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Proposed gold mine proves controversial in French Guiana rainforest

Proposed gold mine proves controversial in French Guiana rainforest

Proposed gold mine proves controversial in French Guiana rainforest
Rhett A. Butler,
November 7, 2007

Commercial gold mining threatens a key forest reserve and wetland in French Guiana say scientists who warn that exploitation could pollute rivers with toxic compounds, threaten wildlife, and put indigenous populations at risk.

IAMGOLD, a Toronto based mining and exploration company, is seeking to develop gold deposits in the Kaw Mountain region of French Guiana, an overseas department of France located on the northeastern coast of South America. The proposed concession borders Trésor — a rainforest reserve that houses protected wildlife — and is close to Kaw swamp, a Ramsar-listed wetland. The Kaw Mountain area is home to 700 plant species, almost 100 species of mammals and 254 species of birds, according to the IUCN.

Top image courtesy of Dr. Pierre-Michel Forget, bottom picture courtesy of Les Verts de Guyane

The proposed mine would operate for 7 years and involve the crushing of more than 12 million tons of rock, the excavation of large pits, and the use of 30,000 tons of chemicals, including cyanide. Mine opponents — including a coalition of environmentalists, indigenous rights’ groups, and some scientists say the mining project could result in forest clearing, contamination of groundwater and soils with heavy metals and other toxic substances, and erosion and sedimentation of local waterways.

“Nearly 370 hectares (920 acres) of primary forest will be deforested,” said Dr. Pierre-Michel Forget, a biologist from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Brunoy, France who has worked in the region for more than 20 years. “Further, the edge effects might amount to 1000 hectares (2500 acres) or roughly three times more than the core area that would be deforested.”

Strangler fig tree at Kaw mountain.

Virola kwatae tree, a species named in 1997. Fruit from the tree are consumed and dispersed by spider monkey and toucans.

Creek watershed at kaw mountain.

Sampling of fruit diversity at Kaw mountain. Photos by Dr. Pierre-Michel Forget.

While IAMGOLD says that it will take the proper precautions to reduce the impact of mining, critics say the company has not conducted a proper environmental impact study, alleging that the inspectors hired by the company failed to do a thorough assessment of the area’s flora and fauna.

“CBJ Caymans (now IAMGOLD) didn’t conduct a tree study,” Dr. Forget told “They did nothing on animals. Government inspectors even said the study was weak and focused mostly on understory vegetation.”

Forget says that mining and associated roads in a nearby area, took a heavy toll on wildlife.

“The company will replant trees after mining but nothing has been done so far to protect fauna during the exploration; today no wildlife remains,” he said. “When I visited the area I saw that most fruit lay on the ground with seeds intact, suggesting a lack of seed dispersers like primates or agoutis. These animals are usually common in this type of forest but I saw no animals when I crossed the area in late May 2007.”

Critics also say the mine could hurt nearby businesses that are dependent on healthy forest. Floramazone Inc., a company that operates eco-tours and sustainably harvests plants for fragrances and medicinal use in an area of forest adjacent to the concession, has expressed concerns that cyanide pollution and deforestation could scare away tourists.

Worries over mining in French Guiana are not new, though attention is usually focused on illegal mining by Brazilian garimpeiros in remote border areas. According to an article published by AFP reporter Frederic Farine, there are at least 50 illegal mining sites in the territory. The French government has had little success reigning in the illicit operations due to their remoteness and local politics — mining is one of the few sources of income in an area whether unemployment runs at 30 percent and population growth rates approach four percent per year. Sky-high gold prices are only increasing the pressure — not only in French GUIANA, but neighboring countries.

“Kaw Reserve in French Guiana appears to be following a worldwide trend towards continued mining in and next to areas previously designated for protection or indigenous peoples,” explained Dr. David Hammond, a forestry expert at NWFS Consultancy. “At the atmospheric prices that gold is attracting on the international market, pressure will continue to be exerted on tropical forest regions with gold-bearing geologies. Unfortunately, gold extraction at Kaw focuses on low-grade ores and destruction at the mining site will be total. Prospects for restoration after open pit mining in these regions are extremely low given the nature of the predominating climate and substrates. ”

It seems likely that as long as gold prices remain high and the French government is hesitant to take action, French Guiana’s forests will be exploited for their gold deposits, either by large entities like IAMGOLD or informal miners like the garimpeiros from Brazil.

“Something has to be done quickly,” said Forget. “French Guiana’s forests are too important to be ignored by the authorities.”

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Map modified from a CIA graphic.

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