- A gold mining deal between the government of Guyana and a group of small-scale miners has stirred up controversy as it permits mining on a mountain range that sustains river ecosystems that Indigenous Wapichan communities depend on.
- According to Wapichan leaders, who learned of the deal in a Facebook post, the government violated their right to free, prior and informed consent by issuing the permit without proper consultation and ignoring cases of prior environmental destruction from gold mining.
- Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources says at least four consultations were held with Wapichan communities before the agreement was signed.
- The terms of the agreement have not been made public, leaving Indigenous leaders and the deputy speaker of the National Assembly pointing to possible political motives behind the mining deal.
SOUTH RUPUNUNI, Guyana — In a Facebook post this past November, Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources announced that it had issued a special mining permit to a group of small-scale miners, the Rupununi Mining Association, for 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of land in a mountain range in the country’s southwest. The approval came despite opposition by local Indigenous leaders and activists who say they haven’t been consulted and fear further environmental damages from gold mining.
The Marudi mountains have been occupied by Indigenous Wapichan nations for centuries. The headwaters of several rivers and creeks that Indigenous communities depend on are located in the region, and the area counts a vibrant ecosystem of 174 known bird species and 14 species of fish during the wet season. Communities currently have two applications for a land title extension into the Marudi mountains, one of them dating back 45 years.
“Mazoa and the surrounding mountains are sacred to the Wapichan people,” said Immaculata Casemiro, co-founder of the Wapichan Women’s Movement. “That’s where our key headwaters and ecosystems are located.”
When gold was discovered here in the 1930s, artisanal miners from neighboring Wapichan communities flocked to the mountain range. However, as word circulated about the potential bonanza, small and medium-scale miners from across Guyana and neighboring Brazil rushed to the area in the hopes of striking it rich.
Large-scale mining companies later followed, and in the 1940s were able to secure a prospecting license that covers approximately 13,500 hectares (33,360 acres) of land on the mountain range. After passing through the hands of multiple mining companies, the mining license eventually fell to Canadian-owned company Romanex in 2009.
A history of deforestation and mercury pollution
This is when the conflict began. Hoping to start mining operations, Romanex demanded that the small-scale miners halt all their operations on its concession. However, the miners refused, and the damage they did to the environment, largely seen as a result of their unregulated activities, accelerated.
A visit to Marudi in April of this year confirmed claims of environmental damage. Small-scale miners have destroyed vast swaths of forests across the mountain range using excavators and dredges, moving from one mining pit to another whenever a better prospect was found. A mountain range once covered with trees such as wadara (Couratari guianensis), aromata (Clathrotropis spp.), and turu (Oenocarpus bataua) was now filled with mining pits, and only patches of trees remained.
Adding to the frenzy, in 2014 gold was discovered on the peak of Mazoa, a mountain sacred to the Wapichan people. Within weeks, excavators reduced the mountain to half of its former height, only stopping when the mining commission intervened. At least seven artisanal miners have died in recent years in tunnel cave-ins at the site.
The government suspended Romanex’s mining license, citing noncompliance with environmental laws and blaming the company for allowing the miners to destroy the mountain.
The miners responsible were also removed from the concession. However, no monitoring system was put in place, and it wasn’t long before illegal mining resumed and the conflict between small miners and Romanex continued. The continued dispute brought a mining agreement to a halt in January, and the government has tried intervening to facilitate discussions.
Casemiro told Mongabay that the destruction of the environment was saddening for her community but became more concerning when a study conducted by WWF-Guianas and the South Rupununi District Council, an Indigenous rights activist group, found high levels of mercury in residents of Wapichan communities living on the riverbanks. The communities are still highly dependent on the rivers for drinking water and bathing, and on the forests for fruits and medicinal plants.
As the impacts of mining on Wapichan communities slowly came to the fore, the SRDC successfully advocated for an obligatory environmental assessment prior to any mining activities in the Marudi mountains. After a draft environmental assessment was submitted by Romanex, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected it, citing its failure to adequately consult the Wapichan people.
