communities living along the Mazaruni can no longer eat fish from the river, even without the deterrent of mercury poisoning.
Progress in the communities is visible in many forms – health, education, physical infra-structure, better communications and availability of a range of household goods. All of this progress will, however, count for little if access to potable water is eliminated, or expensive clarification and purification techniques are required for access to safe water
Availability of fresh water, currently more valuable than oil, is rapidly diminishing on a global scale. With 23% of the world’s fresh water originating in the Guyana Shield, pollution on the current scale starts to have global implications. Water wars around the world are being provoked by countries compromising their neighbour’s water supply. China, for example, by controlling the Tibet plateau, also controls the freshwater sources of Indian, Bangladesh, Nepal and much of South-East Asia.
The threat of river pollution to Guyana’s fledgling eco-tourism industry could be terminal. Swimming on the Western side of the Essequibo, where most eco-lodges are located is in jeopardy along with sports, fishing, yacht harbours and even bird-watching.
The strength of the mining lobby in Guyana is formidable, exemplified in former President Ramotar being forced within a month to rescind a temporary ban on new river mining due to clamour from the industry. Similar pronouncements by the current administration have fallen on equally deaf ears. Political ambivalence coupled with indifference from the technical agencies responsible for administration of Guyana’s rivers explains why this problem continues unabated.
Furthermore, the justice system has failed to enforce constitutional protections in relation to environmental matters. Efforts by the Kako community to keep the Kakorivera black-water tributary of the Mazaruni by preventing a dredge owner from traversing the river were met initially with a court order seeking imprisonment of the Toshao for “willful and brazen disobedience and contempt”. Fortunately, as a result of community resistance, a clear straight line still distinguishes the black Kako waters from the muddy Mazaruni at the point of confluence.
Queries to official sources are met with evasion, the closest thing to an explanation being to blame Amerindians. While individual Amerindians might be found who will justify river mining, the Village Councils and communities oppose it. As their only source of ready income many Amerindians work on the dredges and mining sites as labourers owned by coastlanders, but have no authority over whether river mining should be taking place or not. Similarly mining and the condition in which it takes place on community lands is a separate problem from river mining.
Guyana recently ratified the UN Convention on Climate Change which calls for a transformative approach to life as a whole, fundamentally challenging the morality of markets as the dominant mechanism for progress. A green economy implies transformation on an ambitious scale, requiring new governance structures appropriate to the challenge.
A National Commission of Inquiry comprising all local interest and, if necessary, diaspora expertise, is the urgent first step to energize a process of transformative action. Such a Commission should aim to ensure that people can live and work in healthy, vibrant places and be dedicated to restorative and preventative actions on waterways, lands, protection of wild-life and all other forms of life now under threat. Moreover, those who have reaped the wealth of Guyana, leaving the devastation for future generation to cope with, should be held to account morally and financially.
Guyana Human Rights Association
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