By Bibi Khatoon
As the local mining industry continues to grapple with the challenge of eliminating mercury use, the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) has raised the issue of mercury poisoning in Amerindian communities. Miners encroaching on Indigenous titled lands also remain a concern.
Representative of the body, Michael McGarrell, during an interview with the News Room, pointed out that though miners oftentimes breach the mining regulations, “you find many times, the GGMC officers will visit camps and of course, they allow things to slip by, they turn a blind eye for whatever reason.”
He added that there is nothing that the communities themselves can do.
As it relates to mercury poisoning, McGarrell said there are many cases where persons have been going to doctors for regular checkups and subsequently finding out that they suffered from mercury poisoning.
Asked if reported cases are investigated, he responded in the negative.
“There has never been any comprehensive study done by the government or by the GGMC or somebody else to see what the impact of mercury use in river mining has on humans and indigenous peoples, we eat the fish from the river” and use the water for various domestic purposes, he said.
Guyana in 2013 signed onto the Minamata Convention which aims to reduce the risks of mercury around the world. In 2017, the government said it intends to not just reduce but to eliminate the use of mercury in the mining industry.
However, an ongoing investigation into mercury poisoning at the compound of the Guyana Gold Board’s laboratory has raised new concerns. Concerns were raised about the level of mercury used by the laboratory which is housed in the same compound as the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC). Further tests found that 60 staffers of the GGMC were found with “above normal” levels of mercury.
Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman was quoted in the media saying that Guyana has made some strides in moving towards the elimination of mercury. But he also acknowledged that the government has been receiving some opposition from miners.
In the meantime, the APA believes that the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) needs to consider the implications of granting mining permits in the source of rivers.
“If you give out mining claims in the source of rivers, definitely it will come down the river. You may think that you are giving a concession far away from where people live but the water has to pass by the villages and this is the water that the people use for their daily use,” the APA rep reiterated.
McGarrell pointed to the communities of Jawalla and Isseneru in Region Seven, Marudi in Region Nine, and Chenapau in Region Eight.
The APA representative also pointed to what needs to be done if the government is serious about mercury-free mining. He highlighted the need to regularize the sale of mercury, as he explained that mercury is still being sold in some grocery stores.
In addition, he said storage of the substance in mining camps, serious studies on low-cost alternative technologies and the enforcement of regulations against burning gold without retort, needs to be considered.
As it relates to miners encroaching on Amerindian titled lands, the APA is also calling for regular consultations with residents before mining permits are issued.
The problem of miners being granted concessions to mine on lands belonging to indigenous peoples was once again brought to the fore as a family recently returned from San Antonio, Venezuela after three years to find their land being occupied by a miner.
“It’s so easy to get a mining concession…in a matter of weeks, you can have legal title to a piece of land and whereas, to get a land title for an Amerindian community, it takes years and with so many issues happening,” McGarrel said.
His contention that titling of Amerindian lands takes years follows revelations by Indigenous People’s Affairs Minister Sydney Allicock that he has not titled any lands since becoming a minister.
McGarrell said there are several complaints of miners being given concessions to mine in rivers but later mine into the land but there is nothing residents can do since “according to the laws of Guyana, the rivers do not belong to us.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal. The international organisation added that inorganic salts of mercury are corrosive to the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal tract, and may induce kidney toxicity if ingested.
“Neurological and behavioural disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds,” according to the WHO.
While Guyana has not had any proven incidence of mercury poisoning, Pure Earth, a New York City-based international not-for-profit organization reports that there are 425 sites worldwide contaminated by mercury and 10.9 Million people at risk.