Small-Scale Gold Mining and Environmental Policy Challenges in Guyana: Protection or Pollution

By Roopnarine, Lomarsh | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Small-Scale Gold Mining and Environmental Policy Challenges in Guyana: Protection or Pollution


Roopnarine, Lomarsh, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Abstract. Small-scale gold mining has caused some serious ecological problems in Guyana's interior regions due to irresponsible use of mercury and poor production techniques. The Guyanese government is aware of these environmental problems, but controlling them has proved beyond its capabilities. Small-scale mining sites are numerous, mobile, and difficult to reach. Moreover, small-scale miners are far less concerned with good environmental performance than with economic gains. This article suggests that more stringent and serious policy regulations should be developed.

Resume. L'exploitation miniere a petite echele a provoque de serieux problemes ecologiques dans les regions interieures de la Guyane, cela en raison de l'utilisation irresponsable du mercure et de techniques de production deficientes. Le gouvernement guyanais est conscient de ces problemes environnementaux, mais il s'est montre incapable de les controler. Les sites d'exploitation miniere a petite echele sont nombreux, mobiles et difficiles a atteindre. En plus, les miniers a petite echele sont bien moins portes a developper une bonne gestion environnementale qu'a chercher des gains economiques. Cet article suggere qu'il faudrait mettre en place des politiques de regulation plus strictes.

Over the past two decades or so, small-scale gold mining has become a major concern in many developing countries. On the one hand, governments, development planners, and policy makers have become increasingly aware of the importance of small-scale gold mining in terms of its contribution to reducing poverty, employing people, earning foreign money, and raising the overall national income. On the other hand, they have also realized that uncontrolled small-scale gold mining could lead to adverse and undesirable effects on the environment. A number of developing countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America are caught in this quandary. Specifically, they are caught between a negative externality (pollution) and a positive externality (positive employment effects and poverty alleviation) in the small-scale gold mining business. Furthermore, there appears to be no systematic model on how to approach small-scale gold mining, particularly concerning the negative environmental effects (see Jennings 1999).

Despite these concerns and challenges, some countries have pushed forward with and registered impressive growth because of small-scale gold mining. Ghana, for example, is now ranked the tenth largest gold-producing country in the world and the second largest producer in Africa (after South Africa). An estimated 13 million people worldwide are currently involved in small-scale mining, and a further 80-100 million people are affected by it (see Hentschel, Hruschka, and Priester 2002). Many of these individuals are women and children. This figure is likely to grow if prospects for regular employment and poverty are not addressed more seriously in developing countries. Guyana, a rich resource country in South America, is no exception to this challenge.

Ever since the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh published The Discoverie of the Large, Rich Bewtiful Empyre in 1596, documenting his search for El Dorado, the city of gold, Guyana has captured the imagination of many would-be adventurers. In the late sixteenth century the Dutch and the British established footholds in Guyana and tried to extract gold. But the lure of gold never fit as prominently into the expectations of most European forays in other areas of South America as it did in Brazil for the Portuguese (see Keen and Haynes 2000, 126). The Dutch were more interested in trading with the Amerindian population, though investigations into the possibility of obtaining metals were carried out spasmodically. The main commodities of trade were food items, timber, dye, and "red slaves" (Whitehead 1988). But this flourishing trade between the Dutch and the Amerindians was forestalled because "the West India Company was not financially secure. …

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