The Brazilian presence in Guyana
By Achal Prabhala
Single and strong
All that glitters...
At the Sunflower
Things people say
The question of legality
Living by the law
The Amerindian perspective
June 9, 2002
Articles on features
Chances are, if one were to say 'Brazilian,' here in Guyana, it would be invariably followed by the word 'miner.' Like the cliche about cliches, this one too, is largely true: most Brazilians one meets in Guyana are miners. One sees groups of Brazilians all over Georgetown - at the familiar haunts, Rockies Hotel, Sunflower Restaurant, and at the stores in between. Yet, it seems, partly due to the language barrier, little is known about the lives, occupations, interests and even the origins of this substantial expatriate community.
The story of Brazilian mining goes back to the early nineties. In a sense, it goes back a long way beyond that - mining as an activity is much older - but the influx of Brazilians into this country was largely a result of Brazil's recent mining policies. Significant federal enactments in the early 1990s, saw mining areas curtailed, and mining activity severely restricted, in part due to the growing environmental concern for forest land. In Brazil, the issue of mining in areas like Roraima was also linked to the rights of indigenous peoples: an issue which was given a filip at the international level. Thus, the influx of Brazilians into the mining industry locally can be seen as a recent phenomenon.
The border, of course, is long and porous. While some high-income Brazilian miners and workers can afford the plane journey from Boa Vista as a means of entering the country, others use the time-tested routes of land and water. This, perhaps, is the seed of the problem. Entry permits are unlikely to be asked for, or issued, at such informal border crossings. To be fair, the migration occurs both ways; Antonio Menezes, Counsellor, Embassy of Brazil in Guyana, states that there are possibly "30,000 Guyanese" on the other side, in Brazil, many perhaps with semi-legal residency status.
Yet, in one sense, the fact that Brazilians are entering Guyana to mine, points to an easier access to mining areas in Guyana.
Adermar, a Brazilian miner in his early forties says that he came here eight years ago. At some point later, he lets slip that he has, in fact, been in Guyana for fourteen years. When we asked him to explain this discrepancy, he grinned and said that the first six years he was illegal. Adermar is sitting with us at the bar of Rockies International Hotel, an establishment that began catering to Brazilians full-time since about 1995. The manager of the hotel seemed reluctant to talk about exactly how it began attracting Brazilian miners.
Adermar sports a full set of gold teeth, and my friend from Brazil (visiting Guyana for a holiday, and aiding in the translation) tells me later, that this is not a Brazilian trend; clearly then it's the local influence.
He is here for a holiday, and to have his medical condition treated, which is, "rheumatism of the blood." He shows me the dark veins sticking out on his hand, and further complains of malaria. His family - a wife, and two children - live in Goias, in central Brazil, though Adermar himself is originally from Maranhao, in northeastern Brazil. We ask him how many Brazilians he estimates live and work here. He says "perhaps 2000?" I mention some of the estimates I have heard (which range from 5000 to 15000), and he dismisses those figures. "Many people simply pass through Guyana on the way to Suriname," he says, going on to add that there are far more Brazilian miners in that country than this.
Adermar then talks about the 'ownership' of mining interests in the interior. His process of (legal) entry was similar to many others': first, he established contact with a Brazilian in Guyana, who had access to a claim and a drill. His work permit was sponsored by this person. Once Adermar had built up a degree of savings, he struck out on his own.
That, apparently, is what most people do: strike up temporary work alliances which involve the payment of a percentage of gains. Now, he shifts between claims, between different areas of the interior, going where he feels he can find work. In that sense, though Adermar is still working for 'other people' (because he doesn't own a drill or a claim) he is yet freelance.
He talks of the general unfriendliness of people - he says that other than the Amerindian population in the villages of the interior, there are few people who talk, help or mix with the Brazilians. This feeling is what perhaps drives a section of Brazilian miners to reinforce connections within their own community, rather than looking for new ones outside.
And solidarity helps: the conditions within mining camps are not very comfortable. Commodities are priced exorbitantly high, and even so, little is available (and hence, the frequent shopping excursions to Georgetown). Worse, the miners have to contend with organised crime. "They don't allow guns in the interior," he says, "and there is a lot of violence. Bandits. But it is better than in Brazil, where there is sometimes even more crime. It is bad here, but not as bad as home."
