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‘The water is brown’: Community in Guyana rings the alarm over unsustainable mining near river

A creek destroyed by one of gold mining operations occurring in Chinese Landing. Photo courtesy of David Papannah

  • Medium-scale mining operations occurring in a tiny riverine community in northwestern Guyana have led to deforestation and discoloration in vital waterways after tailings ponds spilled waste into creeks and a river.
  • The conflict between locals and miners began after Guyanese regulators issued mining permits on land that was already titled to the Carib Indigenous community — without consulting the village council. After regulators tried to walk back on these issued permits, the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) dismissed the case.
  • The CCJ and subsequent rulings are being used to prevent locals from traversing on their titled lands. Community members are not able to receive royalties and mine at the site, a practice they have done sustainably for generations.
  • Vickram Bharrat, the country’s minister of natural resources, says the government must comply with the CCJ ruling but intends to investigate threats by the miners to the lives of community members as they attempt to find a workable solution.

CHINESE LANDING, Guyana — When first entering the territory of the Carib Indigenous community in Chinese Landing, northwest Guyana, there are no signs of environmental destruction. At first glance, it can even be said that the tiny riverine community is thriving. But this is hardly the case.

Further into the center of the community’s titled lands, a medium-scale gold-mining operation driven by people from across the country and from Venezuela to the north has left more than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land deforested and waterways discolored. In the past year, lands have been severely degraded and sections of the forest containing commercially valuable species of trees locals typical sell for income, such as purpleheart (Peltogyne spp.), have been cut down to make way for gold-mining activities and the construction of mining camps. Chinese Landing is generally forested with small patches of savanna in between.

Mining for gold is not unusual in Chinese Landing. In fact, according to Orin Fernandes, the toshao or chief of the Carib community, artisanal mining can be described as part of their culture. It was a practice that first began with their ancestors centuries ago, and it continues today. The gold from mining activities would be traded for items that were needed in the community.

While mining occurred on their ancestral lands for generations, there was minimal impact on the environment.

“The forest was our hospitals and supermarkets,” Fernandes told Mongabay. He said their ancestors recognized that the forest plays a vital role in sustaining their livelihood through the provision of water, food and medicinal herbs. No harm was to be done to it, he said.

According to Vera Millington, the deputy village chief, miners are currently not complying with environmental regulations, especially as it relates to tailings ponds and mercury runoff.

Mining regulations state that buffer zones between tailings ponds and the banks of waterways should be 20 meters (66 feet) to avoid hazardous waste from contaminating creeks and rivers. Mongabay observed tailings ponds and mining operations in Chinese Landing breaching this regulation. The few miners who were working also wore no proper protective gear.

“Miners have no regard for the disposal of mercury used in the operations,” Fernandes said.

An abandoned mining pit. Image by David Papannah.

Tailings ponds have now been clogged, and in some cases, have been overflowing into the savanna, with the mining waste making its way into the creeks and the Barama River, the community’s main source of water for bathing and cleaning, and of the moracut (Mylossoma aureum), a fish often consumed by villagers.

Over the past two decades, when mining activities began in northwestern Guyana, communities witnessed the Barama River and several smaller connected waterways in close proximity to mining operations being discolored. Today, the water is a murky brown.

The pollution has led many villagers to harvest rainwater whenever possible and source water from distant creeks. Villagers fear that fish from the river now contain high levels of mercury from the wastewater that spilled into the water. After Fernandes conducted a mercury blood test more than a year ago, he found that he had above-normal levels of mercury in his body and had to be treated for it. Due to this experience, Fernandes said it is likely that other villagers also have above-normal levels of mercury in their system.

Pollution in the river is not only due to mining operations at Chinese Landing, but also due to other small- and medium-scale gold-mining operations in neighboring villages along the river.

“The operations are continuing to poison the place, it’s not healthy,” Fernandes said. The village council has contacted the Guyana Environmental Protection Agency to complain about the environmental destruction.

Kemraj Parsram, the EPA’s executive director, told Mongabay that they forwarded the complaint to the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission’s (GGMC) environmental unit, which is responsible for conducting monitoring operations in the area daily. However, he said he is uncertain if they took any action, or how they will wade into the latest conflict between the community and miners.

Strangers on their land

The Carib community has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with gold miners over their titled lands for more than two decades.

When the community was granted their land title in 1976 for 7,786 hectares (19,240 acres) of land, they thought it meant their territory was no longer at risk. But that was not the case.