This failure breaches a law in the country’s environmental protection act that requires companies to consult with nearby communities who may be impacted by a project.
A new license and questions over consultation
However, in the midst of this pause, Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources announced on Nov. 13 that it had issued a special mining permit to a group of small-scale miners, the Rupununi Mining Association. The permit allows the association to conduct mining activities on 400 hectares of land, including part of the Mazoa mountain. This came as a surprise to Wapichan leaders, who learned about this through a social media post.
Michael Thomas, the toshao, or chief, of the Aishalton Wapichan community located 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Marudi mountains, spoke to Mongabay in a phone call on behalf of all Wapichan leaders. According to him, the Guyanese government blatantly refused to recognize their right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC).
Worse, he said, the communities learned about the agreement through Facebook even though the environmental and social impacts of mining in the Marudi mountains was currently being discussed. It became even more concerning when Wapichan leaders realized that mining activities would be held on Mazoa.
The agreement was also condemned by the SRDC, which called for its immediate revocation, citing violations of their Indigenous rights
“The agreement was conducted without any participation or consent from the Wapichan people, who are the traditional owners of the lands in question and [are] those who will be forced to live with the consequences of these decisions long after these miners have departed,” the SRDC said in a statement.
In response, the Ministry of Natural Resources said that at least four consultations were held with Wapichan communities before the agreement was signed. However, according to the SRDC and Thomas, there were no consultations with Wapichan leaders and the agreement itself is yet to be seen.
“We don’t know what is in the agreement, only that mining will restart,” Thomas said. Leaders say the agreement may not be in the best interests of the Wapichan people and will lead to the destruction of the mountain.
“Why else are they keeping it a secret?” Casemiro said.
According to Lenox Shuman, deputy speaker of the National Assembly in Guyana and a former toshao, the secrecy surrounding the agreement may be due to the deal being politically motivated, with ruling party loyalists being the primary beneficiaries.
Shuman, who told Mongabay in a phone call that he was appalled by the government’s issuance of the mining permit without proper consultation, said he attempted to engage several government officials on the issue. However, no one was willing to have a discussion on the matter, he said.
Few details have been publicly revealed about the agreement, but the Ministry of Natural Resources says that a mining plan, a mine closure plan, social responsibility plan, and an environmental plan will be provided to the EPA and Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC). These are all technically required before a mining permit is issued. The miners will also pay an environmental bond to GGMC and are prohibited from using mercury.
“We need to see the work plan and other documents that ensure that best mining practices will be implemented,” Thomas said. “The Wapichan people are the ones that will have to suffer long after the miners are gone.”
Mongabay reached out to the heads of the EPA and GGMC for comment, but was told that the Ministry of Natural Resources had sole jurisdiction over the agreement, despite the other two being the main regulatory bodies for the country’s extractives industries. Emails and phone calls to the minister of natural resources, Vickram Bharrat, were unanswered.
In a letter to a local Guyanese newspaper, a resident from a Wapichan community endorsed the agreement. Writing under the name T. Williams, they noted that small miners include those from the surrounding Indigenous communities who benefit through employment opportunities and the “provision of goods and services that are necessary to sustain small-scale mining operations.”
Williams also accused the SRDC of being out of touch with the Wapichan people, saying that community members have been pushing for mining operations to restart.
“The SRDC is so out of touch with the people they claim to represent that they are unaware that it was residents and small miners from [the communities] who have been pushing for the resumption of small-scale mining activities on Marudi,” Williams wrote in the letter.
Mining operations have not yet started, but leaders expect they will soon, as miners are now heading to the mountains.
Wapichan leaders are still discussing their next steps, but say they won’t stop protesting the agreement until it has been properly publicized and they are properly consulted.
Banner image: Small-scale gold mining in the Marudi mountains, Guyana. Image courtesy of David Papannah.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here: