Mining technology and techniques: solutions to deforestation in Guyana
Our forests are important. From food to fuel, fabric, medicines, and shelter, indeed forests play a critical role in our ability to survive and thrive. What then could be done to address deforestation that results from gold mining in Guyana? Could the technology which facilitates mercury-free mining be the answer? In this light, what could be learned from the project: GEF GOLD/Supply Chain approach to eliminating mercury in Guyana’s Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) sector: Eldorado Gold Jewelry Made in Guyana:(referred to as planetGOLD, Guyana)? One of the strategies of this project is the transfer of relevant technologies and techniques in facilitating the transition to mercury-free mining. What has been the outcome and do the lessons learned, hold promise for mercury-free mining, and by extension the saving of Guyana’s forests?
Answers to these questions may be found in a brief exploration of the planetGOLD Guyana project – implemented within the framework of CI – Guyana’s Responsible Mining Initiative. This is essentially made up of activities that promote the adoption of environmentally friendly approaches to mining in Guyana’s ASGM sector.
Globally, 20% of gold mining is artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and 15 million people, including 4.5 million women and over 600,000 children. Understanding the characteristics of the ASGM sector is important for advancing the discussion on the potential of technology to address the issue of deforestation. Entry barriers are low, and as a result, it is characterized by a significant level of informality. “Artisanal mining relies on its ability to meet demand without engaging with regulations. Notwithstanding this, the sector is an important contributor to national economies and a significant generator of foreign exchange.
In Guyana, 70 per cent of gold mining is done by this sector, which directly engages more than 11000 persons, at all levels, and a significant number indirectly. It is an important livelihood and income source for poor families and many indigenous communities. In 2018 this sector’s contribution to the GDP was 6.1 per cent. Guyana’s ASGM is extremely diverse - from pork knockers/punters, very small operations and medium-scale operations.
While it is acknowledged that in Guyana there are several contributors to deforestation such as logging, urbanization, and agriculture, mining is the main driver of deforestation. Further, and as expected, there is a high correlation between gold prices on the world market and deforestation rates. Given the importance of the ASGM sector, the challenge of deforestation must be addressed.
The case for better technology
The barriers to entry into ASGM are relatively low, a miner can enter with simple equipment and without significant capital investment. More importantly, this sector is highly mercury-dependent in its mining processes and experience has shown that the technology used for traditional mining is less than optimal in the recovery of gold and mercury. Only 30 to 40 percent of the gold is recovered which encourages the repeated reworking of tailings and discourages rehabilitation works. So, in addition to not fully exploiting the resource, there is mercury contamination. The dangers of mercury are well known and further, compared with other processes, traditional mining entails higher water usage.
But there are mercury-free options involving the use of technologies and techniques which provide more efficient extraction, resulting in greater profitability and less health and environmental hazards. According to Sakahuni (2023), these technologies could lead to “higher profitability, lower mining and manpower costs for the same amount of gold produced”, and “healthier communities and environment”. He states -
“This is because mercury pollution is eliminated, less water is used and less tailings are generated Better technology increases recovery which is a better way to increase gold production than increasing throughput”. The experience with the planetGOLD, Guyana project transfer of technology sheds light, in this regard.
Mainstreaming appropriate mercury-free technologies
Previously, there was no suitably demonstrated technology to compare with tried and tested mercury amalgamation and no existing success stories of ASGM adoption of mercury-free gold processing. As described by an expert in the field, the demonstration conducted at Mahadia, Region 8, was “the single most effective demonstration of mercury-free mining technology in Guyana's history”. The outcome of the demonstration is summed up in the words of Kiefer (2023): “Dayshawn [Billingy] and I went through the numbers. This system was operating at almost 100% recovery of gold. Unheard of!”
The journey to “mainstream appropriate mercury-free technologies” had taken a quantum leap. And as I reflect on the words of Rene Edwards, CI Guyana’s Technical Director - ...“getting to the demonstration stage required a lot of resources, most of all partnerships. The finances were there, the equipment was there, the technical knowledge was there, but a demonstration site had to be found”.
Let the stories continue as miners seek to mainstream this technological success. As a process it requires movement from demonstration to adoption and there are still hurdles, not least of which is the “cultural shift” needed in the mindset which values throughput over higher recovery rates. But back to where we started.
Could mining technology be the future solution to deforestation by ASGM
There are different pathways to deforestation, some of which have been previously mentioned. In the specific context of mercury-dependent ASGM, in addition to cutting down trees, the use of mercury in the environment negatively impacts them. According to one study, “trees take up gaseous mercury from the atmosphere through their leaves and as plants shed their leaves or die off, they basically transfer that atmospheric mercury to the ecosystems.”
The adoption of mercury-free mining practices is beneficial to our forests. And the planetGOLD, Guyana journey has demonstrated that there are technologies and techniques that facilitate efficient mercury-free mining that leads to higher recovery, in this case, almost 100 per cent recovery. The outcome and lessons from this exercise, therefore, hold promise for the widespread adoption of mercury-free mining technology. It would, however, be well to heed the advice of Kiefer (2023) - “A miner cannot adopt alone, the entire sector needs to develop with that miner, to make sure that they have support in really reaching out and taking a risk on a new technology, access to capital collateral financing opportunities are going to vary greatly within the sector.”
Whatever the answer, imagine:
Not being able to access medicines; having limited or even no food as a result of infertile lands; little or no water because of droughts; or being so hot that living becomes unbearable.
Imagine, most of all, not being able to breathe!
These are not vain imaginations, but real possibilities in a world without forests. Unnecessary deforestation is not an option!