Guyana: Gold For Green Forests

Date of publication: 
9 July 2015

[This article first appeared in Norway’s Bergens Tidende magazine on 3rd May 2015. It is translated and reproduced here (in abridged form) with the kind permission of Bergens Tidende. Text by Atle Andersson (original in Norwegian)]

The large-scale hunt for gold not only destroys rainforest in Guyana, it also threatens a deal for billions in funds from Norway

Kevin Ramkissoon is standing halfway buried in white mud. He controls the intake of the pump, a dangerous part of the job as gold miner in the Amazon jungle. His leg can break like a match if it touches the device. Rough, dirty and risky work still does not stop gold miners here in “The White Hole” in the Amazon. The white landscape outside the village of Mahdia is Guyana’s version of America’s Klondike region.“Many spend the income in the bars and pleasure houses in Mahdia,” says Prince Wilkie. Few people know the mining activities better than the local politician in the village. Mahdia has four hotels and four brothels, according to Wikipedia. Crime, venereal diseases and corruption are at the heart of the gold rush in Mahdia and other mining communities in Guyana. Aram Kennedy wipes the sweat and smiles when we ask whether the job is lucrative. “We find something,” he says, mysteriously.

Mining accounts for over 90 percent of forest destruction in Guyana. Lush rainforest rich in plant and animal species is converted into lunar landscapes of mud piles, tree stumps and turquoise colored, contaminated puddles and ponds. The hunt for gold is a haphazard affair. Miners enter into virgin forests with their machines and chemicals, and often leave ecological disaster areas in their wake. For every kilogram of gold recovered, a kilogram of mercury is released into the environment, according to a report written by Masum Farooki and Sohinee Mazumdar.

The quest for gold and other precious metals in Guyana’s rainforests also have implications for the use of Norwegian tax money. Guyana is a key partner in the government’s climate and forest initiative. Only Brazil has received more Norwegian rainforest millions than Guyana. The payments to the small South American country are approaching one billion Norwegian Kroner, of a potential pool of one and a half billion by the end of 2015. But the ensuing gold rush and a breach of promises to combat corruption undermine the agreement.

The relationship between mining and deforestation does create a growing concern among Norwegian authorities. On 2nd September 2014, State Secretary Hans Brattskar from the Foreign Ministry participated at the UN World Summit for small island states in the Pacific paradise of Samoa. In the capital Brattskar met the Guyanese Foreign Minister, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett. The sensitive issue of mining was on the table.

Brattskar reminded the Guyanese minister that mining is a major source of deforestation in Guyana.” The economic significance of the gold mining for Guyana is greater than the importance of oil and gas for Norway,” the Guyanese foreign minister pointed out, according to the minutes of the meeting. The atmosphere was far merrier between Norwegian and Guyanese authorities in 2009 when former Environment Minister Erik Solheim (SV) signed the agreement with the South American rainforest country. “A small country like Guyana is now really setting a good example for the rest of the world,” said a smiling Solheim.

Guyana has traditionally had low deforestation, as opposed to neighboring Brazil. The agreement means that Guyana is allowed to increase forest destruction up to a certain level, without that having consequences for the flow of money from Norway. This contrasts with countries like Indonesia and Brazil, which have to reduce deforestation to get money from Norway. But there are clear signs that Guyana is more eager to speed up mining than to please their Norwegian climate and forest partners.

Bergens Tidende (BT) has reviewed available statistics on mining licenses in Guyana. Calculations show that 9708 permits for the exploration and development of gold and precious stones were issued in the five year period following the agreement signed between Norway and Guyana in 2009. That is more than double compared with the five years preceding the Climate and Forest Agreement when 4365 licenses to small and medium sized mining operations were granted, according to figures from the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission.

The Government of Guyana will now increase revenue from the mining of gold, diamonds and bauxite. Mining companies from Canada, USA, Brazil and Australia are heading into the rainforest. The companies’ geological experts have identified potential mineral riches and received licenses for large scale production.

The billions in foreign investment is expected to triple volumes of gold production until 2020. The agreement Guyana has with Norway on forest conservation is not mentioned once in a recent report commissioned by the Government of Guyana on the subject of future exploitation of natural resources. However the report says that the Government of Guyana is perceived as “mining friendly” among international mineral companies.

But the indigenous people of the Kako area show no such hospitality towards mining interests.

Kako River winds its way up the rainforest interior of Guyana. Keron Hastings has local knowledge and slows down where rotting tree trunks sway ominously just beneath the water surface. Alligators have just hidden from the noise of the outboard engine. We are heading deep into the forest interior.