In the interior, one senses that life is made much better by the fairly close interaction with the Amerindian community; Adermar talks of people he knows who have found spouses within that host community. He goes back to Brazil once every two years or so, the cost of the trip being the main deterrent to more frequent travel. Adermar talks candidly of his status as a provider for his family: "Without money," he says, "what is the use of going back home? Why should I go? I have to work here, send money back regularly. Sometimes, there is no earning, even after a long time... and then, I cannot even think of going away from Guyana. What am I if I cannot earn?"
Yet, when money has been made, when times are good, Adermar will go home for long stretches of time. He talks fondly of visits to his family that have lasted months. Clearly, such visits, and the money they necessitate, don't come often. I ask him, isn't this hard? To live away from his family, his country, for so long? He shrugs his shoulders: "I have to earn money," he says candidly. There is no option. He sends money home from Georgetown, through a company which relays it back to Brazil.
When on the subject of such long absences from home, and a hard life in the interior, I ask about entertainment. Adermar talks of women who come for short visits to mining camps to "make a party." He says that there aren't a significant number of Brazilian sex workers in Guyana, but that women often make short trips across the border, to earn some money at the mining camps, and then return.
Almost as if on cue, we meet Elena (not her real name). Elena is dressed in tight-fitting clothes, wears a significant amount of make-up, and is carrying a Brazilian flag in preparation for a football match that is to be telecast the next day. Adermar has just introduced us: guilelessly, he tells us that she is a "prostitute."
Elena is a little confused as to what the purpose of this interview may be. After we assure her that we are merely interested in talking about her life in Guyana, she readily consents to be interviewed. Settling in, she begins.
Elena has many part-time jobs, and only some she wants to talk about. One is at a "jeweller's", though she won't say exactly where. She also manages a radio, which keeps contact with a group of miners, relaying messages back and forth. She is from a small town in Amazonian Brazil, and says she came here for the same reason that everyone else has, "because there are jobs."
To me, it seems clear that Elena cannot speak much English: I ask if that is a problem. She says it isn't, that when she has to communicate in English, to her Guyanese friends, she finds ways of making herself understood. Elena is all praise for the Guyanese she has encountered, she talks of how nice people have been to her, and how she is quite happy living in Georgetown.
Elena in fact likes Guyana so much, she would rather just stay on than think of going back to Brazil. She tells us how often she travels into the interior. Why, I ask, does she travel there? "For holiday," she replies, smiling. She enjoys the company of the miners, and says that they are good people, and good to her. I ask her about how many Brazilian women there are in the interior, and what they do there. She says that most are housewives, brought along by their husbands, and given some non-mining work (like cooking, cleaning or looking after the camp) to do. When I ask her how many Brazilians she thinks there are in Guyana, she is a little hesitant to answer, but finally says, "A lot more than the government knows about anyway."
At thirty-four years of age, she feels she has found a place she can settle down in, to live and work. She is completely at ease in the restaurant we are in, navigating tables with ease, chatting with fellow Brazilians with obvious warmth. Which is a feat deserving of some mention: the atmosphere around is exclusively all male, with the rituals and ceremonies that go with that kind of thing.
Unlike other people from her country I have recently been talking to, Elena seems to be in touch with Brazilian Embassy, and says that they have been of help. From her base in Georgetown, she says that she keeps in touch with the numerous (Brazilian) managers and administrators of mining enterprises.
I got to know Sebastiao through his Guyanese neighbour. He is the very epitome of decorum: bespectacled, middle-aged, serious and friendly. Sebastiao is a diamond cutter and polisher, and spends many hours locked up inside a small room, working away at refashioning little configurations of carbon into the gemstones our dreams are made of. Well-liked and known within his residential community, Sebastiao's knowledge of English is yet scant, perhaps because he has been in Guyana for less than two years. The day he invited me to his house, his Brazilian friends (six in all, whom he shares a large house/office with) were about, working at other things, related to the jewellery trade and mining.
