Mining, pollution, who’s responsible?

the 3-G conference held at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier, hosted a round table, during which young French Guyanese discussed some of the deficiencies of their region with which they are faced. When mention was made of the issue of mining, I grasped the opportunity to enquire what the situation was like for Amerindians in French Guyana.
Surprisingly, it was French handball player and elected Quester for youth/sports for the Languedoc Rousillon Regional Council Joel Abati, then present among the audience, who provided an informative response. According to Abati, Amerindians in French Guyana are suffering increasingly from cancers due to the mercury pollution resulting from mining. He immediately caught my attention. Knowing that in comparison to Guyana, the French Guyanese would dispose of more means to obtain reliable data on environmental pollution, I asked Abati to refer me to his source.
The “Bulletin Epidemologique Hebdomadaire no. 13” of April 2010, concluded that French Guyanese Amerindians located in zones where mining was conducted, are exposed to levels of mercury above that which is scientifically accepted, due particularly to their high consumption of fish. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable up to their second trimester, and can present a risk of congenital diseases, malformations and neurological handicap for unborn children.
Only last week, a headline raised the alarm when the number of children diagnosed with cancers in Guyana accounted for 50% Amerindians, an unprecedented phenomena insofar as we know. The possibility that the pollution of waterways by mercury and other chemicals used in the mining sector, is responsible for this, cannot be excluded.
Rivers and waterways in Guyana are as intrinsic to the Amerindian way of life as is land. Amerindians across Guyana still depend on these for their livelihood, consumption, hygiene and other everyday chores. People who live in regions where mining is actively conducted are the first victims of an environmental pollution from which they can hardly escape. The people of Regions 7 and 1, for whom fish is an integral part of their diet, should be especially concerned.
Those who do not live close to mines however, are far from exempt from the effects of pollution, as connecting waterways transport chemicals to different parts of the country, infecting the flora and fauna as they go. Even if river-bed mining is avoided, the threat posed by land-mining subsides long after mines are abandoned, leaving chemicals to impregnate the soil, contaminate the surrounding environment and the rivers when the torrential rains erode the lands.
A common problem is that water pollution in Guyana is often measured in terms of turbidity, which only indicates signs of contamination but not the composition of particles present in the water. Additionally, many Amerindians interpret turbidity to mean the presence of sand and mud due to illegal river mining, and would therefore request this test when they suspect this is occurring on their lands. Most are unaware that turbidity can be used for any source of water regardless of if it is being mined or not.
This begs the question of who is responsible for raising awareness on mining in Amerindian communities. At first, one is prompted to respond that this responsibility befalls the Natural Resources Ministry, but while this is partly true, mining pollution is a multi-stakeholder concern. In fact, the Indigenous Peoples Affairs Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Protected Areas Commission should be held equally responsible for minimizing environmental pollution.
So should the Government of Norway, especially since it has provisioned for indigenous rights in the LCDS, from which derived the Amerindian Land Titling Project partnered by the UNDP and guided by a multi-stakeholder Project Board, including the Natural Resources Ministry and all its agencies.
Unfortunately, the attitude of the Natural Resources Ministry towards indigenous land rights today, is hardly different, if not worse, than what is was two years ago. While one of its own Ministers mines on Tasserene’s proposed title and refuses to move, the Ministry has doled out hundreds of acres to newcomers, fencing in Amerindian homes in some villages (including Tasserene) as they hijack their livelihoods.
The future will remain bleak if Amerindian leaders do not call on their representatives, including the NTC and the IPC, to raise awareness, especially in their communities, and to act on policies which will monitor the mining sector, sanction those who desecrate the environment, and sustainably curb pollution, sparing the next generations of Guyanese children. Send comments to [email protected]