Behind a green carpet of rainforest towers the nearly three thousand meter high Mount Roraima plateau where the borders of Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela meet. In the forests and savannah areas under Roraima’s steep mountainsides new species that are unique to this region are regularly discovered. In the rivers, wide-eyed scientists have in recent years recorded a few dozen previously unknown species. The latest was an electric eel-like creature named Akawaio Penak, named after the indigenous people who live here in the Upper Mazaruni region. This is one of the least explored and most species-rich areas on the planet, but now mineral hunters are on their way, much to the Akawaio people’s despair and anger.

“I do not want that river here to be brown, nasty and polluted,” says Vencio Williams (28). He stands on a rocky shore explaining his fears about fish disappearing and virgin rainforests being destroyed forever. The first exploratory mining operation has already started near his family homestead. Since 2011 the indigenous population in Kako village Kako has repeatedly stopped prospectors on their way up the river with machinery and mining equipment, including by blocking the river. The indigenous people in Kako and five other villages went to the Supreme Court in 1998 to get the formal right to lands that the British colonial authorities in 1959 recognized as the Upper Mazaruni Amerindian District. After 17 years and countless delays, there is still no judgment.

Meanwhile, the authorities have issued mining concessions in the areas that the indigenous people in Kako are claiming. This has happened without free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from the indigenous population, which has made the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination turn its attention towards Guyana.

The conflict in Kako is not a unique case. The village of Isseneru has experienced gold miners invading the lands over which they have formal rights. The Village Council can do little because the concession was granted before the community received formal recognition of land and before the indigenous law came into force in 2007.

The international organization Forest Peoples Programme believes Norway as a donor country must hold Guyana accountable for violations of international obligations on indigenous rights. People in Kako are also asking Norway for help.

“Our voices are not heard. Tell people in Norway that the forest and the river mean everything to us. We hunt, we fish and we take care of the forest,” says one of the residents at a public meeting. Village chief Mario Hastings brought together about a hundred people when Bergens Tidende reporters arrived in Kako. The atmosphere was characterized by anger and despair. Some accused the police and authorities of being corrupt. Others fear that mercury and other toxins will poison life in the river and make drinking water a health hazard.

There is a strong perception among stakeholders in the mining sector that corruption is prevalent on many levels. Unfortunately, the government has not implemented any reforms or initiatives, which shows a lack of political will to combat the problem, says Esther McIntosh – a member of the Board of Transparency Institute Guyana (TIGI), the national branch of Transparency International. McIntosh and her colleagues call for more transparency in the allocation of mining and logging concessions in the country.

One anti-corruption measure is for Guyana to become a part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The purpose of this international initiative – which has so far brought together 48 countries with large and potentially lucrative mineral resources – is to ensure greater transparency concerning payments, improved governance and less corruption. In the agreement with Norway, Guyana is obliged to apply for status as a candidate country by May 2013. To date, no application has been submitted.

In a memo from the management of the Government Climate and Forest Initiative to Minister Tine Sundtoft last year, the frustration around Guyana’s failure to comply was clear. “This process has had minimal progress,” it says. The internal document, which was written in 2014, states that “Guyanese authorities have a long way to go when it comes to openness and inclusion of civil society, and to prevent increased deforestation from mining.”

The ministry was also warned in an evaluation report on the Guyana-cooperation in 2013: “It may be questioned whether the government of Guyana is at all serious about becoming a candidate country in EITI.”

Between 30 and 80 percent of the proceeds from gold mining operations disappear from Guyana without the government collecting tax revenues, according to a report published by the anti-corruption center U4 at Chr. Michelsen Institute and Transparency International in 2010. It has since been reported that over half of the gold production is smuggled to neighboring countries.

The US government has for years pointed to Guyana as a key transit country for cocaine smuggling from Colombia, via Venezuela and on to the US, Europe and the Caribbean. The smugglers are attracted by Guyana’s remote airstrips, intricate river systems and porous border areas, writes the American drug agency in the annual report for 2015. The United States is also critical to Guyana’s enforcement of its own laws against money laundering and financial crime. Researcher Summer Walker writes in a study on organized crime in Guyana that money laundering happens through the purchase of licenses for mining and logging.

BT met several people in Guyana who say that they do not dare to go public for fear of sanctions and reprisals from the authorities. Transparency International and several other organizations in Guyana require a new law that protects whistleblowers.

“People have a perception of corruption as a problem, but there is no concrete evidence. An American study shows that when people in Guyana are asked about knowledge of actual corruption, then we come out very well when compared to other countries in South America. Our policy in the mining and mineral extraction is characterised by full transparency. If anyone knows about corruption, I ask them to come to us or stand up in public and tell everything they know. We always do what it takes to clean up,” said the former Environment and Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud when confronted with reports of widespread corruption.

