Guyana mining pit

A snapshot of COVID-19 and its impact on Guyana’s ASGM sector

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  • Guyana is grappling with the spread of COVID-19 and ongoing political uncertainty due to contested elections since March 2.
  • The COVID-19 outbreak is in its early stages, with 334 persons being tested, 67 cases confirmed, and 7 deaths officially recorded as of April 21, 2020.
  • Gold prices are pegged to the London Fix price and have increased locally. Mining activities continue as per normal in many areas, as the sector has been declared an essential service. Some minor disruptions noted in other areas.
  • The appearance of COVID-19 cases in some mining towns, although proportionally small, is worrying. These centers have close ties with nearby indigenous communities and are home to several vulnerable groups.
  • Increased resources, information and practical protocols are needed to avoid further spread of the disease in these areas. Conservation International-Guyana staff with the Global Environment Facility-funded planetGOLD project are working to develop guidelines for safely engaging our partners, as we work to address the evolving situation on the ground.
Man in tree Guyana
© Pete Oxford

Like many countries in the region, Guyana is grappling with the spread of COVID-19 among its people and the economic impacts of trying to stop its spread. This situation has been compounded by ongoing political uncertainty since Regional and National elections were held on March 2, 2020. As at the writing of this article a winner still has not been announced, with the process stalled due to allegations of electoral fraud and several court challenges. The Elections Commission is now preparing to commence a prolonged national recount, with the prospect of international sanctions being raised by the USA, UK, EU and a number of other countries. Finally, Guyana just officially became a petroleum producer this year, but must now come to terms with significantly less income being generated from this sector, particularly in the short term.  

While oil prices have collapsed, gold prices are expected to increase beyond record levels over the next 18 months, likely driving the expansion of the sector throughout the country.

Guyana is still in the relatively early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, with 67 confirmed cases, 7 deaths and 334 tests as of April 21, 2020. As in most countries, the true extent of the spread in Guyana is difficult to assess due to testing limitations. Yet, there has already been one confirmed case in Mabaruma, the forested mountain capital of Region 1, while another unconfirmed case is under institutional isolation at Bartica, the riverside captial of Region 7; two of the three regions in which planetGOLD is working. Although testing will be needed to confirm any further spread of the pandemic into the country's interior, these cases sound an important warning about how easily and quickly the disease can be transmitted.

Map of COVID-19 Cases in key ASGM Regions

 

On April 3, 2020, Central Government imposed a national curfew and restricted business activities outside of a list of essential services, which includes mining activities. As such, the ASGM sector is one of the few areas of the economy that has, for now, not been heavily affected by the partial shutdown. These measures are projected to last up to at least May 3, 2020, with the potential to be extended.

Gold prices being paid by the Guyana Gold Board have gone up, as Gold buying is administered by the GGB and through its authorized dealers, and is guided by the London Fix price. Combined with low fuel prices, many operations report business as usual; with small changes which were always necessary e.g. use of dust masks, if not increased production (not based on increased efficiency). There are also reports of new gold “shouts” in some part of the country, where new finds are likely to attract movement of miners to those areas and result in increased activity in the coming weeks to months. In other areas, especially closer to the larger mining towns, there are reports of a slowdown in some operations, as miners close operations temporarily or relocate to more remote areas as a risk avoidance strategy.

Although mining continues relatively unimpacted in some areas, there are few safety nets and financing available to small miners like Juliana Thorne who operates a mine in Region 8.
Although mining continues relatively unimpacted in some areas, there are few safety nets and financing available to small miners like Julianna Thorne who operates a mine in Region 8.

With areas around the capital city and along Guyana coast accounting for over 80% of infections, there are anecdotal reports of workers and operations choosing to stay on site, rather than switching out with a new shift of workers that would potentially come from outside of the mining districts.

Government Agencies, including the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission which regulates the industry, have scaled back their activities to only critical services at its administrative complex, with these areas working on a rotation system to reduce the spread of the virus within the public sector, and have reduced their field-based personnel at stations in all mining districts. As a result, monitoring and enforcement, and other field-based activities will be considerably limited until the situation improves.

Flights to border communities have been put on hold, causing some disruption in the supply chain for basic goods and services in these areas. This, along with expected increase in prices for goods and transportation may begin to disrupt ASGM related activities in some settlements and indigenous communities. There has already been reports in some mining communities of residents requiring support to acquire essential food items and supplies. Reports of this has not been widespread across the three main mining Regions that planetGOLD Guyana is working in.

Guyana miner panning
There are an estimated 15,000 ASGM miners in Guyana

In response to some of the shortages reported, the Government’s Civil Defense Commission has begun to mobilize and deliver relief packages including food, basic supplies and Personal Protective Equipment to some communities. However, with Georgetown and other urban centers along the coast being most affected by the disease, there are still gaps in the response in these interior regions.

In response, groups like the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGMDA) and the Guyana Women Miners Organization (GWMO) have stepped forward and provided some early support in some areas. The GGDMA has commenced a relief programme and have distributed medical and cleaning supplies to health care providers and communities in Region 1, Region 7 (Bartica), Region 8 (Mahdia and Micobie Village). The GWMO completed distribution of food packages in Region 7, and some areas in Regions 8 and 9. Both organisations are working to provide regular support to the most vulnerable in these areas.

The appearance of COVID-19 cases in some of the outlying regions of the country, although proportionally small, is a worrying sign. These regions include a number of indigenous communities and rural settlements that currently have no testing capacity and very limited ability to carry out contact tracing and isolation of infected persons. Shortages in PPE and limited access to information would make it very challenging to arrest the spread of the disease through these centers into vulnerable populations. This is particularly true for several indigenous communities that pursue ASGM on their lands, and as a consequence, are closely associated with nearby mining towns and camps. The continuation of operations at these sites, and the potential for movement of miners in and out of these areas, require urgent attention and the development of practical guidelines to minimize the risk of further transmission.

Mine pit in Guyana
As gold prices climb, there will likely be an expansion of Guyana's ASGM sector, with increased benefits and risks to both humans and the environment. Strengthened measures are urgently needed to stop the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable groups.

As the country continues to grapple with these challenges in the long-term, and the risk of infection persists, the need for increased coordination between the various response efforts will grow. This would bring a better understanding of needs and conditions on the ground, and ensure that actions are planned to maximize delivery of support to those who most need it. The CI and planetGOLD teams are looking at different ways to support these initiatives, including working on safeguard considerations and guidelines to minimize risks associated with stakeholder engagement during this time, particularly our partners in indigenous and rural communities, including miners. These new safeguard measures aim to protect the safety and security of community members, whether they be farmers, fishers, miners or small producers with whom we engage. Crucial to this process will be an understanding of multiple factors (social, cultural, environmental, political, conflict, etc.) and we will work with our partners to ensure that the proposed measures are realistic, effective and applicable to the situations currently being faced by Guyanese.

 

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