Guyana exports more gold than it officially produces. This is why in 2003, only 3 tons of gold produced in Guyana were declared to the Direction régionale de l’industrie, de la recherche et de l’environnement (DRIRE) whereas over 9 tons were declared to customs and exported from Guyana . The reason ? About 10 000 illegal gold washers (garimpeiros) spread over almost 500 illegal sites, who exploit gold deposits and ignore regulations with almost complete impunity. Illegal gold washing in Guyana is a real problem with dramatic environmental, sanitary and social consequences.
Indeed, large amounts of mercury that indirectly seriously affect the mainly Amerindian Guyanese population’s health, are released into the environment because of illegal gold digging.
Even though its use for gold washing has been forbidden in this overseas department since 2006, garimpeiros still use mercury because it helps amalgamate gold. This means that it helps all the particles, even the finest, to bond. After that, the mixture only needs to be heated at high temperatures for the mercury to evaporate and leave behind the precious metal. However, as it requires large amounts of mercury, this method affects the environment: it takes 1.3 kg of mercury to obtain 1 kg of gold, with losses to the environment ranging from 10 to 30 %.
But that is not all. For geological reasons, Guyanese soil already contains a lot of mercury, and one of the main techniques used by the garimpeiros to extract gold involves “stripping” the soil with high pressure water hoses. This releases mercury in the soil which is then put back into the environment and particularly, into riverbeds. Every year, 1.5 tons of about 5 tons of mercury that are washed into the environment, are washed into watercourses . According to the National Forests Office *, 1 333 km of river was directly affected by mercury in Guyana.
Mercury, poison for Guyanese populations
Once it is in the water, mercury turns into methylmercury. This dangerous organic compound accumulates in the whole food chain and contaminates the algae and fish that local populations eat. Since 1994, several studies on the Maroni and Oyapock river populations have shown that their mercury saturation levels exceed the maximum limit established by the World Health Organisation. And yet, levels that are too high can have serious effects on the nervous system and cause malformations. This can range from simple balance and walking problems to impaired hearing and a narrowed field of vision. In children (one of the most vulnerable groups along with women), the effects can be more severe since mercury contamination can lead to lower limb coordination problems, difficulty in language acquisition and reasoning malfunctions. Lastly, foetuses are particularly exposed as methylmercury can cause brain and nervous system lesions.
But in spite of these risks to their health, Amerindian populations keep consuming fish; gold washers hunt for their food and there is therefore not much game left.
Other environmental effects of illegal gold washing
Mercury is not the only damage inflicted on the Guyanese environment by illegal gold washing. There is also deforestation, the destruction of habitats, loss of biodiversity... When they exploit a site, gold washers fell trees, erode the soil and completely disfigure the landscape. And even if they no longer cut down as many trees as before, so that they can hide from police helicopters, they still take part in deforestation. According to a 2006 ONF report, 12 000 hectares of forest disappear in this manner every year. Deforestation destroys habitats, disrupts ecosystems and seriously threatens Guyana’s incredible biodiversity which is made up of almost 8 000 types of plant and over 1 600 species of vertebrate. The diversity per hectare there is higher than the whole of mainland Europe’s.
Which solutions ?
The French government is responsible for fighting illegal gold washing. Over the past few years, the French authorities have thus led several military operations to put an end to this problem. In 2008 for example, operation “Harpie” made it possible to cease 19 kilos of gold, 193 tons of mercury and destroy several installations, for losses totalling over 26 million Euros. But unfortunately, due to a lack of means, these operations weren’t enough. On December 23, 2008, France and Brazil signed a bilateral agreement to fight gold digging in protected areas. This text included the reinforced control of mines, tougher sanctions against illegal activities and reinforced cooperation between the two countries. But to this day, neither Parliament has ratified the agreement.
NGOs have undertaken several campaigns such as “No dirty gold” to make up for the difficulties this issue has caused in the political field. This international initiative aims to assure consumers that the gold they are buying comes from a mine exploited by a gold company that respects the environment and the rights and freedom of the populations living close to the sites. In France, the WWF launched a campaign called “De la mine à la vitrine, non à l’or illegal”** to set up a gold tracking system and stop illegal gold getting on the market. Consumers will therefore be able to find out whether the jewellery they are buying comes from illegal gold digging. This information is almost impossible to find at the moment.
*Office national des forêts (ONF)
** “From the mine to the shop window, no to illegal gold”