Sebastiao is from the city of Franca, within the state of Sao Paulo. He shows me a colourful brochure of his city, where a special section is devoted to the city's expertise in jewellery making. He came here two years ago, specifically to work on this job; he was recruited for it in Brazil, and the company he works for is owned by a Brazilian who has taken Guyanese citizenship. His family is fairly large, two older children, two younger, and a wife. Two of his children still being in school, he felt the need to make and save money, and thus, the decision to take this job in Guyana. I ask if he is paid more here than he would be in Brazil, and he says yes, that he is. At the same time, he talks of the expense of living in a city like Georgetown, and says that at the end of the day, he wonders how much he is really saving, and whether his extended stay away from home is worth the effort.
Sebastiao took some time to explain to us exactly how he works. On the ground floor of his house are an elaborate set of machines, which are used for cutting and polishing, a fine and delicate procedure, given the value of the merchandise. It is careful, precise work, that involves peering closely through a magnifying lens for the better part of the day. That would explain the glasses he wears, and the weary expression on his face when he talks of his job. The downside to it, is that he works alone. There are few others like him in Guyana, engaged in an urban, corporate profession. Almost everybody else is connected to the mining industry - either as a miner directly, or as a manager of an enterprise.
To a large extent, the social and economic class Sebastiao comes from is different from that of the mining community. It only makes him further alone, in this country with a language he doesn't fully understand, and people whom he can't talk to. He gets over his loneliness by frequenting the Brazilian restaurants and bars in the city (of which there are many, located in and around central Georgetown, starting from Rockies Hotel at one end, to South Road at the other) and by spending time with his Guyanese friends, attempting to improve his English. He does all his shopping in the supermarkets near the Sunflower Hotel, another frequent haunt. Understandably, he was rather excited at the prospect of meeting us; after all, it meant meeting a Brazilian his age, someone with a social background he might be able to relate to.
Maria is the cheerful, busy manager of the Sunflower Restaurant, located on the ground floor of a hotel that is an old favourite of the Brazilian mining community. Maria has lived in Guyana for just one year, and came here because her husband is involved with the mining industry, though not employed directly as a miner. He spends a week every month in Georgetown, and the rest in the interior. She says she enjoys Guyana, and likes the fact that she is working, running the restaurant, which she does with the help of one Brazilian, and two Guyanese friends.
Maria is constantly adjusting the television set in her restaurant, and every other Brazilian in the room is intently watching it. No, there is no 'futbol' match on today, but there is Brazilian TV, brought in by the two giant satellite dishes that sprout out of the roof. Indeed, every significant Brazilian restaurant/bar/hotel seems to have one of these, and television is clearly an important way of staying in touch with Mother Brazil and the Portuguese language.
Perhaps the singularly most interesting facets of Brazilian immigrant life come from what the miners are willing to say anonymously. Given the controversies of last year (when large-scale arrests were followed by a regularisation drive), understandably, many Brazilian miners are reluctant to talk about issues of legality and police harassment. Yet, there are those who are willing to discuss these sensitive topics. One afternoon, as we sat in a Brazilian restaurant, talking to two miners (who hadn't secured their work permits yet), we heard that the police force regularly harassed them. On cue, a police officer walked in, strolled over to the drinks cupboard, fished out a can, picked up a cigarette from one of the Brazilians next to us, and left. All this without saying a word.
When I repeated the incident to Assistant Superintendent David Ramnaraine of the police public relations office, he said that the act of picking up a can of soda might have resulted from "familiarity with the owner of the restaurant." Ramnaraine urges all Brazilians who have been victims of such treatment to immediately complain to the Guyanese authorities. When it was pointed out that the Brazilians who face this harassment usually do not know sufficient English to be even able to file a complaint, he suggested that they go through their embassy. The police force, he said, was perfectly willing to intervene on complaints filed by the embassy on behalf of its citizens here. Another problem, recounted to us on an evening when Brazilian pop blasted the streets (courtesy of the music-cassette carts), was that during the arrests last year, a number of Brazilians were allegedly brutalised by the police. Further, it was alleged, sexual abuse perpetrated by other prisoners occurred in the lock-ups. The two miners who recounted this story to us were not part of the group (or, if they were, didn't want to say so), but they did recall the horror of that experience, as they heard about it from their fellow countrymen. They blamed the Brazilian embassy for not intervening, and talked of a lady named Hilda (who is related to a Brazilian family which sells mining equipment) who helped the miners through their arrest. Hilda was out of the country when Stabroek News tried to contact her.
