Mazaruni, Cuyuni rivers heavily polluted; govt deploys team to take “corrective measures”

Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 April 2017, 19:17 by Denis Chabrol

The silted Cuyuni River

In the wake of concerns about the pollution and degradation of rivers in the Mazaruni area, the Ministry of Natural Resources on Tuesday announced that a team has been deployed to correct the situation.

“The Minister of Natural Resources has ordered a team comprising officers of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) and the Ministry’s Compliance Division be despatched into the affected areas in Puruni and Mazaruni in a matter of days with a view to ascertaining the severity of the impact and the accuracy of the reports and putting in place urgent corrective measures,” the Ministry of Natural Resources said in a statement.

For its part, the GHRA has stated that, “the Puruni is a ruinous mess of tailings and devastation along miles of the river’scourse, unnavigable 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.”

Media personnel on a recent trip to Aurora Gold Mines observed a heavily polluted Cuyuni River and tributaries as well as large holes left behind by miners.  In some instances, there have been huge sedimentary build up in the waterways whose colour has changed from dark brown to rust red or deep orange.

The GHRA has called for a national commission of inquiry and for the miners who have devastated the environment for future generations to be held financially and morally responsible. Such a commission, the association recommends, should comprise of 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.”

The Ministry of Natural Resources said its Compliance Division, which is now being staffed, has joined with the Guyana GGMC in shutting down a number of operations.

“This notwithstanding, the Compliance Division has already been integral in a number of recent compliance enforcement campaigns in collaboration with the GGMC which have resulted in the shutting down of a number of mining operations, including river mining, due to environmental infringements,” the ministry said.

A river dredge on the Cuyuni River

Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman has reportedly tasked the Compliance Division to work  with other relevant stakeholders and agencies on a rapid assessment of the situation in order to formulate long-term remedial policy adjustments. “This action is in addition to the plans the Government has for encouraging and enforcing compliance with relevant laws and regulations and for technical interventions including the use of dredge tracking technology and drones.”

The brief outline of actions taken against non-compliant miners who flout environmental laws and regulations appeared to be a direct response to the GHRA’s view that government agencies have been doing nothing. “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 explain why this problem continues unabated,” the GHRA said.

At the inception meeting of the new Board of Directors of the GGMC on Thursday April 13, 2017, the ministry said Trotman also charged the members of the Board to focus on Environmental Management with sensitisation in the first instance and more proactive initiatives for monitoring of water quality.

A mined out area just off the Cuyuni River.

The Ministry of Natural Resources credited the GHRA with being vigilant against the environmental degradation that it recently publicised.

The GHRA accused authorities of ignoring concerns about environmental degradation of Konwaruk River to the extent that it is now dead by then Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force, Major General Joseph Singh. “The nation slept on and the rivers continue to die,” said the GHRA. “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.

The GHRA said a recent visit, 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 unnavigable 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,” the human rights organisation said.

The GHRA said the team observed that 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, the organisation says, 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.”

The GHRA observed that while there has been visible progress in the communities in areas of  health, education, physical infra-structure, better communications and availability of a range of household goods, they will “count for little if access to potable water is eliminated, or expensive clarification and purification techniques are required for access to safe water.”

The GHRA also warned that 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.

Furthermore, the GHRA said the justice system has failed to enforce constitutional protections in relation to environmental matters.  The association recalled that efforts by the Kako community to keep the Kako river, a  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.

The GHRA said 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 GHRA said 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, according to the GHRA.