Guyanese group accuses mining company of polluting pristine rainforest

Residents and workers in one of the world’s most intact and biologically diverse areas accuse a Canadian mining group of knowingly releasing cyanide into the main water source.

The Guiana Shield Media Project (GSMP), which produces information about environmental issues in South America’s Guiana Shield region, and local villagers, have accused the Canadian mining group, Cambior, of continually dumping cyanide, mercury and copper into Guyana’s principal river, the Essequibo. The group says the latest spillage, “in an ongoing violation of human rights and the environment,” occurred in November 2000 in a region containing the largest section of intact, primary growth rainforest left in South America.

The GSMP says that the remote Omai gold mine, owned by Cambior “admits to dumping into the Essequibo on a basis claiming that these chemicals are being released in ‘safe amounts’” and that resulting physical injuries and the protests of 23,000 residents, including indigenous tribes, continue to be ignored. The group says that dependent on the river for bathing and drinking, local people are “suffering horrible injuries many of which can be seen with the naked eye”.

Last November, there was “a major discharge of mining pollution into the Essequibo river”, which Guyanese media reported occurring at intervals lasting for about three weeks every four months. Media reported people vomiting after using the river water which “was said to be so terribly discoloured by reddish silt that persons are unable to bathe or wash in it”. “We feel like we are living on death row,” one local recently told GSMP.

In 1995, 3.2 billion litres of mining waste were released into Essequibo riverine region from Omai when a tailings dam broke into the of Guyana and GSMP says that the mine still admits to dumping on a regular, periodic basis. Omai however points the finger at the operations of small and medium scale miners controlled by another the Guyanese group, Mekdeci.

GSMP alleges corruption in allowing spills to take place with no retribution. It says that Cambior wrote its own environmental laws, with no input from local people, and which “prohibit the Guyana government from enacting any rules for the Essequibo”. “The government of Guyana, starving for international investment, accepted the terms of this unconditional surrender of sovereign rights,” it says.

However, in a letter to the EPA, Omai Human Resource Manager, Mr Norman McLean said the latest spill was not a result of any discharge from the mine’s operations and asked for an independent assessment of the situation.

“We follow the Guyana Government’s environmental legislation meticulously,” a spokesperson for Montreal-based Cambior told edie. “The spill which occurred was a couple of kilometres upstream from Omai, and was not related to our mine, where the water remained clear,” he said.

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