Ramnaraine stressed the need to understand that none of the actions alleged were encouraged within the police force, and agreed that whether legally or illegally in Guyana, every Brazilian has human rights that need to be respected.
Ramnarine suggested that the best way to report offences would be through the offices of the Brazilian embassy (the miners themselves, as a group, being neither sufficiently versed in English, nor from a socio-economic stratum that is used to demanding its rights, to be able to manage such a process entirely without support), and for the embassy to further educate its citizens at large on their rights as legal workers in a foreign country.
The real problem, of course, in dealing with the rights of Brazilian miners in Guyana, is that a large percentage of them are illegally in this country. Ramnaraine says that the police have regularly raided Brazilian hotels to weed out illegal residents. It is during the course of such raids, of course, that brutalities are alleged.
So the problem is, why are so many Brazilian miners here illegally? I posed that question to the people I met. Some miners allege that bribes are required to get the work permit. Sultan Kassim of the Ministry of Home Affairs, however, stresses that the miners themselves have little bureaucratic dealings with the ministry. It is the owners of a claim, or a drill, who will get the permit issued, and subsequently, the miner in whose name it is issued simply has to pick it up. Therefore, the question of miners paying bribes directly doesn't exist.
However, one Brazilian worker in Guyana told me that he was asked to pay far more than the government charge for a work permit to his sponsor. This raises the possibility of a system that is perhaps corrupt outside the level of the government, where some of the middlemen (the administrators, the sponsors) could exploit the average miner's lack of English knowledge and understanding of the system, by charging more for the work permit, and in turn claiming 'corruption' on the part of the government.
The issue of gold and diamond mining in Guyana is fraught with issues; though the mining industry as a whole certainly provides a much appreciated economic opportunity. Large among these issues, is the question of the Brazilian mining presence. What then, are the national, environmental, social and economic dimensions to their participation in the Guyanese mining industry? How is one to understand, and act upon, their competing demands? How is one to resolve the larger issues, of exploitation of labour versus economic development, of environmental damage versus livelihoods?
That there are a number of illegally resident Brazilian miners in Guyana, is a fact accepted broadly by everyone involved with the issue. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ drive in regularising Brazilian miners in Guyana (2001) was aimed at decreasing this number. The first step in gauging the effectiveness of this programme, is to understand the number of registrations it effected, in comparison to years before.
Year Number of Brazilians Registered
2002 522 (to date)
(Source: Ministry of Home Affairs)
It is clear that the regularisation drive, supported by the GGMC (Guyana Geology and Mines Commission) and GGDMA (Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners’ Association) saw an increase in registrations. The accuracy of these figures, in relation to the total number of Brazilian miners in Guyana, is another question. As noted earlier, conservative figures quoted by the miners themselves and members of the Brazilian community at large, put the number at about 2000. Wilder statistics are being unofficially circulated; yet, in each case, the ‘real’ number of Brazilians in Guyana is certainly higher than the figures from the government will show.
One reason is the general transience within the Brazilian community. Some miners are en route to Suriname, and many others just come and go. It may be assumed that the miners who are here to work on short assignments do not see the need (or want to go through the expense and effort) to secure legal work permits, especially with the border being as porous as it is.
Sultan Kassim, spokesperson for the Ministry of Home Affairs, affirms that the government is keen on welcoming Brazilian workers, and urges them to register. Tony Shields, Executive Secretary, GGDMA, is unequivocal in his support for the Brazilian mining community; however, he insists that they must work "within the law."