Persaud – a powerful man in Guyana – had the authority to issue licenses to mining and logging, several of which were in dispute at the time of our interview with him. He denies that there is a contradiction between mining and conservation of the rainforest. “It is possible to increase production and reduce deforestation. It depends on how one manages these activities,” he said. According to Persaud Guyana will now turn the recovery of gold and minerals to fewer but larger mines. “These mines will be designed so that environmental effects are minimal,” he said.

Guyana’s Commissioner for Forest, James Singh, wrote in an email that Guyana has laws and institutions that can both monitor and regulate mineral extraction. Singh also points out that large and medium-sized mining will inevitably lead to deforestation, but that “businesses are required to implement measures to ensure rehabilitation of areas where the forest disappears.” The authorities will also only approve such establishments after a comprehensive assessment of what values they will provide to Guyana,” writes Singh.

Singh stressed that authorities in Guyana do not allow mining or commercial logging in areas that the indigenous population has formal rights to. According to Singh, both mining and logging concessions will be moved to other locations if an indigenous community have a recognized requirement for the land area. The Commissioner, however, confirms that conflicts around mining concessions in indigenous areas have led to litigation.

In Kako village the people are ready to confront the invaders if they lose the fight against mining in the courts. Pastor Casey Hastings is standing outside the village’s Methodist church, a short distance from the river that still flows past small houses standing on stilts in the flood-prone area. The pastor hopes that the community will have greater rights now. He dreams of developing ecotourism. Rainforest with an exotic diversity of animals and plants, spectacular rivers and waterfalls, are just some of the things that the indigenous people of Kako can showcase.

However, miners are not welcome. “We will respond to hostility with hostility. And it is not at all certain it will look pretty,” says Pastor Hastings.

Mining corruption is a reality

“Guyana must improve the balance between environment and mining,” according to the Norwegian government. State Secretary Lars Andreas Lunde in Norway’s Ministry for Climate and Environment says that countries rich in natural resources but with weak governance, are prone to corruption.

“We do everything we can to prevent abuse of the rainforest funds, whether in Guyana or other countries we work with. In Guyana, all projects that Norway supports are supervised by renowned international organizations such as the UN Development Programme, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank,” said Lunde.

When asked whether Guyana’s goal of increasing revenues from mining is compatible with continued Norwegian support, Lunde responded: “We understand that Guyana wants to exploit its natural resources to create greater prosperity and economic growth. However, it is very important that this be done in a sustainable and effective way to conserve the natural values on the best possible manner. In future it will be even more important for Guyana to keep the balance between the environment and mining. We know that the government is working to reduce the damage which mining sector imposes”.

On making sure that the agreement with Norway continues, Lunde remarked: “We are in the process of evaluating this now, and Norway makes clear demands to Guyanese authorities. Basically, Guyana is an attractive country for Norway due to the traditional high forest cover and low deforestation rate. But now we must evaluate whether Guyana has had enough success and achieved good enough results. We have also conveyed this to the Environment and Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud”.

He emphasised that Guyana must somehow manage to keep its deforestation rate low and join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the international framework that requires increased transparency concerning payments in connection with mineral extraction. Lunde says it is also important that Guyana is putting in place an agreement with the EU on the export of legal timber, which is also a condition of the agreement with Norway.

Lack of progress

Guyana’s failure to comply with the pledge of becoming a candidate country to the EITI in 2013, is one of the things that irritates Norwegian authorities the most. “It is unfortunate that Guyana is delayed. This process has been slower than we had agreed. This lack of progress is also the reason for the reduced payment from Norway to Guyana in 2014. We have stressed with the authorities in Guyana that this is a priority for Norway,” says Per Fredrik Ilsaas Pharo, head of the government’s international climate and forest initiative.

He believes Guyana has taken steps in the right direction in the last six months, referring to the Natural Resources Minister Persaud’s visit to the EITI Secretariat in March this year. “There is no doubt that corruption in the mining sector in Guyana is a reality,” says Pharo.

Guyana’s Environment and Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud explains why they have not complied with the agreement regarding the EITI application: “We spent some more time on the preparations. Now we speed up the process and have engaged the British consulting firm Moore Stephens to facilitate the process of making Guyana a candidate country. This is important both for cooperation with Norway and to strengthen governance in the mining sector,” says Persaud. The British consultants have now sent a preliminary study to the EITI Secretariat on behalf of Guyana, with a view to submit an application at a later date.

Note added in June 2015:

In May 2015, a new government was elected in Guyana. The new administration has already made positive moves to increase the public profile of indigenous issues. This has raised some hopes that a more open and fair approach might be taken by officials to tackle destructive mining, human rights abuses and deforestation. Time will tell. Meanwhile, mining continues to eat through the forest with serious negative impacts that must be addressed in order to protect the rights of the country’s indigenous peoples.