Guyana has demonstrated its commitment to reduce and where feasible eliminate mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining by undertaking the Minamata National Action Plan (NAP) and being one of the first eight countries where planetGOLD programme is being implemented. The NAP’s objective is to set nation-wide strategies to control, reduce and eliminate, where feasible, mercury use and improve social, economic and regulatory framework surrounding the sector. Through a harmonization framework coordinated by the Ministry of Natural Resources, the government works with stakeholders in the mining sector, to enhance cooperation, linking planetGOLD project activities with the NAP project and ensuring collaboration for maximum impact.
Author: Malgorzata Stylo
Associate Programme Officer, Chemicals and Health Branch
United Nations Environment Programme
Disclaimer:The information provided here are based on personal experience and observations and are not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of the ASGM situation in the country
In November 2019, I joined the NAP project team, composed of national consultants, local stakeholders, regional partners from BCRC Caribbean and international experts, for a journey to the interior of Guyana, known as the heart of mining. The journey was an opportunity to learn firsthand about the life and practices employed by thousands of miners and community members from Guyana’s small-scale mining sector.
Our journey to Puruni mining area in Cuyuni/Mazaruni region began by catching a water taxi, commonly known as speed boat in Guyana, to Bartica – the town or region 7 and one of the main towns in Guyana. It is also a trading hub, both for gold and mercury, which miners in Guyana typically use to extract the precious metal. Guided by the representatives from the National Mining Syndicate, a mining organization in Guyana, we met several gold and mercury traders. The gold traded is often brought in its sponge form – a reminiscent of the mercury amalgamation. While visiting one of the many mercury trade shops, we saw that during the heating, the mercury vapors are emitted, captured by the fume hood and collected in a barrel outside the shop. No one seems to think much about the waste collected in a barrel. Once it reaches its lifespan, the slurry containing mercury might enter the city drainage system exposing residents to the toxic metal. While visiting a mining supply store, we saw mercury being sold over the counter conveniently, stored in El dorado rum bottles. A pound of mercury, at the time, was retailing for 18,000 Guyanese dollars, approximately 90 USD.
Continuing from Bartica, the journey took us through the back waters and dirt roads of the Guyanese jungle. The journey was rough. Our pickup trucks were swaying through the road, trying to avoid potholes and bumps. The green dense wall separated the biodiversity hotspots from the man-made corridors for transportation of one of the Earth treasures – gold. It was dark when we reached our destination.
Puruni is a vibrant mining community. Streets are filled with young and mid-age male miners, sporadic mine owners, and support service workers. The trucks filled with barrels carrying fuel arrive daily to support mining operations. The sub-office of the Guyana Geology and Mining Commission (GGMC), the regulatory agency for mining sector, is tucked between mining supply store and internet café, reminding everyone that the mining operations in Guyana are regulated and the compliance with rules is being monitored. There were no children. In many instances, miners were in Puruni for few weeks or months at a time. They sometimes sent their earnings back home to support their families. They sometimes invested it in their own mining business or simply indulged themselves in the afterwork activities.
Under the guidance of the National Mining Syndicate and GGMC, the following day we spent in the field, visiting mining sites and interacting with mine workers. The artisanal and small-scale gold mining sector in Guyana is predominantly alluvial (with exception of one region in the south of the country), regulated and small to medium scale. Based on observations and conversations with miners and other members of mining community, we discovered some of the challenges that the ASGM sector faces in Guyana. The claim owners rented the land in form of privilege to the operators, who then employed the necessary labor, including miners, cooks, transport etc. The mine owner or operator provided all the equipment and necessary expenses (fuel, food etc.). Excavator operators and cooks were paid fixed salary. The miners were paid proportionately to the amount of extracted gold. The methods used ranged from highly mechanized – excavators with vibrating screen and zigzag sluice underneath, labor intensive - pressure pump and zigzag sluices, to very artisanal - 2-inch waterpipe and ground sluices. Most of the operations used mercury to extract gold. In one instance, the mercury coated plates were added directly onto the sluice, which is one of the worst practices prohibited under the Guyanese mining regulations.
During our limited time in the field, we started the process of unpacking the intertwined social, economic and political factors that shape the small-scale gold mining sector in Guyana. The landlord operation model is prevalent. Small scale miners must enter into costly contracts with landlords and face tenure insecurity. Landlords might use the system as an exploration strategy. In some instances, once the miners encounter rich deposits, the owner ceases the rent in pursuit of larger scale operations. Since in most of the cases, small scale mine workers do not own the operations, they might have little incentives to improve the health and safety and switching to alternative mercury free technologies. Even though the sector is fully regulated, in order to break out from the system and start their own mining business, miners are sometimes forced to operate under informal conditions using artisanal methods.
Mining in Guyana is a significant driver of deforestation, and the small scale sector is country’s largest source of mercury emissions. Being a Party to the Minamata Convention, Guyana has demonstrated its international commitment to improving the ASGM sector within its territory. The planetGOLD will both contribute to and benefit from the close collaboration on the NAP development. The lessons learned from the undertaken interventions (e.g. experiences in running mercury free processing plants or advances made in proving access to finance and international markets) will be of a valuable asset to the NAP steering committee who are responsible for setting a country wide strategy to reduce mercury use and promote mercury-free technologies. At the same time, the sustainability of the planetGOLD interventions will be closely linked to the NAP, its national objectives and national strategies, as they will shape the mining landscape and link it with the wider development agenda for the entire ASGM sector in Guyana.