Antonio Menezes, Counsellor, Brazilian Embassy in Guyana, states that there are as little as a 1000 names registered with the embassy. With a view to encouraging Brazilian miners to register themselves with the embassy, a Council of Brazilian Citizens has been set up. This council consists of people who are often of Brazilian origin, and long-term residents of Guyana. Thus, the embassy hopes to connect with the mining community, especially within the interior. What the council plans to do is set up a system of representation, whereby the population of mining camps will stay in contact with the embassy, thus increasing chances of positive intervention (on the part of the embassy) when necessary, and generally, keep communication going.
However, Menezes confesses that the Brazilian embassy in Guyana is hardly equipped with the kind of staff resources it needs to ably handle the affairs of all the Brazilians in Guyana. Thus, by extending responsibility on to the community at large (by setting up councils as mentioned), he hopes that the needs of his fellow country people might be met.
On the issue of Brazilian criminals using Guyana as a getaway, Menezes professes that the embassy is helpless. It is true that Brazilian people of any kind can come into the country, without any checks, and in that situation, without the necessary policing resources here in Guyana, how is it possible to prevent known criminals from entering?
A visiting Brazilian, employed in the legal profession in Santos, Brazil, talks of a convicted murderer he was acquainted with who escaped to Guyana. Another Brazilian in Georgetown, talks of how he has just seen a man wanted for several crimes in Brazil, a man whose face regularly appears on the ‘Wanted’ lists there. While this is by no means indicative of a trend within the Brazilian community, and not at all an aspersion on garimpeiros (as Brazilian miners are known), it is yet an important point to consider. At present, there exists no system that will identify such Brazilians: neither government (Brazilian or Guyanese) compares notes on workers or updates itself frequently on convictions. Thus, the point to consider is that in addition to the burgeoning domestic criminal problem, there is the possibility of importing criminals, something that at the moment cannot be monitored.
At the heart of the problem is the average Brazilian miner’s ignorance of the legal-bureaucratic system that needs to be followed to obtain a work permit in Guyana, and a general lack of English-language skills. If the system in place continues - with sponsors, ‘managers’ and ‘administrators’ arranging work permits for Brazilian miners, serving as their intermediaries, and translating both the English language and Guyanese bureaucracy for them - it is hard to see how more Brazilian miners will be induced to obtain legal work permits. It is entirely possible that the pervading belief system - that there is corruption in Guyana’s bureaucratic system, that it is hard to get a work permit, that it is very expensive - will persist in the community.
Tony Shields of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association (GGDMA), agrees that there is large-scale exploitation of Brazilian miners. In his opinion, the core issue is an ignorance of Guyanese legal and bureaucratic procedure. He points out a recent example, where mining equipment aboard a Brazilian boat was impounded for being smuggled in. Shields asserts that all this equipment could have easily been imported into the country duty-free, if only his organisation had been contacted, and an authority letter had been issued.
As regards the legality of miners, he says that at the moment, since the ‘amnesty’ scheme of 2001 has expired, Brazilian miners illegally resident in Guyana cannot apply for a legal work permit from here, that they would have to return to Brazil, apply, and re-enter with the correct documentation. Yet, he states that the system is being constantly refined. At the moment, for instance, an affidavit system is in place, where the process of obtaining a work permit is considerably speeded up (a few days vs a few weeks) by sworn affidavits testifying to the authenticity of materials produced to immigration authorities, which will serve for the more time-consuming process of verifying them.
Currently there are grouses on both sides of the fence. While the government and the mining industry want Brazilian miners to be regulated, the garimpeiros in turn complain of discrimination by society, and corruption and harassment by the authorities. Feedback suggests that what is necessary is a two-pronged approach, on the part of the Guyanese mining industry (the Department of Mines, the Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), the GGDMA) and the Brazilian embassy.
All these interested constituents suggest that a certain degree of English language training (supplemented by able translators, who can assist those who only understand Portuguese) is necessary, and that simultaneously, a concerted programme of outreach, where miners are contacted in their remote, interior locations, be carried out. It is only then that the situation might improve, as Brazilian miners become more aware of their rights as citizens, residents and temporary workers, and gain legitimate means to communicate to (and negotiate with) the people around them.