A view of an active mining pit from the peak of the hill. Image courtesy of Lakhram Bhagirat.

Between 1998 and 2001, the GGMC issued four mining permits to Wayne Vieira, a Guyanese businessman, without consulting the village council. The mining permits covered lands located in the center of the village in an area called Tassawini, which is also where the Carib were conducting their own mining activities.

It was then the land rights battle between the community and Vieira started. It turned into a legal battle when the GGMC turned back and ordered Vieira to cease operations in 2010 on the basis that the businessman did not have an agreement with the village council as required in the 2006 Amerindian Act.

The GGMC lost the case after the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ruled that it had no authority to issue an order for a breach of any law other than Guyana’s Mining Act. This was the first loss for the Indigenous community.

The second loss came after Guyana’s High Court dismissed a case brought against Vieira by the Chinese Landing village council that challenged his rights to mine on the land following the termination of an agreement with the community.

Mongabay tried reaching out to Vieira for an interview by phone, but several calls went unanswered.

The two losses had their repercussions. The CCJ ruling and the dismissal of the village council case against Vieira are now tools used against the community to prevent them from traversing their own titled lands. To travel to farmlands or fishing and hunting grounds, villagers, including those on the council, must seek permission from the miners or face the threat of being arrested.

Locals have also tried to prevent the miners from entering the concessions at the center of their territory, with no luck. Under the 2006 Amerindian Act, outsiders are required to seek permission to enter the lands of a titled Indigenous community. But according to leaders of Chinese Landing, the miners would either drive their vehicles through the closed gates or brandish weapons to intimidate them. More recently, the miners have resorted to threatening the lives of villagers, including Fernandes, for publicly opposing their activities.

When Fernandes left his community to attend a national conference of toshaos in July and share news of mining pollution, mining activities intensified during his 10-day absence.

Standing on the peak of a hill in the community and looking down at the large carved-out pits and tailings ponds below him, Fernandes told Mongabay that the community feels helpless in stopping the miners after they’ve tried numerous times.

One of the hills that is currently being mined. Image by David Papannah.

Since mining activity began, the miners have ascended approximately 137-152 meters (450-500 feet) deep into Tassawini Hill dredging for gold. Villagers say that if the miners are allowed to continue to operate at their current pace, it wouldn’t be long before the environmental impact would be like that of large-scale mining.

Miners at the site were unwilling to speak to Mongabay for this story.

During the toshaos’ conference in July, Vickram Bharrat, Guyana’s minister of natural resources, told Mongabay that there’s not much the government can do after the CCJ ruling that the community lost. He pointed out that the GGMC mining officers are banned from interfering in the mining operation at Chinese Landing.

Bharrat did not comment on the environmental destruction occurring in the community.

However, he said he believes the CCJ made a mistake in its ruling and said the government will investigate the threats and violence being committed against locals. The EPA and GGMC environmental unit, which is allowed to intervene in the issue, are currently visiting the community and mining site to begin an investigation.

The situation at the mining site remains tense. At the moment, dredge owners have instructed operators to ensure that no one from the community mines in the gold-rich concession or employs them.

Unlike other Indigenous communities in Guyana who receive royalty payments from miners operating within their titled lands through agreements, the Chinese Landing community receives no such benefits, Fernandes said.

Initially, the village council and Vieira had an agreement allowing him to mine on village lands, but this was terminated in 2004 after the businessman breached it by not complying with environmental regulations.

“We are not being treated like human beings on our own titled lands,” Fernandes said.

Apart from the court cases, the Chinese Landing village council brought human rights violation complaints to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) in 2021 against the Guyanese government and the miners. On April 29, UNCERD wrote to the government advising it to consider suspending or revoking the mining permits in Chinese Landing until the community has had the chance to give its free, prior and informed consent.

The government has since submitted its response to the U.N. body, but the details were not shared with Mongabay at the time of publication.

According to Indigenous rights activist Graham Atkinson, project coordinator at the Amerindian Peoples Association, the government and regulatory body should make every effort to resolve the dispute as they created the conflict by issuing a mining permit and land title for the same site.

Banner Image: A creek destroyed by one of gold-mining operations occurring in Chinese Landing. Image by David Papannah.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We bring you two stories that illustrate some of the innovative new ways conservationists are attempting to address the impacts of mining. Listen here:

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