"Brazilian miners have brought energy, investment and technology to the small scale mining sector in Guyana," Robeson Benn, Commissioner of GGMC asserts. Benn is emphatic in stating that the Brazilian presence in the mining industry has greatly benefited the communities surrounding mining areas, as well as the Guyanese government as a whole, through contributions to the state exchequer (by means of taxes and duties). He mentions some of the significant technological benefits they have brought with them, and introduced into the local mining industry - chief among which are a diamond recovery jig called the Lavador, cutter head suction dredges and gravel pumps called Maraks. All these tools, says Kampta Persaud, Manager, Geological Services, GGMC, are now being manufactured locally. Thus, technology is not merely being imported, but rather, successfully transferred and indigenously produced as well.
Major General (retd) Joe Singh, currently Executive Director of Conservation International Guyana, echoes this point. He points out that in many cases, the Brazilians are "giving the Amerindian communities a lifeline," making it possible for these Guyanese to be employed locally, without having to go far to work, and thus stemming migration. Certainly, he sees cultural problems arising from the interaction, with regard to the traditional aspects of Amerindian societies, but yet would see the process in totality as an empowering one.
He talks of his experiences (when in the army), where on occasion, Brazilian miners in areas near the border, were rounded up and checked for possession of legal work permits. When those without such permits were asked to leave, he remembers that Guyanese women would come up to the army officers, entreating that their husbands, and the fathers of their children, not be sent away. He is careful to acknowledge the powerful emotional bonds that have developed between Brazilian migrants and local Guyanese, and respects that any severe action (like deportation) is thus essentially harming a well-entrenched, established social system.
Is the Brazilian miner an employment threat to the Guyanese miner? Benn of the GGMC, Shields of the GGDMA, and Singh, all concur that far from being a threat, the Brazilian miner is serving a vital economic function in Guyana. Singh talks knowledgably of the interior, from his many years of experience in the GDF. He describes the migratory patterns of the Brazilian as filling a gap which Guyanese coastlanders might never be able to - as a result of geography, being simply too far away from certain interior areas to make it cost-effective for them to get in there. Thus, within the mining industry, he sees the common sense in hiring, and collaborating with Brazilians, to explore areas closer to their country than to Guyana’s extensively populated coast.
The question that begs answer is the capacity planning of the mining industry as a whole, and the issue of how many workers, Brazilian or otherwise, it can support. The issues around capacity planning relate to economics and the environment, and have direct bearing on the number of Brazilian miners it is estimated a country like Guyana might actually be able to support.
Benn suggests that as Guyana is still a small country, underdeveloped and underpopulated, the playing field is wide open. He says that the "future depends upon people coming in with capital and technology." If, he argues, 5000 Brazilians were to come in and be registered as miners, he would be more than happy; the industry, and the country, could support such a number. David Singh of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says that his organisation has put in place steps for a Strategic Environmental Impact Survey, a study which would aid greatly in estimating the number of people our natural resources can accommodate, especially in relation to a high-environmental-impact activity like mining.
Clearly, the constituency most significantly affected by the presence of Brazilian miners is the Guyanese Amerindian. Jimmy James, Vice-Captain of Paramakatoi (Region 8: Potaro/Siparuni), and a key representative of the Amerindian People’s Association (APA) was in Georgetown recently, and discussed some of the issues confronting his community. He framed the issue of the Brazilian presence by talking of the "open borders," indicating that it allowed for a free flow of people, and goods, across from Guyana into Brazil and vice versa. While he mentioned the positive impact of the Brazilian presence in mining - relating it to jobs, employment and economic opportunity for his people - he did this within larger issues of the mining industry, and its impact on the people of his community.
Brazil, one senses, from certain Amerindian perspectives, is closer - emotionally, culturally and economically - than perhaps is coastland Guyana. Related to economics, and the sustainability of traditional life systems around agriculture, James talks of how his community is actively investigating trade opportunities with Brazil. Logically, it makes sense to sell in Boa Vista; it is much closer to Paramakatoi than is Georgetown. He has consulted with buyers there, and it has been indicated that the supermarkets and sellers of Boa Vista would be happy to receive Guyanese agricultural produce. He sees this route of selling as the only means of survival for his community.
His problems with the mining industry in general, come from a long, fraught history of relations with the government, and are framed within a larger struggle for Amerindian rights. The problems he articulates are not specifically with regard to the Brazilian presence in the mining industry, but in relation to the mining industry as a whole. The first issue is sub-surface land rights, which today do not exist for his community, nor for any other Guyanese citizen. An informed source, familiar with this issue, talks of the problems associated with granting such rights and disagrees that any community should be given ‘special’ treatment. Sub-surface rights do not limit themselves to the ownership of minerals (such as diamonds and gold) but also to anything the sub-surface is used for. Therefore, it opens up a potential Pandora’s box of dispute: where the state could be restricted and thwarted for any access, such as for laying pipes, electricity wire, or telephone cables.
On the other hand, the Amerindian perspective, as articulated by James is that the land ownership rights of Amerindian peoples are significantly different - private ownership of property is disallowed, and can only be held by the community as a whole - therefore, so can sub-surface rights be configured differently. Further, he talks of the essential differences between the ‘interior’ and the ‘coast,’ arguing that Amerindians have traditionally used their land, and its resources, for sustainable livelihood.
James’ position is that ownership of sub-surface land would grant the Amerindian communities affected by mining an opportunity to directly negotiate, and participate in, mining in their areas. At the moment, he indicates that titled land directly under the control of Amerindian village councils, might be leased out for mining under conditions specified by the council itself, and thus, in conflict with the GGMC (which, technically, has rights to all sub-surface minerals).
This is less of a conflict than it appears (and more don’t-ask, don’t-tell), as land titled to Amerindian villages is very clearly demarcated by the GGMC, and never included in lease rights granted for exploration, prospecting or mining. GGMC’s position on such land is that the companies who lease land around Amerindian villages can negotiate for themselves as to what arrangement they come to within the titled land, if any.
James is against any mining activity that damages the ecology of the interior, regardless of what short-term economic benefit it brings the Amerindian community. Thus, he opposes the issue of licences to large-scale mining companies, who use heavy machinery, and less human labour). He further decries the use of heavy dredging equipment, and the significant damage it does to the water systems.
Dredge pits, he says, are often left unfilled, and thus turn into breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and therefore, spread the dreaded malaria disease. He calls for more action on the part of the government and mining authorities, to enforce already existing legislation that could prevent such damage.
Specifically, James brings up incidents of the government’s heavy-handedness with the rights of Amerindian peoples. He alleges that in the case of the large-scale reconnaissance licences granted to Migrate Mining Company (1999) and Golden Star (1998-99), permit was given to explore areas that came under the title of Amerindian settlements, in Monkey Mountain, Kato, Para and Kurukubaru. In the case of Monkey Mountain, according to him, an ‘arrangement’ reached between the community and the miners resulted in the mining being allowed. For the rest, he says, resistance by the Amerindian villagers prevented the mining from occurring.
Benn and Persaud of the GGMC bring up the contract that was drawn up with Migrate Mining Company in 1999, and point out that land actually titled to the Amerindian community was never included in the agreement. However, land all around these communities was leased out. The GGMC contract system, they say, always enforces "consultation," and in some cases (such as this contract) for "written consent" before mining may be carried out in land titled to an Amerindian community.
Thus, while Benn and Persaud argue that the GGMC respects the rights of the Amerindian communities, they concede that confusion could be caused by overlapping land survey estimates, which lead the Amerindians and the government authorities to have different estimations of how much land is actually titled. Yet, it is clear that even in the case of mining around a community (rather than within it), consultation is required only after a contract has been drawn up and the lease fixed - thus, seemingly reducing the power of the Amerindian community to negotiate with the government or the mining company. Benn suggests that the GGMC is looking for ways to mediate the situation better, and bring in the Amerindian community at an earlier stage in the discussion.
Another conflict of opinion arises within the economic participation of the Amerindian community as a whole, in the mining industry. James of the APA is hesitant to call this a ‘benefit,’ arguing that in most cases, Amerindians are employed at the lowest end of the value chain, contributing little more than physical work to the mining operation. Rarely, he says, are Amerindians in an ownership position, or operating skilled machinery.
Benn and Persaud see it differently, and talk of how a large proportion of their (the GGMC’s) field staff is Amerindian, and that further, how a large number of general managers and divers, of mining operations, are Amerindian.
Singh, of Conservation International, talks of how much damage the ‘missile’ or hydraulic dredges have caused the environment, specifically, water systems. He displays extensive aerial photography of the damage, where large sand banks and pits can be seen by the water, thus affecting the flow and turbidity of the water.
The heavy suction imposed by these machines, combined with their large diameters, cause a damage that is far beyond the usual, diver-driven suction pipes that were (and still are) in use. Divers have been a feature of the mining industry for about forty years, and the effect of such activity on the environment has been minimal. Yet, the greatest harm from missile dredges comes from the fact that they are illegally used, right by river beds, rather than 200 feet away, as is required by the law.
But, he emphasises, this is not a ‘Brazilian’ technique, but rather a staple feature of the mining industry as a whole. He talks, as mentioned before, of the largely beneficial presence of Brazilian miners, and how the "40-60" arrangements with local Guyanese have provided a boost to income and employment.
The most significant threat posed to the environment from mining, is from the use of mercury.
Mercury is primarily used to create an amalgam with the gold, and is later heated to separate it. In the process of heating, unless a retort is used, the mercury then enters the atmosphere, and precipitates back into the water, from where it enters the ecosystem, and the food chain.
Singh advocates the use of retorts, and the enforcement of this system, not in the least because miners themselves are at grave risk of inhaling poisonous mercury vapour. A retort is a closed container, which traps and condenses the mercury vapour without releasing it into the atmosphere.
Benn concurs that the GGMC is working towards making the use of retorts widespread. Shields of the GGDMA argues that a system of using mercury in sluice boxes which eventually leads to the pits being spiked, was perhaps introduced by Brazilian miners, yet is a technique that has spread into mining in general. This system of mercury use is far more dangerous, as it introduces mercury directly into the water system.
In 2001, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) funded Guyana Environmental Capacity Development Project (GENCAPD), published its findings on mercury poisoning. It compared mercury presence in two communities, Isseneru and Kurupung villages, who were involved in gold and diamond mining respectively.
The highlights of this study, as reported previously in this newspaper, were:
- 89%-96% of the population surveyed in Isseneru village (Region 7: Cuyuni/ Mazaruni) had dangerous levels of mercury contamination as examined by its presence in human hair
- No one in Isseneru village owned a retort, and many kept mercury at home, near sleeping and cooking areas
- Fish consumption was higher in Isseneru (3-4 times/week) than Kurupung (2-3 times/week)
Thus, the study established that mercury poisoning was a real threat to communities around gold mining activity, and further, that the use of retorts needed to be enforced, simultaneously with educating miners about the long-term effects of mercury poisoning - damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys and thyroid.
James of the APA, echoes the points expressed by this study, when he talks of how increased turbidity has led to water systems being rendered unusable: neither can water be drunk, and nor can fishing occur. Clearly, the environmental problems associated with the mining industry should be of grave concern to everyone, and yet, it is difficult to see a solution in sight, given the diverse, interior locations where mining happens. Compounding this unmanageability of mining areas, is a lack of communication, and the acute resource shortage of enforcers of law.
Singh suggests three key ways to improve the situation.
One: to ensure that enforcers of the law are made economically comfortable enough to resist corruption, the current salaries of lower-ranking government officials being far too low.
Two: to simultaneously improve the quality of people employed in institutions connected to forestry, mining and law enforcement, and elected to Amerindian village councils, through better selection and training.
Three: to devise an integrated approach to problem solving. In a country with scarce human and financial resources like Guyana, what he suggests is a co-operative effort in the interior (perhaps between the army, the police, the GGMC, Amerindian councils, and others) to appoint representatives who can speak for, and enforce the objectives of, several organisations at once.
Single and strong
All that glitters...
At the Sunflower
Things people say
The question of legality
Living by the law
The Amerindian perspective